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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Peninsula Lively Arts presents ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ Dec 16-17, 2023, Fox Theater, Redwood Ci

Nutcracker productions abound each holiday season.  Families seeking entertainment often choose a classical ballet production of “The Nutcracker.” A perennial staple, productions aim to refill a dance company’s coffers, while giving students and emerging talent an opportunity to perform with more seasoned, and professional dancers. But what to do with the ever-growing rolls of hip-hop pupils and their fans? Peninsula Lively Arts, formerly Peninsula Ballet Theatre, has chosen to produce both a classical and a hip-hop version. Presented over a single weekend at the Redwood City Fox Theatre, they share a set, and even some costumes.

Hip Hop Nutcracker Finale Photo: Courtesy of Peninsula Lively Arts

I was only able to catch, Stuck Sanders’s and Alee Martinez’s wonderous Hip-Hop Nutcracker. Performed to Tchaikovsky’s score, with some added original beat and rhythms, it uses street dance stylings to tell the traditional tale.  The story is clear and the characterizations fully drawn. The dancing is top-notch and the audience is raucous and rapt in equal parts. 

In top hat and swirling black cape, Sanders, as Drosselmeyer, is magnetic, hovering over the stage on his toes in a moonwalking slide and glide.  Arriving at the family party of his goddaughter Clara, he brings to life his charmed toys for the assembled children.  Wind-up dolls, portrayed by Dopey Fresh in an Elizabethan jerkin and pantaloon shorts, and Skeeter in baby doll dress, inflect the hinging of their joints while striking a quick succession of angular poses. T-Dot embodies the enchanted Columbine Doll. With (seemingly) bone breaking moves, his shoulder dislocations allow for fascinating arm twists and turns through which he weaves his head or torso. 

The trumpet fan fare finds a group of boys grasping rounded horns and marching in time. Suddenly all jump in unison, legs bent in running stride, as an urban beat layers over the classical score. A hip hop dance battle plays out between the boys and the girls, with rapidly strobing lights accenting the two groups’ opposing forays. As the dance-off comes to blows, a comically mustachioed parent (Milo) intercedes with a butt spin, breaking the tension and resetting us on track without the throbbing beats and lights. 

The parents, danced by Tribe Crew, have their own sharp moves, as their promenade turns into a unified Butterfly dance with knees twisting inward and elbows flapping. A compilation of club dances including the Electric Slide line dance, the Cabbage Patch, with its barrel stirring arms and concave chest rolls, and the Booty Slap play out. Soloists lay down their best moves down the center of two lines of appreciative fellow dancers.  A high-kneed Running Man is followed by a full-bodied Worm, with the dancer pushing away from the floor with palms and toes and  rolling their chest just above the floor as they progress.

While rhythm tracks layer in periodically to support group dance segments, the hip hop choreography looks especially cool accompanied solely by the Tchaikovsky score.  As Clara, Robyyne Blackmond’s arm waves sinuously, flowing from fingertips, knuckles, wrist, elbow and shoulder with graceful articulation. Blackmond also has a talent for mime. Her gestural descriptions of the narrative are inventive and easy to follow.

The clash between the Nutcracker’s toy soldier troops and the Mouse King with his mischief of mice is fabulous. The Mouse King, danced by Black Flip, is an expert break dancer with a mean head spin. Dancer Chonkie, as the lead Toy Soldier, balances and bounces atop one long arm as his other limbs bend and flex above.  An acrobatic, robotic, head sliding, fight ensures with ten grey gumdrop-shaped mice competing for supremacy against the uniformed corps.  Using standard dance battle protocol, the audience uses its cheered preference to select the toy soldiers as the winners.

Hip Hop Nutcracker Mouse King and Mice; Photo Courtesy of Peninsula Lively Arts

The snow scene introduces reindeer, Rhea Mallari and Vi Vu, who dazzle with their limb threading, spinning tricks, as the Snow King (Jesse Sykes) and Queen (Alee Martinez) welcome us to their wintery world. Strips of iridescent snow glimmer as it floats down into the pink-lit, fog-covered stage. In short white flowing tule skirts, long white gloves and light-up tiaras, fourteen snowflakes swirl with birdlike arms, floating on the ethereal melody.  Transforming with blacklight and strobes and a layer of powerful bass, the gals’ erstwhile wings now rotate swiftly from their elbows. Fist and chest pumps demonstrate that these swans are as powerful as the real-life avians they represent. The act concludes with the whimsical touch of soap bubble snow falling over the auditorium to the patrons’ delight.

Drosselmeyer is the magnanimous host of Act two’s Kingdom of Sweets which features Bay Area street-dance stars performing to Tchaikovsky’s various divertissement. As the Arabian Coffee music sounds, harem women unveil a lanky bare-chested man, crowd favorite truf dancer Krow.  With his signature double-jointed, limb twisting, and back bending magic, he wows us.

Arabian Dance from Hip Hop Nutcracker; Photo: Courtesy of Peninsula Lively Arts

Not to be outdone, professional bone breaker Bad Bonez takes the stage for Chinese Tea. He kicks up his leg and handlessly wraps it behind his head. Pretzeled with his foot in line with his ear, Bad Bonez bends his standing leg, and leaning forward lifts a teapot off the floor with his mouth in an act of impressive showmanship.

Nasty Ray enters spinning across the stage on his knees in imitation of the Ukrainian Trepak dance, before add his own contemporary acrobatics rolling from his shoulders to his feet accompanied by the audience’s rhythmic clapping.

In a long flouncy ivory dress, Karina Amaranth’s flowing arms converse with each other. Her mantis-like hands dip and rise, until a hip-hop beat intervenes instigating a fierce robotic sequence for this ferociously feminist Shepherdess.

Storyboard P, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, glides on his toes like a skater to the opening harp chords of the “Waltz of the Flower.” As the music surges into the grand waltz passage, Dmonte Young weaves through the space offering handstands and arm supported splits atop his traveling hover board. Making a unique, but awkward entrance, Rhea Mallari slides across the stage in full splits, creeping her body along with her arms.

Storyboard P returns for the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” In floral headpiece he gently pokes fun at familiar ballet tropes, while offering a musically sensitive series of twirling, bent- legged arabesques balanced on the toe of his white athletic shoe.  As a percussive beat supersedes, rows of red-uniformed soldiers offer a hip-hop masterclass medley.

A final duet by Neosutras and Pola Rubis is performed to the wistful solo piano theme of Hans Zimmer’s “Interstellar” film score. Emphasizing their long lines, in tight fitting bodysuits, a man and a woman marry their bodies along a vertical centerline, casting limbs out to create symmetrical shapes.  In an extreme firefly pose, palms on the floor, elbows at right angles, Pola Rubis rests her split legs on the backs of her arms. Gradually flexing her bent arms, she subtly rises and falls. Her partner squats in a deep, wide, knee bend above her. They become a multi-limbed breathing insect as his winged arms mirror her pulsing.  This number’s otherworldly quality, and contemporary classical score, are a poor fit for this climatic point in the show. Next year’s task is to marry this duo’s exceptional movement technique to some of Tchaikovsky’s score, or to place them elsewhere in the proceedings.

The show wraps up with Clara and the Prince hand in hand, saluting and embracing one another.  Hip Hop Nutcracker is revolutionary rather than imitative, making room at the table for all who practice or enjoy hip hop, while bringing renewed joy and interest to a familiar score.

Review by Jen Norris, published Dec 18, 2023.

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1 Comment

Dec 20, 2023

The last song was actually a Tchaikovsky track "Pas de Deux". Hans Zimmer is amazing though I don't know how the legal rights would work for that haha! Thanks for coming!

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