Arts & Culture: Stepping Up

by Anh-Minh Le

Stuck Sanders and Alee Martinez play the roles of the Nutcracker Prince and Clara in Hip-Hop Nutcracker, a show they created in 2016. | Photo courtesy of Lance Huntley

A creative couple links up with Peninsula Ballet Theatre to devise a hip-hop Nutcracker— and draw new audiences.

A little over five years ago, Isaac “Stuck” Sanders and Alee Martinez had never heard of The Nutcracker. Now the pair — partners in their professional and private lives — are busy preparing for the fifth run of their riff on the holiday favorite.

Sanders and Martinez are the artistic directors and choreographers of Peninsula Ballet Theatre’s Hip-Hop Nutcracker, which returns to the stage next month for two performances. While those familiar with the 129-year-old fairy tale ballet will recognize the storyline, Tchaikovsky’s score has been remixed and the dance elements completely revamped with a combination of choreographed and freestyle moves.

The couple’s introduction to The Nutcracker took place on a TV in their previous home in Mountain View. Martinez remembers it well: “We sat down and watched it and were getting bombarded with ideas” — from dancing to costumes to lighting. “We tried to think about, What do people like about this scene? How can we show ourselves but keep what you like about the original?” says Sanders. “I think that’s why people can relate to our Nutcracker.”

In their retooling, the Sugar Plum Fairy is played by Levi “iDummy” Allen, who appears in the Starz TV series Blindspotting. Sure, Allen is onstage in a pair of wings, but his movements are unlike any other Sugar Plum Fairy. “He’s a legendary turf dancer,” says Sanders, referencing a form of street dance that originated in Oakland. Although Allen doesn’t pirouette or plié, wearing sneakers, he does balance on his toes plenty — a common characteristic of turfing (others include flexing, gliding and contortioning). “He’s so light and graceful,” observes Sanders.

The contest between the toy soldiers and mice is an ideal opportunity to showcase freestyle dance. It is a dance battle that happens on the stage instead of the streets, with improvisations making each performance unique. “[Y]ou get to see it in a new way — the way we battle in our culture,” says Sanders. “All the theatrical stuff is still there, except you actually get a dance battle. At some point, we drop our swords, the beat drops and it’s just a whole ’nother world.”

Sanders and Martinez, both 30, have been dancers since their teen years in Sacramento and San Jose, respectively. As a kid, Sanders watched videos on TV to learn choreography, participated in street dance battles and won talent shows around town. At age 13, his mom put him in his first hip-hop class. A month later, he was performing during halftime at Sacramento Kings basketball games. Two years later, he started teaching dance.

Martinez grew up with parents who dance (mainly salsa) and her inaugural dance class was jazz. She was a member of the dance teams at her high school and a local church. At San José City College, she experimented with different genres, including ballet and modern. It was hip-hop, though, that became a passion.

Sanders and Martinez met in 2013, when they were part of the same dance company. Within a few years, they were teaching classes at San Mateo-based PBT. In the late summer of 2016, Christine Leslie, the organization’s president and executive director, approached them about updating scenes from The Nutcracker. The duo’s response: “What’s Nutcracker?” Soon, they were immersed in the two-act ballet.

“They came back and, bless their hearts, they had taken almost every song and added a hip-hop beat and done some choreography,” Leslie recalls. “I said, ‘You know what? You’ve practically done the entire Nutcracker!’”

Hip-Hop Nutcracker debuted that December and has sold out every year.

“If you want to keep anything alive and fresh, it has to grow,” says Leslie, noting that Sanders and Martinez’s works have “enabled us to reach an entirely new group and develop a new audience.” This hasn’t been lost on the couple. “To see the mix of people who come and watch — people from all races — and they all appreciate it, it’s the coolest thing,” says Martinez.

The success of their rendition of the holiday classic led to the launch of Hip-Hop Cinderella in 2017 and Hip-Hop Halloween in 2019. An all-new, original piece — a collaboration with fellow choreographer Vincent Hwang — is slated to bow in 2022. Funded in part by a San Mateo County Arts Commission grant for projects that use the arts as a medium for social change, the work is still in early development. “We want to do a show that speaks to our actual stories,” says Sanders. “At the same time, we want to create a show that allows people to unite; to use dance to show that we’re all equal, that we’re all in this together.”

Sanders and Martinez currently run two dance companies: Tribe, an adult crew of a dozen, and Poise’n Brigade, which has 17 youth dancers. Eventually, they’d like to open their own studio, with a focus on merging his freestyle street dancing with her choreo-centric background. “A lot of people who dance like me and where I come from, they don’t end up sharing it a lot because it’s more of a personal thing,” Sanders explains. “We don’t usually get a chance to dance onstage.”

In 2017, there was a particularly memorable surprise at the end of the final Hip-Hop Nutcracker performance. Following Sanders’ turn as the Nutcracker Prince, Martinez joined him onstage. As she was holding their infant daughter, Luna, he proposed. Since then, The Nutcracker has taken on even more significance for the young family.

“We really feel the love of what The Nutcracker can be to a family, as a tradition,” says Sanders. “We’re huge Nutcracker fans now. … It’s really cool that what we do is accepted in the ballet world.”

Thrice as Nice

In addition to Hip-Hop Nutcracker, Peninsula Ballet Theatre presents Artistic Director Gregory Amato’s Nutcracker and an abridged version, Nutcracker Sweet, for children ages 3 to 6 and their families.

Hip-Hop Nutcracker

Fox Theatre, Redwood City –  December 17 at 7 p.m.; December 18 at 2 p.m.

Nutcracker Fox Theatre

Redwood City – December 18 at 7 p.m.; December 19 at 2 p.m.

Nutcracker Sweet

Peninsula Ballet Theatre, San Mateo-  December 4, 5, 11 and 12; 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

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