The winter holidays are a time to bring together our friends and families, a time for keeping traditions alive. Kurtis “The Breaks” Blow, rapper and hip-hop legend, is keeping the heart of holiday tradition alive with a production that features breakdancing to Tchaikovsky’s original score of the 129-year-old ballet The Nutcracker.
The production, now touring in its seventh season, features Blow as the MC, as well as a dozen hip-hop dancers and breakdancers, an on-stage DJ and an electric violinist. The Hip Hop Nutcracker spreads the holiday spirit all across the U.S. this winter, arriving at the Hult Center Friday, Nov. 12.
The production tells the original story of Maria-Clara and her Nutcracker Prince, but instead of Germany in the 1800s, the characters live in late 20th century New York City. The small cast of dancers, just a dozen compared to the hundred or so usually featured in the ballet, allows each dancer in the production to bring their own flare to the character they play. A fusion like this one, of Tchaikovsky and hip hop, attracts talented, innovative artists like Blow.
In 1980, Blow’s voice was heard by everyone in the hip-hop scene with his song “The Breaks,” which became the first certified gold record rap song. Raised in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, he grew up watching The Nutcracker — the original, that is. He was introduced to The Hip Hop Nutcracker when a friend saw him in a performance. “He spotted me on stage one day, up in the Bronx at an outdoor festival.”
The friend told Blow he’d be a great fit for The Hip Hop Nutcracker, and introduced him to director and choreographer Jennifer Weber.
A “big fan of that style, where we mix classical music with hip hop,” Blow is a perfect fit for the production. He studied music theory in high school, where he learned the classics — “Beethoven, Bach, and of course Tchaikovsky.” Learning music theory early on allowed Blow to see the possibilities of fusion in music, specifically classical and hip hop.
“The fusion is so apparent and so perfect because hip hop goes back to the basics of music as well,” Blow says. “We specialize in the beats, which is the foundation of music.”
Fusion of the classic and the innovative is the defining theme for The Hip Hop Nutcracker. The dancers bring their own unique style to the classic roles of the original production.
“That’s the really fun thing about the presentation,” Blow says. “It’s incredible to see how they work [their styles] into their characters. Like Drosselmeyer.” Blow says the dancer portraying Drosselmeyer, who presents his niece with the magical nutcracker in the ballet’s story, “is magical and mystical. Her style of dance uses a lot of pop-locking and electric boogaloo [another style of popping].” Blow says this dancer’s style is really bringing out the character traits associated with Drosselmeyer.
After having undergone a heart transplant last winter, Blow, who turned 62 last summer, talks about having a newfound passion for performance and for life. “Something inside of you changes. You start to enjoy life better, even.”
Blow lights up when he talks about another of the dozen dancers in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, the one and only Maria-Clara, played by Ann-Sylvia Clark. The star of the show, Maria-Clara is the character whose eyes we see the story through. “She is such a joy onstage,” Blow says of Clark. “She does acrobatics, along with ballet, along with hip-hop dance and B-boy. It’s incredible to see her different styles come together in that one character, who is the star, Maria-Clara.”
Blow says The Hip Hop Nutcracker is all about bringing joy and a great story to the audience. A tale of magic and mystery and learning lessons of the holiday season, it is “something for the whole family.”
The Hip Hop Nutcracker is 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 12, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets $45-75 at HultCenter.org; more information on the show at HipHopNutcracker.com.