‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ blends classical with hip hop, with MC Kurtis Blow helping build the energy

When the creators of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” melded hip hop dancing with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet score, there was a feeling they had something special on their hands.

“It’s so crazy to be an artist,” said director and choreographer Jennifer Weber. “You make lots of things, and some of them stick and some of them don’t. When we first did ‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker,’ it was pretty clear right away that this was going to be something that stuck. The way the audience responded, it just felt like something — it just had an energy.”

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That initial audience response was back in 2014. In the decade since, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” has become a touring annual staple, having been performed 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 combined with hip hop dancing, a live DJ, and hip hop legend Kurtis Blow serving as the show’s MC. With hip hop celebrating its 50th anniversary, this unique melding of styles sets down at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago for the first time to give local audiences a peek at the magic created when hip hop meets a holiday classic.

Looking back on the creation of the show in 2013, Weber, who is credited as a creator alongside writer and United Palace CEO Mike Fitelson, said it was an “amazing challenge” to bring together the worlds of hip hop and classical music. At the time, Weber was already exploring reimagining classic ballets with her hip hop dance company in New York.

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“It just seemed like these two worlds should absolutely not go together,” said Weber, who received Tony nominations for her choreography of “& Juliet” and “KPOP” on Broadway. “But what ended up happening is that, the way hip hop and classical music fit together, the movement allows you to hear the music in a new way, and the music allows you to see the movement in a new way.”

The touring show

Prior to working on “The Nutcracker,” Weber explored what a hip hop/classical pairing could look like for a piece set to Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” that was performed as part of a festival at the Apollo Theater. It hit her then that there was something exciting about this pairing. While she was looking for a future life for the Vivaldi exploration, she met with Fitelson, who pitched the idea of perhaps taking a run at “The Nutcracker” instead.

Weber said that, at that point, she had actually never seen “The Nutcracker” before. She knew it was a famous holiday ballet, but not much more. Always one to say yes to challenges, Weber dove into research.

“I realized I knew so much of the music (already) because it’s not just the soundtrack to the ballet,” Weber said, “it’s basically the soundtrack to the holiday season. It’s the music you hear while you’re in the grocery store or (watching) commercials. The music is so familiar.”

The word that repeatedly came up in interviews with Weber and Blow was “energy.” There’s an energy to this hip hop take that Blow said he felt right away in the rehearsal room when a friend invited him to check out the show-in-progress.

The touring show

“I saw these kids over there break dancing to classical music of Tchaikovsky, and a DJ cutting up funky beats under this classical music,” Blow recalled. “I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to be a part of this.’ It hit me in the heart because I’ve been an avid supporter of this fusion of hip hop. It’s my contention that hip hop is so malleable, you can shape it into any form.”

Blow was the first rapper signed to a major record label back in 1979 when he signed with then-Chicago-based Mercury Records. Since then, his career has seen him meld hip hop with rock ’n’ roll, country and reggae. But he said the holiday season was his favorite because he gets to sing his first song, “Christmas Rappin’,” all the time.

So this founding father of hip hop signed on to be the show’s MC, opening “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” with some of his own music that he performs alongside the show’s DJ. Blow described it as a chance to get the energy right in the room, setting the stage for what audiences are about to experience.

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“I have them in the aisles dancing and having a good time and everything,” Blow said. “That’s what sets this ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ apart from all the other ‘Nutcrackers’ — the crowd participation. I get ‘em ready. I say to you, ‘This is not a normal Nutcracker, so we want you to have fun. Let your hair down, let yourselves go, clap really loud, scream really loud.’ And that’s what they do.”

“The Hip Hop Nutcracker” features all of the characters and plot details expected of a production of “The Nutcracker” alongside Tchaikovsky’s music, but audiences are also treated to sections of the score remixed by the show’s DJ and a live violinist.

The specifics of the choreography have evolved over the years, with Weber returning annually to help craft the show for each year’s company of dancers. Weber said that, with a root of hip hop dance being improvisation, she works with the dancers on moments in the show that allow them to improvise and express themselves.

“If you love hip hop, this is the show for you,” Weber said. “If you love ballet, this is also the show for you.”

Jerald Pierce is a freelance writer.

“The Hip Hop Nutcracker” runs Dec. 12-17 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.; 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com

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