Oakland Dancers Present 'The Nutcracker' With an African Diaspora Twist

6 min
Dancers rehearse for a new production from The People's Conservatory called 'Kola: An Afro Diasporic Remix of The Nutcracker.' (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

A new production of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" called "KOLA: An Afro Diasporic Remix of the Nutcracker" is hitting the stage in Oakland this holiday season.

It’s a twist on the traditional ballet: There’s no nutcracker, there’s no mouse, and there’s no Clara either.

Brazil Clement dances as Ogun during a rehearsal at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019.
Brazil Clement dances as Ogun during a rehearsal at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Instead, 13-year-old dancer Amelinda Origunwa performs the lead role of Nzingha, who travels the African diaspora, learning different kinds of dance as the show unfolds.

“There’s Afro-Haitian, Afro-Cuban, all the different Orisha dances. There’s ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, break-dancing. And flamenco,” said Origunwa.

Samara Cole-Mercado dancing as Yemanja during a rehearsal at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019.
Samara Cole-Mercado dancing as Yemanja during a rehearsal at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

The California Report Magazine’s Sasha Khokha spoke with Rozz Nash, the founder and director of The People’s Conservatory, the dance company putting on the show.

RyanNicole Peters, co-writer, co-director and lead dramatist (left) sits with Rozz Nash, executive director of The People’s Conservatory, during a rehearsal at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland on Dec. 5, 2019.
RyanNicole Peters, co-writer, co-director and lead dramatist (left) sits with Rozz Nash, executive director of The People’s Conservatory, during a rehearsal at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland on Dec. 5, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Note: the quotes below have been edited for clarity.

On what makes this show different

Nash: Ours really tours the globe, and focuses on not only the dances and music from different cultures, but also some of their gods, spirits and practices. We work Orishas into our work from the Ife tradition. We’re also focusing on a different, innovative narrative we created, which is not like "The Nutcracker" at all.

Break dancers rehearse at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019.
Break dancers rehearse at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

On the plot

Nash: We still have a young girl who’s a protagonist. Nzingha is13, and she’s desperately looking for connection. She’s looking to find her roots and what it is about this world that is meant for her to explore. We take her on a  journey along the trans-Aatlantic slave trade from West Africa to Brazil to Cuba to Haiti to Spain, and we end up back in the continental U.S. All this is done through diasporic dances, music, movement and culture. We have an incredible creative team (including local artists Kev Choice, Jennifer Johns, and RyanNicole) that helped make it possible, so we jump from one culture to another through the music and story.

Dancers rehearse for a new production from The People's Conservatory called Kola: An Afro Diasporic Remix of The Nutcracker.
Dancers rehearse for a new production from The People's Conservatory called 'Kola: An Afro Diasporic Remix of The Nutcracker.' (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

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On The People’s Conservatory

Nash: The People’s Conservatory started about a year and half ago, but I’ve been working with these youth for five years at a school called Roses in Concrete, where I was the director of performing and visual arts. We basically created an integrated arts school. Now that we are in 10 schools, we’re able to provide services to many more people and young people, and some of our students have gone off to other places. It’s a way for us to still keep them in the fold, work with them and help them to develop their art.

James Davis, who dances Exu, break-dances with a group of snow angels during a rehearsal at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019.
James Davis, who dances Exu, break-dances with a group of snow angels during a rehearsal at Sullivan Community Space in Oakland on Dec. 8, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

On the history of Oakland and the history of slavery

Nash: We want to make sure that we’re meeting students where they are and creating content with them that has to do with the history of where they live, who they are, where they come from and their indigeneity. The show is about how slavery has affected how folks exist and navigate the world and how folks in Oakland are navigating the world because of what their lineage had to suffer. "How did you get here? How did your family get here? What are some of the revolutionary background that comes from a lot of our students' household and families?" We want to highlight that and not suppress that.