Jingling bells mixed with laughter on the second floor of Stetson Library, ushering in the holiday season. At the center of the floor, a brother and sister started off with a do-si-do, then went into a tight hug. Music wrapped around them. In the back, another young person sprang into a leap frog dance in time with the beat. Little arms and legs loosened around the space, ready to learn some pint-sized hip-hop moves.
Directed by Jennifer Weber with a set from MC Kurtis Blow, the performance of the Hip-Hop Nutcracker comes to the Shubert Theatre for one night only, on Friday Dec. 30. The work fuses Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet with the decades-old, distinctly Black and American roots of hip-hop. Tickets and more information are available here.
“We always want to bring people to the Shubert, but just in case they can't get to the Shubert, at least I can bring a little bit of art to them,” said Kelly Wuzzardo, the director of education and engagement at the theater. As different performances roll into the College Street theater, she works with the library to find a tie to reading and art.
As kids trickled into the library Saturday, Wuzzardo greeted them with a storybook version of the Nutcracker, complete with songs alongside the illustrations. As she read, Wuzzardo described the original work—and then how people had played with music and movement to transform the show into a celebration of hip-hop.
Around her, kids sat in a circle to listen to the classic Christmas tale, where a little girl named Clara receives a Nutcracker toy from her uncle, and experiences some holiday magic of her own as he comes alive and takes her on a journey. As she described the sound of Tchaikovsky over a hip-hop beat, Wuzzardo asked pint-sized listeners: Did they think it was all a dream? Could the story have been real?
On the second floor upstairs, Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School dance teacher Nikki Claxton had a group of students spread out across the floor, warming their bodies up to dance. Hands extended over shoulders and heads, little fingertips stretching towards the ceiling. Legs shook off the rainy, joint-poppingly cold Saturday weather. Claxton began to guide them through a dance set to the “March of the Toy Soldiers.”
“Five, six, ready, here we go!” she said in time with a drumbeat that caught and rolled beneath the music. She bounced in place, looking over one shoulder, and then the other. As the music rose, she took the students through clapping, stepping from side to side, rolling their arms around each other, and doing a single spin. When Wuzzardo cut the music, Claxton applauded. In the second row, one tiny dancer didn’t stop moving, smiling from ear to ear.
“Wow!” she said. “Who needs to try it again? I think I do.”
As kids rehearsed, Wuzzardo pulled out a bag of elf-sized red and green hats equipped with bells. When students put them on, trying out the steps without Claxon, jingling ensued from every direction.
“We want to open them up to all things and all of their interests so it’s nice to have a different version of that [the Nutcracker] here,” Claxton said after the dance segment.
She wasn’t the only one who thought so. Janiya Burton, a junior studying theater at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, came out to fulfill her community service hours with the Shubert Theater. The school has a special relationship with the theater, which sits just a block away on College Street; students get to see shows, peek behind the scenes, and learn from teaching artists who work or perform at the Shubert.
By the end of the afternoon, she was having fun while doing it. Burton said she chose this type of event because she loves working with kids and is excited about the Hip-Hop Nutcracker, which she has never seen in person. The most exciting part for her was the dance, she said.
Other attendees chimed in in agreement. “I really have a lot of stuff to do here though but this was a lot of fun,” said Michael Goubourn, as he colored an ornament with deep concentration.
Stephanie Ng attended the event with her husband and young children, Aiden and Julia Shung. Earlier this year, the family saw a flier for the event when they were trick-or-treating at the Shubert. While they had seen the Nutcracker before, when the New Haven Ballet put it on for the community, they had never heard of a hip-hop version of the show.
Saturday, Aiden and Julia were an instant hit with their partnered freestyle dances during the hip-hop dance segment.
“My favorite part was getting to do the crafts,” said Aiden.
“This is like a 10 minute drive from where we live so I appreciate having a place to bring our kids in the community,” added Ng.
Kamili Johnson enjoyed getting to make a friendship bracelet during the crafts portion of the workshop and freestyle dancing during the dance portion. Her go-to move is the splits, she said.
Before attendees headed back out into the dreary weekend weather, they received a free book from Read to Grow and a goody bag with items like an individual gingerbread house set and some sweets. Wuzzardo said that she hoped kids who didn’t yet have a library card would sign up for one before they headed out.
“There's so many amazing opportunities for them at the library that if this is what helps them get in just to find out about that, then it's a successful event,” Wuzzardo said.