Urban Nutcracker gives a Houston twist to classic ballet, features dancers of color


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In the land of blue hats, beautiful brunette girls wearing tights and toe-shaped shoes that match their complexion appear to be taking off during a recent rehearsal of “Houston’s Urban Nutcracker”.

They leap in the air and spin around the ground effortlessly. Their bright smiles capture the joy of the holidays.

With nearly 100 dancers reflecting the city’s cultural diversity, “Houston’s Urban Nutcracker” is a rich, modern delight, based on traditional holiday ballet. Yet everything revolves around Houston.

Where traditional “The Nutcracker” star Clara travels with the Nutcracker Prince to Snow Land and Candy Land, this production has Claire, danced by black and Latin ballerinas, traveling to the neighborhoods of Houston. – Magnolia Park, southwest Houston, Gandhi District, Chinatown, Uptown / Galleria, Medical Center, Montrose, Downtown, and Third Ward – to find out what makes this city so special.

The Bluebonnet Dancers and Queen Bluebonnet, of course, are a nod to the Texas state flower.

“Houston’s Urban Nutcracker” is the vision of dancer Traci Greene, founder of the Culture Arts Initiative, a non-profit organization aimed at helping dancers of color with training expenses, opportunities and exposure. Profits from production are donated to scholarships.

“We have dancers who get scholarships for the American Ballet Theater or the Rockettes. We also have dancers who audition for intensive summer dance camps, but they don’t have the money, ”she said. “We want to feed these dancers because a lot of them are trapped by the circumstances.”

Greene, originally from Chicago, is a classically trained ballet dancer who has worked professionally in New York and Los Angeles and has performed around the world. She starred in the Los Angeles production of “The Chocolate Nutcracker,” which also starred a young Misty Copeland and Debbie Allen, originally from Houston.

In 2005, Greene moved to Houston, married his classmate Adraon Greene, and worked as a dance teacher at several elementary schools in Houston before opening his own studio, Houston Dance Lab. She closed it in January after 10 years to devote her time to her non-profit organization.

“It nourishes me spiritually,” she said. “We provide the funding, mentorship and support that these dancers need. “

Greene had the idea for the “Urban Nutcracker” six years before it hit the stage in 2018 at the Hobby Center, where it sold out in 72 hours. I attended this show, accompanied by 20 girls from Hype Freedom School, a program that supports and empowers children in disadvantaged communities. We sat on the edge of our seats, mesmerized by the performances of the dancers, the music and the vibrant energy on stage.

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There was such wonder in the eyes of the girls. It was the first time they had seen ballerinas that looked like them.

The “Urban Nutcracker” was presented again in 2019, but last year’s one was canceled due to the pandemic. On December 3 and 4, “Houston’s Urban Nutcracker” will be presented at the Stafford Center. The show is already sold out, but Greene is working on adding another performance.

Many of its dancers are school-aged children; the youngest is only 6 years old. The rehearsals, which began in September, therefore took place on weekends at the Houston Metropolitan Dance Center and the Vitacca Vocational School of Dance.

Kendall Moshay, 14, a student at Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts, and Camila Saloman, 15, who attends Taylor High School in Katy, both play the roles of Claire.

The performance is revealing for the dancers, as well as for the audience.

“I like watching the other scenes,” Moshay said. “There are so many things I didn’t know about Houston”

Then there are veterans, like Aubri Jones, 10, a fourth grader, who has been in production since 2018.

“I love the ‘Urban Nutcracker’,” she said. “It teaches me my culture and I can express myself. “

The Nutcracker Prince is played by Dontré Nguyen, 26, a classically trained ballet dancer and fitness trainer who recently moved to Houston from Southern California. Nguyen has worked as a freelance dancer and has performed with the Dance Theater of Harlem and the California Ballet.

“There is such a spirit of inclusiveness in this ‘Nutcracker’,” he said. “This is not the traditional production, they are all dancers of color. He truly is a Houston Nutcracker.

“I am on stage with a majority of children, and each of them has deserved its place. I think it shows dancers of color that they can make a living if they work. To be here you need to have a certain level of dedication. “

The show also includes performances from local dance companies including Compañia Folklorica Alegria Mexicana for the Magnolia Park stage, Naach Houston Bollywood Dance (Gandhi District), Oriental Arts Education Center (Chinatown), Lee’s Golden Dragon Lion (Chinatown) Xtreme Level Dance & Fitness Studio (Third Ward), Dance Force Productions and The Movement Xperience for the party scene and KoumanKele African Dance & Drum Ensemble represent Southwest / Afro Houston.

“I wanted to collaborate with these dance companies because I had admired a lot of them,” said Greene. “I always thought that if I could support their work, I would. I feel a huge responsibility to make the cultures of Houston look authentic and something to be proud of. “

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker was first performed in Russia in 1892. In the United States, it made its debut in 1944, presented by the San Francisco Ballet.

In 2006, I was in the audience when Lauren Anderson gave her last performance for the Houston Ballet as “The Nutcracker” Sugar Plum Fairy, a role she had played for over 20 years. Anderson, who began taking ballet lessons at age 7, was the company’s first black principal ballerina. She appears in Misty Copeland’s new book, “Black Ballerinas: My Journey, Our Legacy” (Simon & Schuster, $ 19.99). Copeland is the American Ballet’s first black principal dancer.

Greene said Anderson had generously worked with her, directing dancers to help them prepare for the “Urban Nutcracker” performance.

At the MET, two hours after the rehearsal begins, the youngest dancers are bursting with energy and talking a lot – after all, they are children. Greene claps his hands to indicate it’s time to get down to business.

“I look you in the eye and I show you respect. I expect respect in return, ”said Greene, in a gentle but straightforward manner. It didn’t take long for the little ones to get into position.

“There are so many hidden talents,” she said. “I was used as a vehicle to make this happen. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed. It is joyful and tearful.

And it all takes place in Houston, the enchanting land of the Bluebonnets.

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