Flipping the Script With Jennifer Weber

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Classical music and hip hop might seem like two different worlds to most people, but Jennifer Weber specializes in unusual combinations. She’s the prolific choreographer and director behind one of New York City’s most unusual holiday happeningsThe Hip Hop Nutcracker. This reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s classic features break dancing, a DJ, a hip-hop pioneer (Kurtis Blow), and electric violin interludes—along with the full classical score. As part of this year’s tour, the show take place at the United Palace of Cultural Arts in Washington Heights on December 14, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on December 15, and Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre on December 16.

hip hop nutcracker

But Weber is busy all year long. In addition to The Hip Hop Nutcracker, she also choreographs Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience at (Le) Poisson Rouge; the immersive and satirical KPOP at Ars Nova; and the regular performances of Decadancetheatre, the Brooklyn-based hip-hop dance company she founded.

We sat down with Weber to chat about the challenges of remixing a classic ballet, how she became a choreographer, and her favorite NYC haunts—including the yogurt shop she can’t get enough of.

What Should We Do?!: Let’s start with The Hip Hop Nutcracker; how did the show come about? Jennifer Weber: We do a lot of work mixing hip-hop dance with classical music at Decadance. And at one point, someone asked me a question about how to make hip hop vulnerable, because it’s so strong and powerful. How can you show a different side of it? One of the answers I came up with was to dance to music that doesn’t have a predictably hip-hop beat. Then I was approached by United Palace to create a new holiday show.

WSWD: Was it hard to let go of canonical ideas from traditional versions of The Nutcracker? Weber: Not really…because I had never seen The Nutcracker! I knew almost nothing about it, other than that it had mice and soldiers and such. I was interested in ballets as classical texts. I had worked on a reimagining of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Decadance vs. The Firebird, which was actually my big break—but I wasn’t a balletgoer. So I got recordings of the ballet and started researching. It was crucial for me to know the lineage of the piece.

hip hop nutcracker

WSWD: Does the show appeal to people who love the traditional ballet version? Weber: Yes, I think so. Hip hop is based on sampling. So we’ve sampled many aspects of the original, with love. We stay true to the piece’s spirit and intention, as well as the music and the characters. We take it very seriously. At its core, it’s still a holiday show about love, community, and the magical power of dance.

WSWD: What’s the best response you’ve ever gotten from an audience? Weber: We took the show to Moscow two years ago. It was incredible to take The Nutcracker back to Russia, Tchaikovsky’s homeland, and do this incredibly American, contemporary version. We were so worried, wondering if they would like it. And they loved it!

WSWD: Do you feel like it’s important to reinterpret classical ballets for a new, younger generation? Weber: To me, it’s not like we should reimagine this thing, because it’s famous. What I think is powerful is bringing together two worlds—classical music and hip hop—that people don’t necessarily think go together. That’s one of the magical things about art.

WSWD: Let’s talk about your other show happening right now: Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience. Does it matter if audience members have seen the movie? Weber: If you like the movie, you will love the show—the script is heavily based on the movie, and the screenwriter is one of the collaborators—but I think people will like the show even if they haven’t seen the film. It’s so fun and nostalgic, and sooo ’90s. The music is all the hits you love: The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl,” Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One,” TLC’s “No Scrubs.” There’s an entire boy band medley, featuring ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.” It’s very funny to see some of the iconic ’90s dance movements onstage many years later. Plus, it’s cabaret-style theater, so there are drinks!

WSWD: You majored in communications at the University of Pennsylvania—so, not the typical dance background. How did you come to be a choreographer? Weber: I danced when I was a kid, growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, and then I quit in high school. My dad and mom are from New York City and Long Island, respectively, and I had spent time in the city taking professional dance classes. I was ready to do my own choreography, but my teacher wouldn’t let me, so I quit. But when I got to Penn, I missed dancing. I auditioned for all the student dance companies and got rejected from all of them. So in a very teenage act of defiance, I started my own dance group called Strictly Funk. And being in Philadelphia, I got into the hip-hop scene there and started learning about its culture and history. All of that continued after graduation when I came to New York and founded Decadance.

WSWD: What neighborhood do you live in, and where in the city do you like to hang out? Weber: I live in Union Square, really just because it’s convenient. I lived in Brooklyn for 15 years previously; I’m still adjusting to Manhattan. I like hanging out downtown—SoHo, Chelsea, the East Village.

WSWD: And when you’re in those neighborhoods, where do you go for good eats and drinks? Weber: I am a total coffee snob; my favorite place is La Colombe on Lafayette Street. I get the black and tan: half draft latte and half pure black coffee. To me, it’s the essential coffee, and just the best thing in the universe. I also like Stumptown Coffee Roasters in the Ace Hotel, Third Rail Coffee on Sullivan Street, and you can never go wrong with Blue Bottle Coffee.

hip hop nutcracker

WSWD: If we planned your perfect day in the city, what would it include? Weber: Obviously, it would start at La Colombe. You have to start with coffee. Then there would be walking in SoHo and shopping, for sure. Opening Ceremony is my current weakness. And Adidas, of course, because I’m hip hop at heart. I also love the Chobani store in Soho. It serves yogurt plain, with these awesome combinations of toppings, either sweet or savory. Maybe I’d head a bit further uptown to hit some vintage stores like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads. Then in the afternoon, I’d do something cultural, like see a play or visit a museum. But honestly, walking is my favorite thing to do in New York. You can walk forever and discover so many things—it’s magical.

RAPID ROUND! Jennifer Weber’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Favorite club for dancing? Funkbox at Cielo. It has the most amazing dance parties on Sunday night. It’s the classic spot where all the dancers go. All kinds of dancers—house, hip hop, underground, you name it. If you want to see people who perform in music videos, go there.

Favorite movie set in NYC? No surprise here…Cruel Intentions! I’m too embarrassed to admit how many times I have watched it, but at least I have a good excuse!

Favorite bar? I love rooftop bars, especially Le Bain.

Favorite place to relax? The High Line. Sometimes I call it my office. I’ll go with a cup of coffee and sit on the lounge chairs with my work. I write, think, listen to music and podcasts, and watch the people go by. It’s like my own New York City resort.

Live it up the Jennifer Weber way. Here’s how she prefers to spend her days.  [itinerary id=46308]