Hip-Hop Choreographer Laurie Ann Gibson Does Ballet, Battles Diddy

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Hip-hop dance auteur Laurie Ann Gibson made her name sculpting moves for everyone from Mary J. Blige to Hillary Duff and, later, training the newbies on P. Diddy’s Making the Band. Her latest project? Taking The Nutcracker into new terrain for this year’s rendition of the inspired, hip hop-inflected Nutcracker in the Lower, which kicks off its run at Abrons Arts Center this Saturday. Gibson talked to Vulture about clashing with Diddy, training klutzy pop stars, and the challenges of teaching ballet dancers to crump.

You and P. Diddy had a very public falling-out on Making the Band, in which he allegedly threw a chair at you because he thought you hadn’t done a good job. Do you think you’ll ever go back to the show?
I’m done dealing with him. The problem was definitely P. Diddy and working with his ego. It was really him that gave me trouble because he couldn’t really understand that at certain points [the process] was difficult and hostile. I mean, the girls were amazing and the boys were not the problem. They were hard workers, and the show was definitely edited at times. It’s debatable, but a lot of people know that’s what it takes as a dancer.

How did you first get involved with this new project?
Danny [Catanach, Urban Ballet Theater’s artistic director] is a good friend of mine, and I’m always looking for ways to inspire and remember what it was like to just be a dancer. When I first found out it was The Nutcracker, I was like, "You guys!" But when I realized that I was going to be doing the ghetto version I was like, "Okay, but I’m not going too far." I thought it was genius though. This is what we need to bridge, both culturally and dance-wise.

Did you come from a classical background, where you’d danced The Nutcracker before?
I am trained, and I did do The Nutcracker in its right form, but at the time, they told me I was black and I’d never be in Swan Lake. I went through all those prejudices in the ballet community, and I still emerged wonderfully trained and found my way to Alvin Ailey where there were familiar faces. I cut out my technique and was able to battle the best of them.

Did you see a lot of ballet as a kid?
I’m born originally in Toronto, and I have what I call it my Fame story. I took a Greyhound bus and went to Alvin Ailey and received Dunham, Horton, Graham technique there, but I could never take my eyes off of Balanchine doing Nutcracker; to me he’s the best who ever did it. I did a couple of seasons in the slave line at the City Center when they used schoolkids but then realized I didn’t want to do modern and hit the high road to dance with Mary J. Blige instead.

Tell me about the specific dance you made for Nutcracker in the Lower.
It’s fusion but definitely a little bit of crump. We pop and lock and just do hip-hop, which can be a number of things. We use the latest dances you can find in Harlem and the streets and fuse it with the story. I’m getting them to see hip-hop with a line and with meaning, and not as just random. And also make the rats crump and get loose!

Was it hard getting ballerinas to loosen up?
Everyone has the notion that hip-hop is messy and loose, but there’s also another level to it. Once you give [the dancers] the story from a technical point, they actually love it. There’s still a picture, a place where your center has to hold you up. As you break it down into technical terms, they love it; they can use their technique. but they have a freedom they don’t have with ballet. “Get loose” is the terminology.

Who’s the most graceful star you’ve ever worked with?
I love working with Alicia Keys, because it’s not just the ability to do the dance to me; I think it’s the ability to interpret it that excites me the most. And [young actor] Corbin Bleu is amazing, because he’s trained; I’m most excited about him in the future.

How about the least graceful?
Oh, my gosh. Everybody else. Hilary Duff. Is that mean? But hey, I can take a two-step and make it look like Balanchine. —Rebecca Milzoff