Debbie Allen Reflects on Creating "Something Beautiful" Through Artistic Inclusivity
"Two, three, four, run, six seven, eight!"
In the opening scene of Netflix's documentary Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, legendary choreographer Debbie Allen claps and counts aloud as her young students dash across a stage during a crucial practice. The 70-year-old dance instructor is preparing to showcase her annual production of Hot Chocolate Nutcracker — a spin on the classic holiday tale The Nutcracker — and she expects nothing less than perfection.
"The most meaningful part of creating the production is the students' level of accomplishment every year. The growth of the students is everything."
The film, which dropped on Nov. 27, chronicles Allen's guidance from auditions to opening night, capturing the rigorous training that students at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) undertake ahead of the big show. It also explores Allen's illustrious career and impact on the dance industry, as well as her trainees' personal aspirations. But Allen and her DADA team didn't deliberately set out to make the project, which was filmed over the course of two years. Everything just came together, thanks to cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg.
"Oliver Bokelberg's daughter is one of my best students, and Oliver wanted to get pictures of her and capture everything," Allen told POPSUGAR. "He started shooting, and I told him, 'OK, just stay out of my way.' And he did, and then two years later, he had all this footage. It was true cinema vérité, which is when you get a fly-on-the-wall snapshot of something, like nobody knows that the camera is there."
After the documentary was near completion, producer Shonda Rhimes, who works with Allen on Grey's Anatomy, watched a rough cut and knew that she wanted it under the Shondaland banner. "She says, 'I'm going to shake this and turn this into what it needs to be,'" Allen said. "My working relationship with her was hands-off. I handed it to her, let her get it to where she wanted it to be, and that's what is going to air. She brought out a lot of truths that were right there in the footage and in our real lives. At the end, she said, 'I want you to see it and make sure you like it.' Of course, I loved it and was humbled by it. I was just thrilled with how she put it all together."
The film gives viewers in-depth insight into Allen's creative finesse and the tough love that she pours into her students. But, according to the dance instructor, it's all about the young performers who bring the show to life with captivating ballet numbers, hip-hop routines, and contemporary pieces. "The most meaningful part of creating the production is the students' level of accomplishment every year," Allen said. "The growth of the students is everything. Their sense of pride in what they do and how they are part of Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is everything."
"My mother, Vivian Ayers, calls herself the 'space age poet.' Because of her vision, creativity, and understanding of the mind, she's always raised me to be part of the universe — not a block, a city, or a state, but the universe."
It's no surprise that Allen's focus on shaping and uplifting her recruits is the driving force behind her work. After all, DADA was founded on the principles of inclusivity and encouragement. When Allen's daughter, Vivian, was a young adult, she started dancing at the Kirov Academy of Ballet. But the environment for a Black dancer proved to be noxious. During Vivian's third year at the school, a teacher told her that she'd never be a dancer and should instead attend The Ailey School — the dance company founded by trailblazing Black choreographer, the late Alvin Ailey. Allen instantly recognized the Kirov instructor's snub as racism, as if Ailey's school was automatically subordinate because it predominantly teaches Black students.
Knowing all too well that racism runs rampant in the dance business, the Christmas on the Square director started her own company in 2001. "I'm the kind of person that does. I don't talk, I do," Allen said. "So when it happened, it set everything in motion. It took me a matter of months to find the right location. We started in Culver City, and then it took another six to eight months for my husband, Norman Nixon, to get us a nonprofit status. By the time we had our first fundraiser, we were a nonprofit, and I hired the best teachers on the planet." Her academy, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, admits students based on an audition after they complete an application. Their socioeconomic circumstances and ability to pay for classes have no bearing on their acceptance.
Allen feels that starting her establishment was written in the stars. "I was poised to do it," she said. "I had done a dance initiative in Dallas, TX, for a few years in the summer. I'd done one in my house privately with about 12 students. I was being asked to teach at dance schools everywhere around the world because of Fame. I was always teaching dance whenever I choreographed. So, it was a natural, very honest thing for me to do, and Vivian was the motivation to make it happen."
"My students are everywhere, and their humanity will make the world better."
Emphasizing action over words and tapping into limitless power stems from Allen's belief that she's a "child of the universe" — a concept that she was taught at an early age. "My mother, Vivian Ayers, calls herself the 'space age poet,'" Allen said. "Because of her vision, creativity, and understanding of the mind, she's always raised me to be part of the universe — not a block, a city, or a state, but the universe." The notion emboldened Allen to excel in her talents and embrace her destiny. "My mother has always demanded that we find our paths and stay in the game. She instilled that in me, my sister, Phylicia Rashad, my brother Tex, and even my baby brother, Hughey," Allen added.
Allen has certainly taken the idea of forging widespread influence to heart. Because of her dance academy, students that she etched into masterful performers have gone on to star in countless productions around the world. Allen refers to her global reach by way of her mentees as the DADA Diaspora. "They've done Broadway, film, television, and they've started their own nonprofits and are training to be the next choreographers," Allen said. "My students are everywhere, and their humanity is what will make the world better." She went on to list some of the projects her apprentices have been in, including a production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the series Young Sheldon, Netflix's Tiny Pretty Things, and Broadway stagings such as Hamilton, The Prom, The Lion King, and Wicked.
"When you're a student of the arts, you're looking at the world through another lens. You're finding yourself, and that will translate into something beautiful."
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the performing arts in their traditional settings have halted for several months. But Allen hopes that dancers will remain optimistic for a better future. "This war against COVID is one that I believe we're going to win," she said. "And everyone will be back in the studio." For the time being, Allen is teaching virtual classes on Instagram, delivering the gift of dance to an even broader audience.
"Dance theater is something that will enrich your life and make the world better as you grow into it," she mused. "There's value in performing arts education. It will give you a sense of your creativity, your voice, your ability to lead and work in groups, your ability to help make the world a better place. When you're a student of the arts, you're looking at the world through another lens. You're finding yourself, and that will translate into something beautiful."
Thankfully, we have Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker to help us through this time of uncertainty. "It's always had huge value, but I think, right now, it will get even more attention — attention that it deserves," Allen said, speaking on the film's avail during a challenging social climate. "I think it will be embraced all over the world. We're in a war that everyone on the planet is a part of — our battle against COVID, the universal outcry for the end of the horrors in our criminal justice system. The world is rising up as one voice, so I think because of that, [Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker] will resonate even more."
As for upcoming ventures, Allen plans on turning her stage production FREEZE FRAME . . . Stop the Madness into a musical film. "This is my response to gun violence in America and the disenfranchisement of our Black and Latinx youth in the inner city," Allen said. "It's a wonderful, balanced portrayal, and it's something that would evoke a lot of thought in any community."