‘Magic Is Important’: Debbie Allen on Bringing Her ‘Hot Chocolate Nutcracker’ to Netflix

A documentary goes behind the scenes of the local dance legend’s take on the classic Christmas ballet, an L.A. tradition for more than a decade

The Nutcracker is a staple of Christmas entertainment. You’ve either been dragged to a performance or danced in a role as a kid, and you’ve definitely heard the familiar music at the mall or in commercials. Many live performances have been canceled because of the pandemic, but the Debbie Allen Dance Academy’s Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is keeping the holiday tradition alive thanks to Netflix’s new Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, which looks at the choreographer-founder’s vision of the classic ballet and the history behind her L.A. school.

Among her many credits, the Tony-nominated and Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Allen has directed, produced, and acted in the long-running ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy, in addition to other Shonda Rhimes dramas. In 2016, Grey’s Anatomy director and director of photography Oliver Bokelberg, whose daughter attends DADA, began documenting rehearsals for Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, one of the academy’s biggest annual fundraisers. (It’s estimated that the ballet accounts for some 40 percent of dance companies’ annual revenues.) After more than two years of shooting, executive producer Rhimes, another DADA parent, saw potential for a film in the 100-plus hours of footage. The documentary captures Allen, her instructors, and nearly 200 dancers, from toddlers to adults, preparing for the yearly production.

First staged in 1892, The Nutcracker is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, with a score by Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa. You know the plot: A young girl named Clara (or Marie, depending on the ballet) gets a nutcracker for Christmas. The Nutcracker turns into a prince, who fights an army of mice. The two are then whisked away to the Land of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy and candies from other lands, including Russia, China, Spain and Arabia, entertain them. After George Balanchine adapted the show for the New York City Ballet in 1954, The Nutcracker became a fan hit—a ballet for people who don’t like ballet. Despite being a Russian import, the show is now synonymous with American Christmas.

Over the years there have been hundreds of interpretations of both the dance element and the score: jazz, klezmer, hip-hop, rock, heavy metal, even burlesque. Some stagings have had predominantly black or diverse casts, the most famous being Donald Byrd’s 1996 The Harlem Nutcracker, based on music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Mark Morris’s 1991 The Hard Nut included dancers in gender-swapped roles. And last year, for the first time, the NYC Ballet cast a biracial dancer to play young Marie.

Allen wanted to modernize the story, so she debuted Hot Chocolate Nutcracker in 2009 at UCLA’s Royce Hall. “I took my son, when he was four years old, and my daughter, to see a traditional Nutcracker,” remembers Allen. “In the middle of the show, he screamed out, ‘Mom! When is the rat coming? And I thought, ‘OK, these guys wanna see a rat, not a mouse king.’ So that gave me an idea. The rats in our show are like The Three Stooges. They‘re the narrators and they guide the journey. That’s what distinguishes us from anything else. It shows different ways of doing things. We added different lands.”

Oliver Bokelberg

In Allen’s retelling, Kara and the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker travel from the South Pole to both real and imagined places, where the dancers, most of whom are people of color, perform a mix of ballet, modern, jazz, tap, hip-hop, flamenco, and Bollywood dance. Allen works with several choreographers, including Savion Glover, and instead of Tchaikovsky’s score, she uses original compositions by Arturo Sandoval, James Ingram, and Thump (her son, Norm Nixon, Jr.), among others, as well as Mariah Carey’s ubiquitous “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Growing up in racially segregated Houston, Allen appeared in a church production of The Nutcracker, but never saw the actual ballet. “I loved the music,” Allen recalls. “I loved the idea of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I was always intrigued with her.”

After graduating from the Houston Ballet School, Allen became a Broadway, TV and film legend—she’s choreographed the Oscars ten times—though most fans know her as a director and as the taskmaster-dance teacher from the ‘80s TV performing arts drama Fame. “I knew what it was like for me as a young girl to have an opportunity in the arts,” says Allen. “Houston did a lot for me. There were a lot of challenges, but there was opportunity.” This year, she also choreographed and directed the Dolly Parton Netflix Christmas musical Christmas on the Square.

Her daughter, Vivian Nixon, attended the prestigious Kirov Ballet Academy, but found the rigor of Russian-style ballet constricting and alienating. Allen wanted to run her own school that would be all-embracing, so in 2000 she opened DADA, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. The academy accepts students of all shapes and sizes and awards scholarships to 75 percent of its dancers.

“The ballet world could be non-inclusive,” says Allen. “It’s not the world we’re living in now. We don’t have to just be one thing. In my Nutcracker, we have an Egyptian doll and we’ve had different dancers do that role. It isn’t about a body type.”

So why does Allen think The Nutcracker is such a perennial family favorite? “It’s magical and that’s what makes it special,” says Allen, who, along with the school’s other teachers, is currently leading virtual dance classes on Instagram Live. “It has a fairytale story that takes you to different places and people. Magic is important.”

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