Richardson — A Mouse King that spins on his head! A female Drosselmeyer! And a DJ playing Tchaikovsky with added scratches and hip hop beats! This is not your traditional Nutcracker production and I, for one, am excited to see how choreographer Jennifer Weber and her crew of poppers, lockers and breakers have taken this classic 19th century ballet and flipped it on its head to fit today’s culture in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, which comes to the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts this Friday night as part of a 23-city tour.
The all-star cast includes Ann Sylvia Clark (performed with Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams), Josue Figueroa (Step Up film franchise), Liliana Frias (So You Think You Can Dance season 12), Illjaz Jusufi (worked with Nicki Minaj and David Guetta) and Beat Freak crew member and The Hip Hop Nutcracker’s assistant choreographer Randi “Rascal” Fleckenstine, just to name a few.
Fleckenstine was a sophomore at the University of Colorado when she discovered her passion for hip-hop and more specifically breakdancing. She would watch a crew train at night at the college rec center and it wasn’t long before she would become a member of Streetstylez. Over the years she has broadened her hip-hop vocabulary to also include funk styles and choreo hip-hop. She has toured Japan as a cast member of The Battle 2015, performed at music festivals such as Rock N’ Rio and Coachella and has danced with numerous artists. In May 2015 she was asked to join the powerful female crew The Beat Freaks. She is also the co-creator of The Dance Fight, a dance event based in L.A.
TheaterJones chatted with Fleckenstine about choreographing to classical music, the various hip-hop styles we will see in the show and what it’s like being a member of The Beat Freaks.
TheaterJones: How did you get involved with The Hip Hop Nutcracker?
Randi “Rascal” Fleckenstine: I actually auditioned maybe six months ago for a different job with the choreographer Jennifer Weber at the Music Center in Los Angeles. We did The Firebird, which is another classical ballet, but we did another twist on it where six of us were in a foundation doing all sorts of hip-hop styles like breaking, popping and locking. I met Jen through that job and then she held auditions again in L.A. to recast The Hip Hop Nutcracker this year and she asked a couple of us to audition, and after the audition she asked me assist the actual choreographing of the show.
Have you ever choreographed to music from a classical ballet before this?
This is my first time choreographing anything to classical music, but it has been a really great challenge for me. The music doesn’t feel different than hip-hop, but the counts are different and the way the music is laid out is different so, it’s a lot harder to catch everything. And in hip-hop we are used to very consistent beats in the background and classical music just doesn’t have that. It goes all over the place. It was challenge, but also a lot of fun, and some new movement came out of it which was inspired by a mix of hip-hop and classical music.
What was the choreographic process like for you and Jen?
Jen and I met a week prior to rehearsals to get some things prepped and make some choreography that we would then teach the dancers, including certain duets and certain group choreography. But then other duets we waited till we got into the building with the other dancers so we could workshop it. And, almost anytime you see someone dancing singularly it’s freestyle and that is one hundred percent them. So, the cast really makes the show and everyone has a hand in building their characters and what their mini storyline is within the bigger storyline.
Are we going to see some familiar characters from the classical Nutcracker in the hip-hop version?
Oh Yeah! There’s Maria-Clara, The Nutcracker Prince, the soldiers and the mice scene where I play the Mouse King and Drosselmeyer who actually plays a huge role in our Nutcracker. So, rather than just being in the beginning our Drosselmeyer is kind of the narrator throughout the whole play. Then we also add some twists such as Maria-Clara’s Mom and Dad, who participate throughout the show.
What styles of hip-hop will we see in the show?
Sure! I am a B-Girl which is a breakdancer. That’s the style I focus on and that is everything you see down on the floor and power moves where we’re spinning on our backs or heads or our hands. That is my main style, but you will also see a lot of popping and locking in the show. Popping is the hits like the robot or waving and locking is a really funky like happy dance with a lot of finger points and claps. You will also see some club styles like house, which includes whacking and voguing. There’s all these different elements in the show but breaking and popping are probably the two most prevalent in the show.
There will also be a DJ on stage with you during the entire show. How does he impact your performance?
That’s really fun for us. With hip-hop music, we are used to either live music or a DJ that’s mixing and watching the crowd and getting the vibe and playing what you’re going to get excited about. He is playing the classical music but you can hear him scratch, which is when he scratches the record, or mix or there are a couple of times he adds an actual hip-hop beat into some of the classical music and we get to play with that. We also have a live violinist on stage and watching him and the DJ interact is really fun as well.
How is it working with such a diverse group of dancers?
I think the beautiful thing about our cast is that we all have different backgrounds, we speak different languages, grew up in different areas and countries and do different styles of dance and yet we mesh really well together. I mean, some people did start with classical and grew up in a dance studio and others started at a recreation center or in a friend’s garage, but we all respect each other and the artists that we are and we have gotten along great. It’s really a mini-family!
Have you seen a change in the number of females in the realm of hip-hop since you started out a few years ago?
I think in the industry there is a good mix of men and women, but in hip-hop that can get a little different and then in breaking there’s far more men than women. I think shows like America’s Best Dance Crew, So You Think You Can Dance and Jennifer Lopez’s new World of Dance that come out and highlight strong females are hopefully reaching out to a bigger audience and inspiring some of the younger girls to join in. It can get a little intimidating when you get to a practice, battle or jam and it’s all men. So, I have seen a shift in maybe not the generation just below me, but the one below that as the different hip-hop styles are being taught at studios more often, thus making it more accessible to people. This show in particular, a lot of the leads are strong females and hopefully that will inspire some of the younger girls to really jump in and not feel intimidated.
You joined the all-female dance crew The Beat Freaks in 2015. Is it empowering performing with a crew with such a strong following?
That has honestly been one of the highlights of my dance life. Before I even moved to L.A. I loved them and told my friends that I wanted to be a Beat Freak. So, when I got out there I first met Bonita Lovett at a battle and she took me to just start training and hanging out with the crew. They haven’t added anyone to their crew in five years, and they have only added three others since the formation of the crew. Knowing this fact, in the beginning I was just happy to be around them so, when they asked me to join them I was both surprised and excited.
How does the crew come up with its choreography?
When you are in a room with 10 women with a lot of dance background and a lot of creative opinions, the choreographic process is going to be a huge collaborative effort and it does take a while because you are trying many different things and hearing out everyone’s thoughts. With that said the level of respect for everyone is very high and everyone’s knowledge of dance is so high that you’re never going to get a bad opinion. It’s more like weeding through all the good ones and seeing what you can fit in a three-minute piece. The process is a lot of fun and even though it is more time consuming I feel like we end up with a product that is bigger and better than any one of us could have made.
<< This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.
<< And also check out Mark Lowry’s feature and interview with choreographer Jennifer Weber in the Star-Telegram