'Hip Hop Nutcracker' melds classical score with modern dance
Rapper Kurtis Blow says he was floored when he first saw a performance of a new take on a beloved holiday ballet, in which classical music and contemporary hip-hop choreography join forces for a re-imagined version of “The Nutcracker.”
“It’s just so incredible. It’s such a no-brainer, this modernization of the classic that makes it relevant to kids today,” he says about “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” being performed Dec. 11 and 12 in the Benedum Center as part of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Cohen and Grigsby Trust Presents Series.
Tchaikovsky’s score is still featured in the touring production based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” as are lead characters Maria-Clara (Ann-Sylvia Clark) and the Nutcracker prince (Josue Figueroa), who does battle with a gang of oversized mice.
Clark, born and raised in Norway and now living in New York, attended the Flow Dance Academy, Europe’s first hip hop and urban dance school. She has performed with Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams and danced in music videos for artists such as Alicia Keys and Canadian singer Laila Biali.
Figueroa, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Florida, has earned several international breaking championship titles.
The corps of ballet dancers featured in the traditional “Nutcracker” has been replaced by a dozen energetic break-dancers, an on-stage DJ and an electric violinist.
Based in Brooklyn
Blow, whose given name is Kurtis Walker, serves as emcee and host of the show, which is set in 1980 in Brooklyn, N.Y. He also gets a chance to perform a medley of his songs and do a rap introduction before the show.
“The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, is celebrating its fifth anniversary and is directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber with executive director Eva Price.
“It’s been exciting to evolve the show over the last five years as audiences continue to come back to see the creative changes we make to the production,” Weber says. “The dancers continue to raise the bar each year.”
Blow agrees that the production has improved in many ways since its beginning.
“The dancing has gotten tighter as a unit and we’ve all become like a family. The dancers have evolved into actors and actresses that are clear and precise and have taken the production to the next level, which is huge,” he says. “Everyone gives 150 percent.”
Vibing the music
He says he thinks it’s amazing that “Tchaikovsky’s music was created in the 19th century (in 1892) – and here we are so many years later, still vibing the music, and it sounds great.”
Following “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” tour, the rapper will start work on 12 new songs to be part of his “The Christmas Rapper” album in 2019, the 40th anniversary of his first recording. Blow was 20 in 1979, when he became the first rapper to be signed by a major record label, Mercury Records.
He also is involved in plans for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, scheduled for construction beginning in 2019 at Bronx Point, a mixed-use development along the Harlem River in New York.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.