When the creators of “Hip Hop Nutcracker” combined hip hop dance with the famous ballet music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they felt like they had something special on their hands.
“It’s crazy being an artist,” director and choreographer Jennifer Weber said. “You make a lot of things and some of them stick and some of them don’t. When we first made ‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker’ it was immediately clear that this was going to be something that would last. The audience reaction felt like something; “He just had an energy.”
The first reaction from viewers was in 2014. In the decade since, “Hip Hop Nutcracker” has become an annual tour staple, performing in 70 cities. The show retells the 130-year-old ballet story of Marie/Clara and the Nutcracker prince’s dream adventure, with the expected classical music, hip hop dancing, live DJ and hip hop legend Kurtis Blow hosting the show. As hip hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, this unique blend of styles brings local audiences the magic of hip hop meets holiday classic for the first time at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre.
Looking back at the show’s creation in 2013, Weber, who is credited as co-creator with author and United Palace CEO Mike Fitelson, said bringing the worlds of hip hop and classical music together was “an incredible challenge.” At the time, Weber was exploring reimagining classical ballets with the hip hop dance community in New York.
“It seemed like these two worlds were definitely not supposed to come together,” said Weber, who received Tony nominations for his choreography in “&Juliet” and “KPOP” on Broadway. “But the end result is that hip hop and classical music fit together, with movement allowing you to hear music in a new way and music allowing you to see movement in a new way.”
Before working on “The Nutcracker,” Weber explored what the hip-hop/classical pairing might look like on the set of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” performed as part of a festival at the Apollo Theatre. It was then that he realized there was something exciting about this pairing. While Vivaldi was searching for a future life for his discovery, he met Fitelson, and Fitelson came up with the idea of trying “The Nutcracker” instead.
Weber said at that point that he had actually never seen “The Nutcracker” before. He knew it was a famous holiday ballet, but he didn’t know much more. Always saying yes to challenges, Weber turned to research.
“I realized I (already) knew most of the music because it’s not just the music of the ballet,” Weber said. “It’s basically the music of the holiday season. It’s the music you hear when you’re at the grocery store or (watching) commercials. The music is very familiar.”
The word that came up repeatedly in interviews with Weber and Blow was “energy.” There’s an energy to this hip-hop shot that Blow says he felt right away in the rehearsal room when a friend invited him to watch the show.
“There I saw these kids break dancing to Tchaikovsky’s classical music, and a DJ was cutting fun beats under this classical music,” Blow recalled. “I was like, ‘Man, I gotta be a part of this.’ This hit me in the heart because I was an avid supporter of this fusion of hip hop. My contention is that hip hop is malleable, you can mold it into any shape.”
Blow was the first rapper to sign with a major label when he signed with then-Chicago-based Mercury Records in 1979. Since then, his career has combined hip hop with rock ‘n’ roll, country and reggae. But he said the holiday season is his favorite because he can always sing his first song, “Christmas Rappin’.”
So the founding father of hip hop agreed to be the show’s MC and opened “Hip Hop Nutcracker” with some of his own music along with the show’s DJ. Blow described this as a chance to channel energy into the room and set the stage for what the audience is about to experience.
“I watch them dancing in the aisles, having a good time, everything,” Blow said. “That’s what separates this ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ from all other ‘Nutcrackers’: crowd participation. I will prepare them. I tell you: ‘This is not a normal Nutcracker, so we want you to enjoy it. ‘Let your hair down, let yourself go, clap really loud, scream really loud.’ And that’s what they do.”
“Hip Hop Nutcracker” features all the characters and plots expected from a “Nutcracker” production, along with Tchaikovsky’s music; however, viewers are also treated to portions of the track remixed by the show’s DJ and a live violinist.
The details of the choreography have evolved over the years, and Weber returns each year to help prepare the show for the dancers. Weber stated that the origin of hip hop dance is improvisation, and that he works with the dancers in moments in the show that allow them to improvise and express themselves.
“If you love hip hop, this show is for you,” Weber said. “If you like ballet, this show is just for you.”
Jerald Pierce is a freelance writer.
“Hip Hop Nutcracker” runs Dec. 12-17 at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.; 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com