..in a rainforest, with bright green leaves from floor to ceiling, cicadas chirp and drums begin to beat. The dancers move as a herd, spiraling around the stage, while some dancers dressed as bright pink spotted tree frogs hop along the floor, their arms and legs intertwined to appear as two long frog legs. More dancers run in circles holding flowing fabric butterflies above their heads. Then, a dancer dressed as a lotus plant unfurls and ungulates her body in the middle of the stage…
While this is certainly a vibrant and magical scene...
…it isn’t the type of enchantment that typically comes to mind when thinking about the holiday classic, The Nutcracker. You won’t get white tutus and falling snow in a winter wonderland, the Land of Sweets and the whimsical Sugar Plum Fairy, and Tchaikovsky’s iconic score in this version. Famed entertainer Debbie Allen turns the holiday tradition on its head with her version, The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, takes viewers behind-the-scenes leading up to the yearly production, accompanied by interviews with Allen herself, her family, Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) instructors and choreographers, and students from the academy’s production.
DANCE DREAMS: HOT CHOCOLATE NUTCRACKER Is NOT Your Typical Nutcracker
While the storyline of The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker remains similar to the original, Allen provides new scenes and characters. Instead of traveling to The Land of the Sweets, main character Kara goes on a journey around the world, including visits to the rainforest full of exotic animals, Egypt, India, and to the magical Fairyland where she is greeted by the Fairy Queen.
While still integrating classical ballet with Kara dancing en pointe, the production also features Modern, jazz, hip-hop, Bollywood, and aerial dancing. We learn that the all boys hip-hop number, Candy Canes, is a crowd favorite and a coveted role among students at DADA with its fast paced footwork and hard hitting movements. As the story travels to India, Bollywood dance takes center stage. As one of the more difficult dances requiring very small and precise motions, we learn that this dance is usually reserved for the older and more experienced dancers at DADA. Standing in a tight pyramid formation, each slight flick or the wrist or turn of the head must be in complete unison, as if they are one dancer. "This dance is about women's power," Allen shares. You too will likely agree that The Fairy Queen's entrance to the stage cannot be missed! She flies in, soaring above the rest of the fairy ballerinas, her arms resting like wings in an aerial silk with the ripples in her baby blue skirt catching in the wind as she flies. Meanwhile, the music is soft and calming with the Fairy Queen gliding gently across the stage.
Instead of the traditional Tchaikovsky score, The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker utilizes music that matches the style of each dance, and each new land that Kara visits. The opening holiday party scene is danced to popular holiday tunes sung by professional singers on stage and the finale and bows are danced to Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You.
Allen’s Tough Love
We go behind the scenes, from auditions, to rehearsals to the opening night Along the way, Allen provides both kind-hearted guidance to her dancers as well as tough love. She isn’t afraid to scold the dancers or speak harshly when they arrive late to class or make a mistake in the choreography, but still ends each rehearsal by giving every dancer a hug and encouraging feedback as they leave the studio.
In interviews, Allen describes her journey as a young dancer in Texas with strict Russian teachers who used canes for discipline. She talks of the disappointment and pain of being told that she wasn’t good enough to be a professional and how she almost gave up dance for good. It was then that she transitioned out of the ballet world to Modern and Jazz Dance styles where she came into her own. Later for her performance in the acclaimed film Fame and more, she became the Emmy Award and Golden Globe winning entertainer that many know her as today. Allen created DADA to be a place where a dancer of any background or economic status could come.
While Allen provides a welcoming environment, she pushes her students to act professionally in the studio, teaching them lessons that she learned from her many years on stage and in the studio. It seems to work. Many of the students that come to DADA are on scholarships that allow them to train without paying tuition. The studio invests in these students and helps them aspire for their dreams. The documentary ends with stories of the students' endeavors after leaving DADA— some joining professional companies or university dance programs, while others explore career opportunities outside of dance, always remembering the experiences DADA provided them, like The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, where they were able to shine.
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is an especially nostalgic treat for any dancer, current or former, who remembers the intense desire to please a dance teacher, the exhaustion and excitement of a long day of rehearsals, or the rush of standing backstage before the curtain rises for the opening act of a performance. The quirky innovations Allen makes to the classic also invite an audience who may not resonate with the traditional classical ballet version of the Nutcracker to see the ballet in a new light. Allen is a maker of change in the dance world and this film also resonates with the dance lovers and teachers who strive for a better and more inclusive future for the young dancers of tomorrow.
Photos courtesy of Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.
DANCE DREAMS: HOT CHOCOLATE NUCTRACKER is available for streaming on Netflix on November 27. For more information or to watch the film visit the Netflix page for DANCE DREAMS: HOT CHOCOLATE NUTCRACKER
Read more dance reviews by dancers in the Picture This Post Round-Up, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”. Watch this video preview of the story here —
About the Author:
Hayley Ross is a writer, arts marketer, dancer, and fitness instructor in Chicago, IL. Originally from Ohio, Hayley has studied Ballet, Pointe, Modern, Jazz, Contemporary, and African dance and teaches Pilates and Barre fitness classes. She has previously worked for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Harris Theater for Music and Dance, American Dance Festival, OhioDance, and The Chautauqua Institution. She is currently the Advertising and Marketing Manager for the League of Chicago Theatres.