On Stage: A Hip Hop Christmas

December 11, 2018

The dance field is getting more crowded around this time of year — call it a Holiday Rave. There’s the venerable Nutcracker at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, something that transcends it all. For musical theater lovers, though, there’s Elf. Film buffs might gravitate to Disney’s new The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. But for a contemporary twist, The Hip Hop Christmas is the only game in town.

Most productions have a local flair and with hip hop, the logical locale would have to be New York City. This production boasts plenty of talent, both onstage and in the creative development — director and choreographer Jennifer Weber, whose extensive work straddles concert venues (Jacob’s Pillow, The Kennedy Center). A Bessie-nominated artist (serious stuff), she recently created a new work for New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck and hip hop legend Lil Buck. Co-creator/writer Mike Fitelson is executive producer at the United Palace, Manhattan’s 4th largest theater in Washington Heights.

And who would have imagined breakdancing to Tchaikovsky (plus a DJ and electric violinist)? Picking up on the beat will be a dozen hip hop artists who tell this new version of the familiar tale, where Marie-Clara, the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer unfold the story against Manhattan backdrops.

However the face of this particular Nut belongs to Kurtis Blow, pioneer of his hip hop realm. Blow’s claim to fame would have to be “Christmas Rap,” the “most relevant hip hop record of all time” because it has been played every year since 1979 and will be around “200 years from now.”

This Christmas Rapper appreciates that radio supported it, but he is more than a one-trick pony. Not only is he is rapper, but is also a singer, songwriter, record/film producer, b-boy, DJ, public speaker and minister.

According to Blow, The Hip Hop Nutcracker “fits into all of the above.” As the emcee of the touring production, he explores all kinds of opportunities and motivational speaking. “I take them into the ’80’s, a time when good lovemeant having a good time.”

Audience members will hear the iconic Christmas Rap and a medley as well. And yes, the breakdancers perform to Tchaikovsky’s original score. For the the finale, there’s “an incredible holiday season mash-up,” where the crowd is “goin’ crazy as we spread the love.”

He marvels at the Incredible evolution of b-boys and b-girls, where they fuse hip hop with modern dance and ballet and insert complicate new combinations, like a headstand, 1990 and back stand in succession.

Fans will find slight variations like Maria-Clara and Myron the Nutcracker. But Blow’s favorite part is Drosselmeyer’s time travel to a 1988 nightclub, where there is an official pas de deux, Dance of the Flowers and a Russian Dance.

All of it delivered with “more acting and more of the story” than previous versions, asserts Blow. “They bring 150 percent every night.”


On the Road: Viva la Violette!

August 14, 2009

Violette VerdyI came across a little slice of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre history in Chautauqua, where the Dance Circle honored French ballerina and long-time Chautauqua teacher Violette Verdy and featured a new documentary about the former New York City Ballet principal dancer.

But more on the PBT connection later. For those unfamiliar with the considerable historic and personal charms of Verdy, one only has to check a few of nearly 15 million Google hits. Born as Nelly Guillerm in 1933 (which puts her in at around a robust 76), Verdy began with Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees and seemed to conquer the European continent before trying her hand at the United States. After one year with American Ballet Theatre, George Balanchine beckoned her to come to the New York City Ballet, where he created many roles for her including “Emeralds,” “La Source,” “Sonatine” and the champagne fizz of “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.”

Verdy directed Paris Opera Ballet and Boston Ballet for a time, but her heart lay in the classroom. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Music (Ballet) at Indiana University and is in great demand as a guest teacher. This past June, the former ballerina was award the distinguished French Legion of Honour (Chevalier).

Former New York City Ballet Stars Violette Verdy and Patricia McBride at Chautauqua

Former New York City Ballet Stars Violette Verdy and Patricia McBride at Chautauqua

But those achievements seem to pale in comparison when meeting Verdy. At a recent performance of “Pas de Deux” by North Carolina Dance Theatre at Chautauqua, two of the dancers admirably performed “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”
and a documentary of her career and Chautauqua connections (nearly 20 summers there) was shown.

But when the silver-haired Verdy took the spotlight, she was uncommonly radiant, similar to her performances on stage. Oh yes, that brings up Pittsburgh. She performed “Swan Lake” with the wonderfully athletic American danseur Edward Villella during the early years of PBT at Heinz Hall.

You see, Verdy was instrumental in the explosion of American ballet in the early ’70’s. She performed with many regional ballet companies, lending her considerable star power and technique to their development.

But she went on to do more than that. As she explained it at a reception following the Chautauqua performance, “I was injured at the time and I asked Mr. Balanchine if I could help with auditions.” Those auditions would be connected with the Ford Foundation scholarships that brought some of America’s greatest talent to New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet.

That meant traveling around the country, talking with local teachers and assessing students — perhaps even teaching a class. It all helped to raise technical standards and establish a definitive American style.

Merci, Violette.

(This is a coaching session with Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer Isabel Guerin in Jerome Robbins” “Dances at a Gathering,” part of a 2001 documentary, “Violette et Mr. B.” available on Amazon.com.)

On the Road: At the Pillow

July 20, 2009

My final road trip installment focused on Jacob’s Pillow, Massachusetts mecca for dance. Here it is as it appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On the Road: Nina!

