‘Hip-Hop Nutcracker’ brings new beats and moves to holiday favorite

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“The Nutcracker” ballet has become a staple of the holiday season, and every company that presents it has their own special version. Nowhere might that be truer than at Peninsula Lively Arts. The company, which recently changed its name from Peninsula Ballet Theatre, is just about as close to “The Nutcracker” as Herr Drosselmeyer, the creator of the ballet’s titular doll.

Since 2017, the company has staged two full-scale “Nutcracker” productions: one a traditional performance featuring classical ballet, choreographed by the company’s artistic director Gregory Amato, and one that recounts the familiar tale through hip-hop dance, choreographed by hip-hop dancers Stuck Sanders and Alee Martinez. Both productions take place over the weekend of Dec. 15-17 at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre.

Sanders said that before this production came about, although he had heard of “The Nutcracker,” he wasn’t familiar with the ballet because he hadn’t grown up with it.

“In our first ‘Hip-Hop Nutcracker,’ it was chaotic, like the ins and outs of it. However, it was so different from the original that I had no clue that people would love it like they did and it just became a great thing to do,” Sanders said in an interview. “Now I really try to take the story and make it relate to us.”

The show grew out of hip-hop classes that the then-Peninsula Ballet Theatre’s school was offering, taught by Martinez, who brought on Sanders to teach as well.

Sanders and Martinez met on a dance team about a decade ago and a couple years later, they formed Tribe, their own dance crew. And now they are not only partners artistically, but a family off-stage, too. Their young daughter has been raised watching and then performing in the “Hip-Hop Nutcracker.” Earlier this fall, the couple welcomed a second child.

Peninsula Lively Arts Executive Director Christine Leslie said she asked Martinez and Sanders to create some hip-hop performances set to holiday tunes to showcase their work during the intermission of the company’s traditional production of “The Nutcracker.”

“Well, Stuck and Alee being creative geniuses as they are, came back and actually used some of the dances from ‘Nutcracker,'” Leslie recalled.

The concept of a full-length hip-hop version of “The Nutcracker” took off quickly from there, she said.

Sanders said that he and Martinez started out focusing on highlighting the hip-hop element, but that the show has evolved to embrace the story.

“If you think about the Russian dance, and you think about them doing candy cane jumps and splits, we just take that and flip it on its head with a break dancer. So then the break dancer is also throwing his legs and doing candy canes and flips, but it’s just in a different style,” Sanders said.

“We take the Sugar Plum Fairy, who was en pointe, and we replaced them with a glider who’s also en pointe. So to see gliding en pointe, but in street shoes from a person who’s never done ballet is pretty unorthodox. I think the more we stick to the story, but flip it to ours, the more that people understand it as ‘The Nutcracker’ but see it as a new one.”

“Hip-Hop Nutcracker” keeps the ballet’s story, adapted for Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 novella “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The show also keeps Tchaikovsky’s score, but adding in hip-hop beats.

“I love when you put our movement to classical music because it’s something that’s so unorthodox and people don’t usually connect it,” Sanders said. “And it allows theater-heads to see us and really appreciate us …. I don’t think they knew that (classical) music could be danced to like this. So it’s a way that people really learn to really appreciate hip-hop.”

Because they tell the same story, the classical and hip-hop productions also share most of the same backdrops and “Some of the props are the same, and a handful of the costumes are the same. But other than that it’s ‘okay, bring all the (classical) costumes out back on the truck ready to ship out and bring in the hip-hop costumes,” Leslie said with a laugh, noting that the company uses “every nook and cranny” of the Fox Theatre during the two productions’ concurrent runs in the theater.

Another unique element of the “Hip-Hop Nutcracker” is that the performance is followed by a session dance on the sidewalk outside the theater.

“We like to just create a huge circle and give everyone the opportunity to just vibe with us and dance with us,” Sanders said.

This after-event reflects hip-hop culture and welcomes everyone to join in. It has even brought some new dancers to the cast in subsequent years.

“We met our Clara in one of our sessions outside of the theater,” Martinez recalled.

“She was just beginning, but she was just so inspired by the show that she immersed herself in not only the choreo aspect of it with us, but battle and freestyle and it’s two different worlds. And the more that you balance both, the more that you can really, really thrive through both. So Clara and the Nutcracker are not only freestylers but they are great choreography dancers. It’s just something that we can now teach dancers to be more all-around so that you can actually work as a dancer,” Martinez said.

As with a traditional production of “The Nutcracker,” the production casts student dancers in the large ensemble scenes, in a Christmas party and as part of the mouse army, for instance — an experience, whether in classical ballet or hip-hop, that often offers the young dancers their first appearance on the stage. Inspiring those young performers to go forward and igniting that same passion in audience members is a driving force of the production.

“A lot of people walk in there and they’re just shy to even see the show,” Sanders said. But when they walk out they’re just screaming — they’re talking to their friends, they’re just alive. A lot of parents have actually messaged me afterwards to say, ‘you know, I’ve taken my kid to a lot of shows, and this one they came out of there like, ‘more, more, more.” So as long as I can inspire the kids, I think that the parents can appreciate that. And I think that the parents can also be inspired along with them by watching their kids.”

The Hip-Hop Nutcracker takes place Dec. 16, 7 p.m. and Dec. 17, 2 p.m. at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City. The company’s classical Nutcracker takes place Dec. 15, 7 p.m. and Dec. 16, 2 p.m., also at The Fox. Tickets for either show are $35-$60. peninsulalivelyarts.org.

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