Pop-culture 'Nutcracker' for the New Year: San Diego's Culture Shock dance troupe to perform theatrical, hip-hop version of holiday classic

It's about a half-century since hip-hop, a fusion of Caribbean rhythms and inner-city New York attitude, began showing off its beats, rhymes and moves in the streets of the South Bronx. The dancers were young, male, low-rent, high-energy and nonwhite.

Who'd have thought the craze would be so long-lasting, and that one of the people responsible for spreading its culture would be a not-so-young white woman in San Diego, a former jazz dancer who started a hip-hop dance training center here so she could learn along with her students.

In 1993, Angie Bunch founded the Culture Shock Dance Center, which has since morphed into an international nonprofit, with classes and performance companies around the U.S. and Canada. These days, her baby is the "Culture Shock Nutcracker," a "pop culture theatrical" that takes the traditional holiday favorite beyond anything Tchaikovsky might have dreamed of.

The fifth annual production, coming to the Spreckels Theatre in downtown San Diego Jan. 5-7, 2018 promises to be more theatrical than ever, with more than 100 dancers performing not only hip-hop but other dance styles, too, and adding bits of "Beauty and the Beast," "Star Wars" and David Bowie to the mix.

Another new addition is Amanda Morrow, an actor with New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad who was brought in to juice up the dancers' acting skills. Born and raised in Detroit, and part of its hip-hop scene in the 1990s, Morrow is best known to La Jollans as co-owner of the Pannikin café on Girard. The Pannikin gave Morrow her first job when she moved here in 2007, the same year she danced with Afta Shock, Culture Shock's performing troupe for aging hip-hopsters over 25.

In a recent interview, the two women talked about the Nutcracker and their own hip-hop histories.

"I took a little jazz dancing when I was young, and I started watching MTV," Morrow said. "I'd watch Janet Jackson, practice her moves, and then my friend and I would compete in the dance competitions they had in Detroit, in the under-18 clubs, that were like regular clubs, but alcohol-free."

"I started break-dancing in my 40s," Bunch said. "I'm not dancing anymore, but in my next life, I'm coming back as a B-Girl."

A hip-hop Nutcracker was something she'd been thinking about for years.

"With all the dancers and age groups we had, I thought it would be great, but none of them even knew what the 'Nutcracker' was," she said. "I had a friend who was a sound engineer, and we managed to get a grant from the Irvine Foundation, but we were in the middle of preparing our 20th Anniversary Choreographers Showcase then, so the Nutcracker was postponed."

I'd seen their 10th Anniversary Showcase in 2009, a huge event that filled the 1500 seats at Escondido's California Center for the Arts, with hip-hop troupes from around the world performing. It was, as they say, awesome.

But Bunch had no experience with ballet, so before taking on the "Nutcracker," she spent hours with Javier Velasco, Artistic Director of San Diego Ballet. "He talked me through it, scene by scene," she said. "Then I was ready to start."

Both women called this year's five-person production team a Dream Team. "We have so many ideas and so much respect for each other," Morrow said. "The dancers are mostly teenagers, but they're very professional, and working with them on acting has been easy. It's a blessing to assist them in becoming the movement, the music and the characters. I get to see their talent flourish before my eyes."

The 100-plus dancers range in age from 6 to 65, and they're not all from local Culture Shock troupes. There were open auditions, and about 25 of those chosen were from Los Angeles, with a number of others coming from Tijuana.

"We're pretty diverse in terms of ethnicity, styles and ages, and every year, the show is different," Bunch said. "This time, because of Amanda, we have a storyline. We're not just a dance concert, we're storytellers too. Our 'Nutcracker' will be amazing."

IF YOU GO: "A Culture Shock Nutcracker" will be perfomed 7 p.m. Jan. 5, 2018; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Jan. 6; and 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Jan. 7 at Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown San Diego. Tickets: $20-$45. cultureshockdance.org

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