For over thirty years, Debbie Allen has danced her way into our hearts. From the onset of her career, Allen has been a multi-hyphenate auteur who seamlessly works in front of and behind the camera as an actress, choreographer, director and producer. From “Fame” to “A Different World” “Girlfriends” and “Grey’s Anatomy”, the Howard University alumna and Houston, Texas native is as active and vivacious as ever. Regardless of her professional success and legendary stature, Allen is passionate about training and empowering the next generation of actors and choreographers through her Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA). With creative outlets like band, art classes and dance classes continuously becoming a lesser part of a school’s curriculum, Allen’s lavish passion project, “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” is not only an empowering musical family event, it’s also a way in which students receive an eye opening opportunity to be exposed to the arts. In an exclusive interview with the L.A. Sentinel, Allen shares the inspiration behind “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker”, as well as the all-star cast and celebrity donors that have helped to bring the production to fruition.
LAS: What differentiates “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” from other holiday productions?
Debbie Allen: We bring a fresh take on such a classic traditional holiday celebration. We’ve made it culturally vibrant and relevant to another generation of young people because it’s not just ballet, it’s hip-hop, there’s contemporary [dance], there’s skating, there’s Cirque du Soleil technique, it’s got all of those elements that get people excited.
LAS: How involved are you in deciding what actors would bring this production to life?
DA: I cast everyone; I wrote and choreographed the production. I decided on the characters and I just called my friends and people that I loved to use their music and have them write something for us and that wasn’t a very difficult task. Arturo Sandoval and Chau-Giang are amongst the artists that scored the production. My son Norman Nixon Jr. also wrote quite a bit of the music. It’s a labor of love, Ricky Minor has been working on everything DADA. This year is going to be very special, we have Tichina Arnold returning as the mother and Matthew Johnson as the father. And the rats…I’m back again! I said last year was going to be the last year but I’m not getting out of it so easily.
LAS: So do you direct yourself in “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker”?
DA: Of Course.
LAS: As an actress on “Grey’s Anatomy”, with your brevity of experience how do you also take direction?
DA: I wear a couple of different hats on “Grey’s Anatomy”, I’m the executive producing director which is a position that requires me to hire the directors and indoctrinate them into the ideal of what we’re looking for on our show; to spark them and inspire them to bring the creative new ideas of things we haven’t done yet. As an actress, I take direction. One of my favorite French directors recently said, ‘Debbie, what are you doing? I don’t believe it!’ and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it again.” I like acting; it’s a whole other ball game.
LAS: You’ve previously shared that early on in your career there were times where you were overlooked for directing opportunities because you were a woman of color. How does someone not only walk in their purpose when they’re constantly being denied work opportunities?
DA: You have to continue to believe in yourself, know your value and continue to work on honing your skills. I was rejected by everyone but here I sit. So you have to stay in the game, you can’t just fall apart. Hopefully those challenges will make you stronger, it did for me. I grew up with the racial divide in Texas where we couldn’t go to the movie theatre because we were black, we couldn’t go to restaurants, a lot of people have gone through a lot of pain and even died so that we could vote, these things weren’t given we had to go and take it. Change was created by diverse group of people who were of every religious background and ethnicity.
LAS: As a producer, you spent 18 years in the pursuit of bringing the film “Amistad,” directed by Steven Spielberg, to fruition. Are there any projects that you’re equally as passionate about?
DA: I’m working on “Freeze Frame Stop The Madness” which is a piece that gives a face and a voice to our young people in the inner city and their struggles with gangs, the police, bullying, self-worth and how the arts can uplift their lives. We just played to a standing room only crowd at The Kennedy Center. Now we’re trying to raise money to take this production to at least a 10-cities tour to get started. Because it’s a work that will bring people together, help people talk to one another and help find solutions to problems that we’re facing everyday.
LAS: What’s something profound that someone shared with you that helped to empower you throughout your career?
DA: My mother Vivian Ayers always instilled within her children that our opinions, our thoughts and our ideas about what was possible was important. My mother made me feel that I was important as a thinker at four-years-old. And I instill that within my students everyday. I ask them, ‘What are you dancing about? What in the world makes you laugh and makes you cry? What do you care about? What’s happening in the world right now that’s going to affect you that you can make a ballet about or that inspires you to write a song or a play or get politically active?’ Because anyone with a cell phone is an activist.
LAS: What was the inspiration behind “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” and what makes this production such necessary viewing for people of color, especially a younger generation?
DA: We have to show that what we do is relevant to the world. I’m hoping all of our community will come out because what’s most exciting is for the young people to see themselves through the eyes of their peers on stage.
I chose this story because the Nutcracker is a holiday tradition. While it was a Russian artist that originally created the music, Tchaikovsky scored it, but it was here in America that the Nutcracker became this world wide family phenomenon many years ago through George Balanchine. He realized that a Christmas show would help his company stay alive.
I reinvented [The Nutcracker] based on my son. When he was little, I took him to see The Nutcracker downtown and he was 6-years-old and he was bored to death. He screamed out loud in the middle of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, ‘Mom, when is the rat coming out?’ The boys want to see the rats so I’m giving them “The Real Rat Pack” who are a group of mice that take over the story and change it.
LAS: How did you decide to have only two show dates, on December 16th and 17th at the Dorothy Chandler theatre?
DA: The venue sits 3,000 people! That’s a big audience. We have a school show and three public performances so hopefully a total of twelve thousand people will see it. The school show is sold out. We were subsidized by Ms. Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation and the Berry Gordy & The Gordy Foundation. Shonda Rhimes has also been a very generous supporter. Denzel & Pauletta Washington, Will & Jada Pinkett Smith as well as the AIDS Health Foundation underwrote the school shows which is a big deal because it’s about the kids; It’s about them getting to see themselves on stage. We just hope that the community will be in attendance for the other shows and fill up those seats!
For tickets to one of the three showings of “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” on Dec.16 at 7:30 P.M. or Dec. 17 at 1:00 P.M. & 7:00 P.M. visit: thehotchocolatenutcracker.com