July 11, 2009

International superstar Nina Ananiashvili took her final bows with American Ballet Theatre recently where the audience screamed “Nina!” and “Ana!” repeatedly over the course of the evening. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Videodance: Merce

July 4, 2009

So it’s summer, and for some, that means the beach. For me, that morphs into “Beach Birds” by modern dance master Merce Cunningham, whose continuing curiosity and sense of adventure over 90 years serve as an inspiration for this blog. The company will be performing nearby at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia on July 14. Not that the music matters to Merce, but part of the program will feature a Radiohead accompaniment. Go to the Wolf Trap website.

On the Road: At the Pillow

June 29, 2009

After taking a few days to visit with friends in Connecticut, I’ll turn to Jacob’s Pillow, one of America’s most venerable dance festivals, which is located  in western Massachusetts. There I’ll be able to catch an encore performance Ballet Maribor’s production of “Radio & Juliet,” presented last October by the Pittsburgh Dance Council and set to music by Radiohead (revisit the review as well at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Also appearing will be LAFA & Artists, founded in 2007 by Martha Graham Company and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre luminary Fang-Yi Sheu. Based in Taiwan, the company will perform the American premiere of “37 Arts,” choreographed by co-founder Bulareyaung Pagarlava (also formerly of Cloud Gate), “Single Room” and the world premiere of a work based on the couple’s experience at the Pillow last year.

It’s easy to get drenched in dance at the Pillow, where there will also be photo exhibits on Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. On Wednesday and Thursday there will also be informal performances by local artists and a talk by Ann Hutchinson Guest.

On the Road: Summer in the City

June 24, 2009

Yes, I’ll be spending one hot summer day in one of my favorite cities — New York. If Washington D.C. had an intriguing Ballet Smackdown going between the Bolshoi and Royal Ballets, American Ballet Theatre has a Ballerina Smackdown to offer in a pair of performances Saturday in “Swan Lake” on Saturday. You might ask, “Who needs that?” But this has a glorious twist.

Michele Wiles, a young ballerina with a contemporary flair, gets the Saturday afternoon matinee along with one this past Wednesday. She’s the only  female with two performances on a roster that includes a flock of Swan Queens, including Irina Dvorovenko, Gillian Murphy, Diana Vishneva, Paloma Herrara and Veronika Part.

But that’s not all. On Saturday evening, international star Nina Ananiashvili will give her final performance at American Ballet Theatre, something that promises to have a gala atmosphere about it. Angel Corella will be her Siegfried.

On Stage: Big at the Bolshoi

June 24, 2009

Check my review of “Le Corsaire” online at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On the Road: Kennedy Center

June 16, 2009

Dance is virtually on hiatus in Pittsburgh, except for a few studio star turns to be visited shortly. So it’s time to hit the road and find some. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…you get the picture. This Friday I’m heading to Washington, D.C. and what might be called, in sports-minded sense, the Bolshoi/Royal Ballet Smackdown. (More to follow on the next segments of the trip.)

Yes, two of the world’s premiere dance ensembles will appear back-to-back weeks at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, only four (or so) short hours’ drive from Pittsburgh.  The last time I visited a similar pairing at the Center was in 2006, when the Maryinsky/Kirov Ballet presented “Giselle” and the Royal countered with Frederick Ashton’s “La Valse” and “Enigma Variations” and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Gloria.”

"Le Corsaire"

"Le Corsaire"

With a little planning, I can catch an even better pairing (potentially), beginning with Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet in one of those signature works that have enhanced its repertoire and its reputation, “Le Corsaire,” on Saturday. It’s a somewhat new production, first performed in 2007 and called “magnificent” by the New York Times. “Le Corsaire” tells the tale of a Greek girl, Medora, and the swashbuckling Pirate,Conrad , in a love affair that sets that stage for captive maidens, rich sultans and the pre-requisite abductions and rescues, “all culminating in a shipwreck that’s one of the most breathtaking specatacles in all of ballet.”

I’ll be seeing prominent Bolshoi soloists Ekaterina Shipulina as Medora and Ruslan Skvortsov as Conrad (both are on youtube.com), but it seems that the Bolshoi has pulled some of its most exciting young stars for this engagement.

American Ballet Theatre performed “Le Corsaire” on WQED’s Great Performances a while back with Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel and it will be interesting to measure the two. But then, the Bolshoi has more history going for it and additional choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, who was just appointed as resident choreographer at ABT.

Small world.

"Month in the Country"

"Month in the Country"

Comparing the Bolshoi to the Royal is like comparing,once again, the proverbial apples and oranges. The Royal arrives in its corner  next week with a fabulous line-up of ballets, including two signature works, Frederick Ashton’s deliriously beautiful “A Month in the Country,” book-ended by two masterful contemporary works, Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV” and Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma.” McGregor was working on the ballet when his company, Random Dances, appeared at the Pittsburgh Dance Council in 2006 and it subsequently garnered the Laurence Olivier award in 2007 for Best New Dance Production. Wheeldon has become ballet’s Favorite Son. And the other signature, the glorious “Manon” by Kenneth MacMillan, will feature principals Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather.

The companies have pulled out their big guns, or so it seems. Let the games begin.

The Bolshoi Ballet will appear at the Kennedy Center Tues. through Sun. The Royal Ballet will begin June 23 through June 28. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center website, http://www.kennedy-center.org.

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