The century-old Christmas ballet puts on its sneakers and asks you to make some noise in Redwood City

By Carol Maskus

(Image courtesy of Peninsula Ballet Theatre)

Christmas culture has always been ripe for the act of reinvention.

Acapella group Straight No Chaser made magic when they “had Christmas down in Africa” with 80s band Toto during a performance of The 12 Days of Christmas. Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell did the same when they revived the old classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in the movie Elf. Even Vince Gueraldi updated the traditional folk song “O Tannenbaum” for A Charlie Brown Christmas with piano riffs that appealed as much to parents with martinis and expensive slippers as to kids playing with an Easy-Bake Oven.

This kind of Christmas reconfiguration can certainly be applied to other arts as well, even dance. This December, Peninsula Ballet Theatre of Mountain View presents a bold spin on an old classic in the form of Hip Hop Nutcracker. Choreographed by Alee Martinez and Issac “Stuck” Sanders, the piece pulsates with modern life in a way that the classic ballet just can’t (think: the movement of city streets at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning versus the quiet restraint of a Renaissance woodworking shop).

(Image courtesy of Peninsula Ballet Theatre)

Astounding limb contortion, gravity-defying backflips, breakdancing and all manner of surprising movements are done with a flourish. Combine that with the traditional Tchaikovsky score that has been cut up like an experimental film and spliced with scratches and beats, and the Hip Hop Nutcracker is an enlightening theater experience.

“I have been performing and producing for over 40 years; and I know good art and good entertainment and this has both.” said Executive Director of Peninsula Ballet Theatre Christine Leslie.

Hip Hop Nutcracker made its world premiere at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City in 2016, and will be presented there again this year, beginning this weekend.

We spoke to Leslie ahead of this weekend’s premier so she could clue us into their outside-the-(gift)box approach…..

(Image courtesy of Peninsula Ballet Theatre)

What do you like best about this production?

I have either performed in or produced a classic Nutcracker for 40 years, and I am a bun head — I love all things ballet, toe shoes, tutus and tiaras. I fell in love with this Hip Hop Nutcracker the minute I saw it four years ago. It captures the timeless story, music and thrill that has been performed as classical ballet for 100 years, but it now has a different energy told in a newer dance genre. Great art and entertainment is great art and entertainment independent of the genre.

How does the production change the story/feel of The Nutcracker?

This is still everyone’s favorite Nutcracker story complete with family party, the dream of the battle of mice and soldiers, dancing snowflakes and a wonderful, colorful world full of different and spectacular entertainments. But the feeling is very different. Hip Hop Nutcracker is fun-packed from curtain rise to the sparkling finale. While the dancers may not be wearing pointe shoes, they are highly skilled and highly trained artists in their own right.

How is it similar to and different from something like Hamilton?

Hip Hop Nutcracker is similar in concept to Hamilton: a creative telling of a story in a new genre. This is the beloved Nutcracker story told within a new dance category — hip hop. We still have Herr Drosselmeyer who creates unique and magical gifts for Clara and Fritz. Tchaikovsky’s familiar score reigns supreme, liberally peppered with hip hop beats. It is amazing how perfect this 100-plus-year-old Russian score lends itself to modern urban beats.

(Image courtesy of Peninsula Ballet Theatre)

Is this a Peninsula Ballet original?

Yes, PBT’s Hip Hop Nutcracker made its world premiere at the Fox Theatre in December 2016 as part of our 50th Anniversary celebrations. To our knowledge, we are the first and the only company presenting narrative hip-hop productions. Hip Hop Nutcracker was so successful we have also created Hip Hop Cinderella, with the Russian composer Prokofiev as the musical foundation. Hip Hop Cinderella will be performed in March 2020 .

Are the dancers professional, or local?

Professional dancers fill all the featured solo and demi-solo acts, which includes the choreographers and award-winning dancers Stuck Sander and Alee Martinez, joined by Grimm, Leftside, TDot, iDimmy, Chonkie and CyberYoga featured in such roles as Clara, The Nutcracker Prince, The Sugar Plum Fairy, The Snow King, and interpreting around the world dancers such as Chinese, Russian and Arabian.

Why should people see it?

No holiday season is complete without a special moment for the entire family. Although the 100-year-old ballet never caught on in Europe, classical ballet interpretations of The Nutcracker have been enchanting American audiences since its premiere by San Francisco Ballet in 1944. PBT’s Hip Hop Nutcracker is an interpretation created for the next generation of audiences. Everyone leaves the theater in a wonderful holiday mood.

Is it good for kids?

This is the perfect production for kids. Unlike sitting passively in the opera house, this production encourages audience members to show appreciation by standing, hooting and whistling. Even moms, dads and grandparents are fabulously entertained — some of them even join the after-production dance circles!

Hip Hop Nutcracker performances are December 20, 21, 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. at the Fox Theatre. Click here for full full event details and tickets.

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