Premiere of "The Hip Hop Nutcracker" staring Decadancetheatre
Premiere of The Hip Hop Nutcracker, featuring special guest MC Kurtis Blow, creates holiday magic at the United Palace and NJPAC
The Hip Hop Nutcracker
Directed and Choreographed by Jennifer Weber
Adapted by Mike Fitelson
Produced by the United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA)
United Palace (4140 Broadway at 175th Street, Manhattan)
December 7 at 6pm (Doors open at 5pm)
Tickets: $10–$100; unitedpalacearts.org; 866-811-4111
Holiday magic is coming to New York City’s most enchanting theatre when The Hip Hop Nutcracker makes its debut at the United Palace, Manhattan’s 4th largest theatre, on Sunday, December 7 at 5pm. The Hip Hop Nutcracker is directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber of the Brooklyn-based all femalle hip-hop company Decadancetheatre, and is adapted to contemporary New York City by Mike Fitelson. The production is set to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with hip hop interludes remixed and re-imagined by DJ Boo and violinist Filip Pogády.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker celebrates old and new, retaining Tchaikovsky’s famous score but replacing ballet with hip hop dancers. The adaptation is respectful of the traditional narrative with references to beloved touchstones like the Mouse King and growing tree. But the story is relocated to contemporary Washington Heights, takes place on New Year’s Eve, and adds a twist to drive the action through Act II.
To highlight the union of past and present the special guest MC is the “King of Rap” Kurtis Blow who charted the first rap gold record with “The Breaks” in 1980. (His other hits include “Basketball,” “Christmas Rappin’,” and “If I Ruled the World.”) Blow will open the show with a short set of his material before rapping the introduction to The Hip Hop Nutcracker. The Washington Heights-based SONOS Chamber Orchestra will perform Tchaikovsky’s music at the Palace performance.
The production introduces the vocabulary of hip hop movement to what has traditionally been a classical ballet, broadening the audience for the art form. The variety of styles represented (breaking, popping, locking, etc.) serve as a history lesson of hip hop dance.
“We were faithful to the music and let it drive the storytelling,” said director/choreographer Jennifer Weber. “The juxtaposition of the hip hop dance and classical music allows you to see the beauty of both in fresh ways, finding new rhythms in the music to accentuate. Since Tchaikovsky's score doesn't have a predictable beat, there is always a sense of surprise in the movement.”
The show is being produced by the United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA), the independent nonprofit founded at the United Palace in 2012 to transform lives through art. One of UPCA’s priorities was to create a perennial holiday show that could help unite the diverse Northern Manhattan community.
The origin of the project is almost as charmed as the narrative it tells. In early 2013, Mike Fitelson, UPCA’s executive director who is also a longtime Washington Heights-based writer and photographer, hoped to bring a traditional Nutcracker production uptown. In July, after those plans fell through, he met Weber, the choreographer and director of the award-winning Decadancetheatre company, who blended classical music and hip hop dance in several noteworthy previous productions.
On her first visit to the United Palace she fell in love with the breathtaking 1930’s architecture. About 25 minutes after meeting, while touring the theatre’s grand foyer, Fitelson and Weber decided to create a new version of the holiday classic. After test-driving several scenes during a 20-minute workshop at the Palace in December 2013 they began assembling the pieces for a full production.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker features a dozen all-star hip hop dancers, the SONOS Chamber Orchestra (at the United Palace only), hip hop legend Kurtis Blow as guest MC, DJ Boo, Filip Pogády on electric violin and digitally projected scenery. Spotlight appearances by children from UPCA’s community arts programs (at the United Palace only).
Kurtis Blow joined the project through a connection with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), which will host the world premiere of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” on December 5 and 6.
“I’m always excited about any undertaking that expands the culture of hip hop,” said Blow. “I feel blessed after 42 years to still be able to contribute.”
The Hip Hop Nutcracker was developed with the support of a 2014 CUNY Dance Initiative Residency at Hunter College.
