For some, the first notes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”—imagine someone trying to creep into a dark room with bells on their shoes, and you’ll know which piece I’m talking about—is the traditional sign the holidays have arrived.
Tchaikovsky wrote the score for the 1892 ballet The Nutcracker, now an annual holiday program for many dance companies, including the Queen City’s own Charlotte Ballet. Yet even if you’ve never seen a performance, chances are you’ve heard the music at the local mall, or in M&Ms commercials and Nintendo games. The Nutcracker is pretty much everywhere.
But sometimes even the best of timeless traditions need some sprucing up. At least, that’s what New York-based choreographer Jennifer Weber and her co-creator Mike Fitelson were thinking when they premiered The Hip Hop Nutcracker last year in New York City. The remaking of the 120-plus-year-old ballet, geared to excite new audiences, sets hip-hop dance against Tchaikovsky’s classical score and takes over Charlotte’s Booth Playhouse Dec. 29-Jan. 3.
Weber is director and choreographer of Hip Hop Nutcracker. She got her first gig in hip-hop choreography in her early 20s when she was spotted freestyling in a nightclub; since then, she’s launched the hip-hop theatre company Decadancetheatre with the goal of taking “female dancers out of the background of music videos and into the forefront of theatrical performance.”
She was tapped by Fitelson, the executive director of United Palace of Cultural Arts in Manhattan, where Hip Hop Nutcracker premiered, to help create a modern-day Nutcracker. But for Tchaikovsky enthusiasts, no worries: The classic score is still there.
“Early on, we decided that Tchaikovsky’s music is so powerful and iconic on its own that we wanted to retain most of it,” Fitelson told the Miami New Times earlier this month. “What we embellished was the storyline, setting, and—most importantly—the dancing.”
To take a piece that originated in 19th-century Russia and put a modern-era New York City hip-hop spin on it might seem daunting, but Weber uses the analogy of a story being translated to another language to describe the adaptation process, calling hip-hop a “physical and cultural language.” Just as translators often strive to achieve the sentiment of a message rather than a word-for-word regurgitation, the same sort of alteration occurs here.
“If you think about The Nutcracker itself, it’s almost a script; we’re taking that script and translating it into our vocabulary,” Weber says. For example, the setting becomes a holiday street party set in Washington Heights, and the Land of the Sweets is now a 1980s-esque nightclub.
Not a Simple Translation
The difficulty lies in the complexity of classical music compared to hip-hop. The beat’s always the same in a hip-hop track (“The accent is always on the downbeat,” Weber explains), so it’s easy for a dancer to pick up the rhythm. In classical, the tempo and instrumentation are constantly changing. “It’s not predictable,” Weber says. “In order to really dance on the music, you have to really know it. You have to be so clear, so on top of it; you can’t just coast on the beat the way you can on hip-hop.”
One thing she notes, though, is that translating a piece written for ballet to one meant for hip-hop is a lot more fluid than translating, for example, a work written in a Cyrillic script-based alphabet to something readable in Germanic-based English. The conversion is easier because the foundation is the same.
“It’s visual, it’s dance, it’s storytelling,” Weber says. “Both hip-hop and ballet are character-based narrative—we use hip-hop to tell stories the same way ballet dancers use their ballet vocabulary to tell stories. Whether it’s fouettés or head spins, we’re doing the same thing—we’re just making different shapes.”
At the same time, hip-hop is built on sampling, and Weber and her creative team have done a lot of that here. In addition to including the memorable sounds and images of the original ballet—“We still have the mice, the soldiers battling, the snowflakes; the Drosselmeyer still has an eyepatch and a cape”—original hip-hop musical interludes composed by DJ Boo using samples of Tchaikovsky’s music help transition locations within the narrative.
Bridging the two worlds on another level, Mathew “Mattviolinist” Silvera plays electric violin over the hip-hop beats.
“Where the show is most beautiful and powerful,” Weber says, “is the overlap and the space between—the space between how what you’re hearing and seeing shouldn’t mix but they’re beautiful together.”
Success and ‘Purist’ Blowback
It’s an adaptation that’s definitely drawing attention. Last year, more than 3,000 people came to The Hip Hop Nutcracker’s first performance, and there were a total of four showings at two venues. This year, the show has already been to more than 10 cities, selling out at most theaters. After its Charlotte stop, the tour heads to Russia, The Nutcracker’s birthplace, for its first international performance.
Despite the enthusiastic response, there are always going to be some Scrooges who have trouble embracing new twists on old traditions.
“There are definitely people who are cultural purists who feel that messing with a classic like The Nutcracker is like blasphemy,” Weber says. “We’ve definitely seen it here and there on message boards, people saying, Tchaikovsky would roll over in his grave or something like that.”
It’s not unlike what NBC’s The Wiz Live, a musical broadcast starring Queen Latifah, Ne-Yo and Mary J. Blige, saw earlier this month. Some critics on social media, not knowing the history of The Wizard of Oz remake, were unhappy about the all-black cast. (Yet the telecast drew more than 11 million viewers.)
“I think that’s the thing about making art,” Weber says. “Not every show is for everyone. If we only made art for everyone, we would have nothing because there’s no such thing.”
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance