The Hip Hop Nutcracker is celebrating its 10th season at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), with two stunning performances taking place Saturday, Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tchaikovsky’s 130-year-old ballet reimagined and remixed as a holiday dance spectacle features hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow, who performs as the master of ceremonies at the show’s opening, pumping up the crowd and motivating them with an audience calland-response. Highly regarded as one of hip-hop’s founding fathers, Blow is the first commercially successful rapper and the first to sign with a major record label in 1979. A cast of a dozen all-star dancers will display supercharged hip-hop choreography alongside an onstage DJ and an electric violinist who turns the beloved classical Nutcracker score on its head, according to the show’s organizers.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker was created in 2013 by director and choreographer Jennifer Weber and writer Mike Fitelson. It pays homage to the original George Balanchine ballet, retold through modern, expressive hip-hop culture. Weber was first introduced to the underground hip-hop scene while attending the University of Pennsylvania. During a televised interview in “One On One with Steve Adubato,” Weber shared how she “wanted to bring to the stage the way people were dancing in the clubs.” In creating The Hip Hop Nutcracker, she transposed Tchaikovsky’s timeless score into the language of hip-hop choreography. “Hip-hop is a language. It is a way of speaking, a way of communicating, a way of making your voice heard,” further noted Weber, who is a member of Lincoln Center Theater's Directors Lab.
The connection between classical music and hip-hop goes way back to the beginning of music or the compositional elements of music when you talk about music theory, says Blow. “When we were taught music in school, you had to learn about counting beats, bars and time signatures,” he explains. “Also, you had to learn the instruments in an orchestra — the woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion and keyboards. You learned about rhythm in music. That's the connection (to hip-hop) right there,” he adds, noting that several hip-hop artists have sampled or used classical music elements.
Just like with the epic Nutcracker story, The Hip Hop Nutcracker follows the enchanted journey of a young girl, Maria-Clara, who is searching for a way to reconcile her bickering parents in time for the New Year. She embarks on an adventure with the Nutcracker Prince, finding help along the way from the magical toymaker Drosselmeyer, where they battle a gang of mice, visit the land of sweets, and unlock key lessons of the holiday season. Innovative digital graffiti and visuals transform the landscape of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s beloved story from traditional 19th century Germany to the vibrant, diverse sights and sounds of contemporary New York City. The showstopping performers of The Hip Hop Nutcracker celebrate love, community, and the magic of the season.
The Hip Nutcracker has evolved and raised the bar each year, says Blow. “I remember back when we first started. We had what I call the B-Boys and B-Girls dream team. Props and shout outs go out to our choreographer, Jennifer Weber, and also Randi Freitas (associate choreographer and the role of Mouse King) for revitalizing and doing additions to the already strong choreography throughout the years.”
Blow says audiences will see an incredible fusion of hip-hop dance styles dating back to the ‘90s, from the electric boogie and pop & lock to B-Boying and break dancing with power moves, head spins, windmills, back spins and air twists. He is blown away by new moves in this year’s show particularly those displayed by Drosselmeyer (played by pop locker Lisa “L-boogie” Bauford) who handles the magical element of the story with incredible dance moves including a Pied Piper-like one “where she's a puppeteer and a soldier is holding onto strings as she moves him along. It's all done in the electric boogie style,” he adds. This year’s show features more energized dance routines by the ensemble and blended styles of classical and hip-hop music by electric violinist Vivek Menon.
If Mariah Carrey is the Queen of Christmas, then Blow is the Rap King of Christmas with his holiday anthem “Christmas Rappin’” which is played in rotation every holiday season by radio DJs across the nation. Blow was just 20 years old when he was signed to Mercury Records. “Christmas Rappin'” was a notable moment in rap and hip-hop history because it was Blow’s first single and it was the first rap song ever released on a major album, His second released single, "The Breaks,” scored the first certified gold rap song in 1980 for selling over 500,000 copies. Blow became a commercial success, paving the way for generations of hip-hop artists. Blow had a heart transplant last year that has given him a new life. He attributes his longevity in the business to his flair as a rapper and live performing artist as displayed in The Hip Hop Nutcracker.
To date, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, which debuted at NJPAC, has been performed more than 200 times in 70 cities. “We are excited that our tour has inspired a television broadcast (a Disney+ Original Special of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” stage show), premiering this holiday season,” says David Rodriguez, executive vice president and executive producer at NJPAC. “This gives audiences a taste of what's in store for the live performance featuring Kurtis Blow and many of the performers you see on screen.” He adds, “We produce a Hip Hop Nutcracker tour that goes to nearly 50 cities nationally, but its first home is at NJPAC.”
The Hip Hop Nutcracker is executive produced by 3-time Tony winner Eva Price. The cast includes Ann-Sylvia Clark as Maria-Clara; Gabriel Emphasis as The Nutcracker; Liliana “Lily” Frias as Mom; Bryan Longchamp as Dad; Lisa “L-boogie” Bauford as Drosselmeyer; Randi Freitas as the Mouse King, Ensemble; Anthony “Omen” Cabrera as Toy, Ensemble; Jackie “JK-47” Agudo as Tea, Ensemble; Zuce Morales as Toy, Ensemble; Seth “Reaktion” Hillard as Russian, Ensemble; Jon “Gifted” Jimenez as Chocolate, Ensemble; Dustin “D-Payne” Payne as Flute, Ensemble; Ethan Evaro as Swing, Understudy; Teofilo V. Recitas II “DJ Boo” as Performance DJ; and Kurtis Blow as master of ceremonies.