Nominated in 2012 as “Outstanding Emerging Choreographer” from the New York Dance and Performance Awards (Bessie), Jennifer Weber has been creating hip hop dance theatre since 2004. As artistic director of the all-female theatrical hip hop crew Decadancetheatre, Weber’s work has toured across the US, UK, Japan, and France in venues such as Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, The Apollo, and The Kennedy Center. Prior to “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” Weber choreographed hip hop dance to touring productions based on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”
The production’s 12 dancers are Virgil Gadson (“After Midnight”), Robert Taylor Jr (“So You Think You Can Dance, Season 8”), Sammy Soto (“Step Fenz”), Angelo Saunders (“Monsters of Hip Hop/NappyTabs”), Ramone Wilkinson (“Monsters of Hip Hop/NappyTabs”), Sophia Lavonne (iLuminate”), David Yijae (“Urban Dance League” on BET), Myriam Gadri (Latin Billboard Awards), Lucile Graciano (Decadancetheatre), Megan Alfonso (Decadancetheatre), Ann Sylvia Clark (Decadancetheatre) and Taeko Koji (Decadancetheatre).
For UPCA the show symbolizes the nonprofit’s mission, spreading the message that art has the power to change lives and revitalize communities. Significantly, children from UPCA’s circus arts, hip hop dance, youth orchestras, theatre, and West African drumming programs, as well as community members, will perform during Act II at the United Palace show.
“What better way to bring people together during the holidays than to combine different popular art forms to reach as wide an audience as possible, then dip this classic story in a contemporary setting that celebrates community,” said Fitelson, who adapted the story and is supplying the imagery for the scenery. “This production is the perfect symbol of how we are combining old and new to reinvent the United Palace. It will become a new holiday tradition here.”
History of the United Palace and UPCA
The United Palace originally opened in 1930 as the Loew’s 175th Street Theater, presenting vaudeville and “talking pictures.” With its spectacular Thomas Lamb design, described by some as “Cambodian neo-Classical,” it was the last of the five Wonder Theatres to be built in the metropolitan area. When it opened, its advertising slogan was “Loew’s Brings Times-Square Entertainment Nearer Your Home.” Eighty-four years later residents of Washington Heights and Inwood still yearn to attend cultural experiences without having to go downtown.
In 1969, when many of the city’s grand movie theatres had been demolished or turned into multiplexes, the Palace was purchased and preserved by “prosperity preacher” Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, better known as Reverend Ike. The church has maintained a presence here ever since, never missing a Sunday service. It is thanks to the Eikerenkoetter family and the congregation that the building has been maintained all these years while the other four metro-area Wonder Theatres fell into disrepair at one time or another.
In addition to housing UPCA and the legacy of Rev. Ike’s church, the United Palace House of Inspiration, the building also contains the United Palace Theatre, which books events such as top rock and Latin acts and commercial, television, and movie shoots. In recent years, Bob Dylan, Adele, Neil Young, The Allman Brothers, John Legend, and other countless pop and Latino acts have played at the Palace. It has also been featured in episodes of “Law & Order,” “The Blacklist,” “Smash,” and several music videos.
UPCA was incorporated in 2012 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts and cultural center. Its mission is to harness the spirit of the majestic United Palace to inspire, transform, and unite our Northern Manhattan community and beyond by hosting community art programs, providing space for local artists, and offering world-class events. UPCA is also the only arts and cultural center north of 125th Street, providing vital creative experiences for a community lacking arts resources.
When: Sunday, December 7, 2014. Doors: 5pm. Performance: 6pm.
Where: 4140 Broadway at 175th Street
Tickets: $10-$100 at www.unitedpalacearts.org or call 866-811-4111
NJPAC performance (Victoria Theater)
When: Friday, December 5, at 8pm; Saturday, December 6, at 2pm
Where: One Center Street, Newark, New Jersey 07102
Tickets: $65.00 & $55.00 at www.njpac.org or call 888.GO.NJPAC (888.466.5722)
Photo © Michael Avilez