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battle5-300x240There’s a moment in “A Culture Shock Nutcracker,” which premiered at the Birch North Park Theatre last weekend, when this hip hop take on “The Nutcracker” really cooks. The magic happens in the Arabian variation. To the Arabian music from the classic Tchaikovsky score, a male dancer in a chest-baring vest and harem pants slinks onstage; another man quickly follows, and a third. Then the music switches to hip hop but doesn’t lose its connection to the ballet: like the Tchaikovsky, the tune has a Middle Eastern flavor, and the men’s sinuous torsos and pirouettes recall the Arabian dance from the ballet.

Here’s hoping future versions of “A Culture Shock Nutcracker” will offer more delicious interplay like this between the hip hop “Nut” and the original. And I certainly hope director Angie Bunch makes this an annual event, because Culture Shock’s “Nutcracker” is a blast. A rocking party scene includes solos by artists of all ages and some sizzling unison numbers featuring 30 or more dancers. And it would be a kick to see the Drosselmeyer in a ballet production dressed like Patrick Samokhvalof in a purple velvet jacket over a ruffled shirt à la Prince in “Purple Rain.”

ChineseBgirlValThere’s a lot that Bunch and her artistic team do beautifully their first time out. Hip hop offers ideal vocabulary for the robotic dolls in the party scene: Matt Millen does some dramatic poppin’, and Angel Gibbs isolates joints you didn’t know existed. And forget about cute mice in the battle scene; these rodents are rats in slashed tights, creeping in low like a street gang, wonderfully nasty. In the Chinese variation, Val ‘ValPal’ Acosta and Longkue ‘VillN’ Steven LorVal do intricate Bgirl and Bboy moves while standing on their heads; it’s not only a nice hip hop touch but a big improvement over the stereotyped Chinese choreography in many ballet versions. And, as in the “Nutcracker” ballets, Bunch get dozens of her young dancers onstage and superbly manages a cast of 135.

Visually, “A Culture Shock Nutcracker” looks great. Sets and some costumes were borrowed from San Diego Ballet and San Elijo Dance & Music Academy – and Bunch got guidance from San Diego Ballet Director Javier Velasco – so fans of the ballet will appreciate the magically growing Christmas tree, the sleigh taking Clara and the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of the Sweets, and the pint-sized Tin Soldiers. Then there are uniquely hip hop touches like Drosselmeyer’s “Purple Rain” duds.

There are also plenty of fixes to make in the future, starting with the overall production. Bunch must be a remarkably democratic director; the program lists five assistant directors and 20+ choreographers. I applaud her for empowering people, but it doesn’t result in the most coherent look. And the score shifts between the Tchaikovsky and hip hop, but only in the Arabian dance is there an organic connection between the two. So much more could be done musically, creating a real conversation between the classical score and hip hop tunes. I’d also like to see smoother transitions from the party to the Land of the Sweets and back.

Several sections could use redos, as well. As Snowflakes, four members of the Body Poets, in white choir robes, waft a bit and then waft some more. Maybe they just need to lose the costumes so we can see the moves, but it didn’t look like much was going on underneath those robes. The opening Land of the Sweets scene looks like a visit to a louche club with women vogueing to Bitter:Sweet’s “The Mating Game” – huh?

And, while Lovelyn Layug
and David Henry do  fluid unison moves as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, I wanted lifts. Hip hop artists on “So You Think You Can Dance” learn how to lift and be lifted, and I have complete faith that Culture Shock Dancers can do it, too. The same goes for the Russian dancers, who were a pale comparison to their ballet counterparts; one dancer lay on his back and and kicked while another sat on top of him to give the illusion of a squatting Hopak dance. I want the real thing next time.

What needs no improvement is Culture Shock’s ability to connect with the audience. The sold-out house on Saturday night, which contained plenty of kids, clearly ate up this high art-hip hop hybrid. I look forward to seeing Culture Shock weave a bit more from the ballet into their production. And I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the ballet companies pull some of Culture Shock’s energy into their “Nutcrackers.”

Janice Steinberg

Janice Steinberg

Award-winning dance journalist Janice Steinberg has published more than 400 articles in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Dance Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. She was a 2004 New York Times-National Endowment for the Arts fellow at the Institute for Dance Criticism and has taught dance criticism at San Diego State University. She is also a novelist, author of The Tin Horse (Random House, 2013). For why she's passionate about dance, see this article on her web site, The Tin Horse

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