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The Hip Hop Nutcracker at DPAC Mixed Traditional Music and Contemporary Movement

DPAC presented The Hip Hop Nutcracker, with special guest MC Kurtis Blow, on Saturday, Nov. 30th

The thing about hip-hop today is it’s smart, it’s insightful. The way they
can communicate a complex message in a very short space is remarkable.

Barack Obama

Saturday night in Durham — tutus and pointe shoes are gone! Pirouettes and piques are thankfully out of sight! So are the 19th century costumes and stiff upper-class manners as the Durham Performing Arts Center presents The Hip Hop Nutcracker, with special guest MC Kurtis Blow, directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, featuring freestyles by the Company.

DJ Boo spins preshow tracks as hip-hop legend and guest master of ceremonies Kurtis Blow brings the old-school portion of the audience to its feet by taking us to the Church of Hip Hop. Kurtis remarks, “If Mr. Tchaikovsky was here, he’d probably do a hip hop version just like this.”

Lights up on violinist Jarvis L. Benson playing the overture to Tchaikovsky’s score under a single streetlight. As Benson departs the stage, we crossfade to a canned version of the classical music, but the dancing on stage is anything but.

We travel via an animated video projection to a NYC street party showcasing a variety of hip-hop dance styles. Drosselmeyer (female this time, danced by Lisa “LBOOGIE” Bauford) brings toys magically to life to entertain the partygoers. Maria-Clara (Ann-Sylvia Clark) seems rattled by her arguing parents, and distances herself by drinking and partying with the street kids. When the party breaks up, Maria-Clara walks home alone. She meets The Nutcracker (Morris Isby), a street vendor who saves her from the Mouse Crew and its leader (Randi “Rascal” Freitas). As the snow begins to fall, Drosselmeyer sends them on a magical journey to the past, to a 1980’s club, where Maria-Clara’s parents first met. Once they return to the present, they help rekindle her parents’ love.

Watching an adaptation inspires us to look for the similarities and find surprises in the variations. One surprise is actually a similarity: the original Tchaikovsky orchestral score is utilized for most of the dance. This ends up being a strong choice, because the contrast between the traditional music and the contemporary movement is the heart of why this show works. The DJ and violin moments are short breaks in the action that allow the audience to close their eyes and listen to the mix-up of two musical genres in unexpected and awe-inspiring ways.

DPAC presented The Hip Hop Nutcracker, with special guest MC Kurtis Blow, on Saturday, Nov. 30th

Clark has a quirky charm that puts a smile on everyone’s face as she seems to effortlessly mirror the variety of hip-hop styles she encounters. Isby is sweet and approachable as the street vendor. Upon donning a pair of magical red sneakers, The Nutcracker becomes the flashiest B-boy of them all.

The sets are minimal, relying on video projections to carry the audience to different locations and times. Lighting by Burke Wilmore helps create those magical moments we all come to expect in this holiday story.

Hip-hop culture was built on a philosophy of individual expression, so it’s natural that a show would focus on the unique talents of the performers. Luckily, The Nutcracker already has that structure built in, especially with the divertissements of Act II. Ensemble work can be so visually powerful, and this ensemble lands a punch to the story that is often missing in traditional ballet’s composed, reserved style.

Each performer brings a unique talent to the show. Dancer Lila Frias’ freestyle whacking and popping is perfect for the toy marionette. Anthony “Omen” Cabrera brings amazing athleticism and flexibility to a harlequin toy magically controlled by Drosselmeyer.

Act II brings out some 1980s awesomeness with signature club moves of the era, but it is the show’s interpretation of the divertissements that stood out. A fiery break-dancing duo perfectly matches the exuberance of the Russian music. The quirky Dustin Payne dances to the mirliton music, miming a flute for comic effect.

Nubian Nene, dancing the role of the mom, performs a splendid vogueing routine. Micah Abbrey, the dad, boasts some impressive comedic skills and goes straight up old school with a delightful power and explosiveness. Nene and Abbrey’s pas de deux ends in a reconciliation that makes the audience cheer — not only for their performance, but for love.

DPAC presented The Hip Hop Nutcracker, with special guest MC Kurtis Blow, on Saturday, Nov. 30th

SECOND OPINION: Nov. 27th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:

THE HIP HOP NUTCRACKER, with special guest MC Kurtis Blow (Durham Performing Arts Center, Nov. 30 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District).

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Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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