Hip-hop and classical music may seem as different as musical genres can get, but to New York choreographer Jennifer Weber they’re as natural a pairing as nutcrackers and sugarplum fairies.
Weber’s latest project, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” introduces hip-hop dance into one of the most well-known and beloved ballets of all time, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” The production, whose tour will stop at the Fox Theatre on Sunday, maintains Tchaikovsky’s original score in its entirety.
But the choreography samples a broad swath of hip-hop dance history, from b-boying to more contemporary moves. A live DJ and electric violinist provide hip-hop interludes during scene transitions. And projected scenery places the story in a more urban setting, including a time-traveling trip back to an ’80s dance club.
The show’s writer, Mark Fitelson, brought Weber on board “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” as choreographer and director in 2013, but the project wasn’t Weber’s first stab at combining classical music and hip-hop. Weber had previously worked on a hip-hop reinterpretation of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and she expresses a preference for choreographing hip-hop dance to classical works instead of more contemporary tracks.
“(Hip-hop music) is often made by a computer and it’s super-repetitive and it’s the same beat throughout the whole song,” Weber says. “You don’t have as much to choose from in terms of what you’re going to create physically in your body. With classical there’re just so many directions you could go.”
After test runs in 2013 and 2014 at Fitelson’s United Palace theater in New York City, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” hit the road for the first time last year for a tour of the United States and Tchaikovsky’s home country of Russia. Weber says the production draws a diverse audience including families, dance aficionados and hip-hop heads.
Attendees are encouraged to vocally express their enjoyment of the performance, and dancer Josue Figueroa says audiences respond accordingly — especially when hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow joins the tour for select dates. Blow, best known for scoring rap’s first gold record with his 1980 single “The Breaks,” will open the Detroit performance with a set spanning hip-hop history.
“He warms everybody up and everybody is in a heightened state with music and dancing before the show even begins,” says Figueroa, who portrays the Nutcracker. “It lets them know that it’s not traditional classical theater, that it’s OK to be loud and vocalize your expression for the show.”
For the young dancers in the show, working with Blow is a career highlight.
“That is a definite treat for anybody who is a hip-hop head,” says dancer JD Rainey, who portrays protagonist Maria-Clara’s father. “It’s like, ‘Oh, this is what it was like for the kids in the ’70s who are now my b-boy grandfathers and forefathers.’ ”
The unlikely experiment may well have ignited a new holiday tradition. Weber says there’s “huge demand” for this year’s expanded tour and she’s enthusiastic about continuing to work on the show for many holiday seasons to come.
“For me as an artist, you want to make work that people want to see,” she says. “You want to make work that really brings a lot of diverse audiences into the theater. That, to me, is the spirit of the holidays.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker’
7 p.m. Sun.
2211 Woodward, Detroit