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‘a different dance language’
'Hip Hop Nutcracker' with Kurtis Blow performs in Richmond Dec. 26

Holidays are all about finding joy in long-held traditions.

“The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” however, both holds onto traditions and lets them go, one power move at a time.

It arrives in Richmond on Thursday at the Altria Theater. The high-energy show is in the midst of its fifth national tour, but it will be its first time in Richmond , said co-creator, director and choreographer Jennifer Weber by phone earlier this month from New York City. Weber and co-creator Mike Fitelson started working on the show about seven years ago, she said, when she was running a hip-hop dance studio.

While keeping Tchaikovsky’s beloved score and the general Nutcracker story line intact, Weber said the dynamics of the show were completely updated to reflect an urban environment with digital effects that turn 19th-century Germany into present-day New York City. Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker Prince visit the Land of Sweets and battle a gang of mice, all with moves that have been “translated” from ballet to hip-hop dancing, she said.

“You do get to hear all the music...[and] you get to see so many of the famous things,” she said, elements like the mice, Drosselmeyer, and the Russian dancers, “It’s just interpreted in a different dance language.”

A cast of 12 dancers is accompanied by Violinist Jarvis Benson, DJ Boo as performance DJ, and rap pioneer Kurtis Blow as special guest MC.

By phone, Blow, 60, said that a mutual friend of the show’s organizers introduced him to the production. He said he was a bit skeptical at first — “the hip-hop what?” — he recalled thinking, but immediately loved how modern beats and street dancing were melded with the classic score.

“It was incredible,” he said. “I was floored to see that — it was a whole new flavor. “

Blow opens the show — “I get everyone ready for the production,” he said — with his popular “Christmas Rappin’,” which debuted in late 1979. He follows that with a medley of “old-school hip-hop songs,” and ends the show with his 1980 song, “The Breaks,” which became the first rap song to earn the a Gold Award from the Recording Industry Association of America.

Weber said the all-ages show is both family-friendly and perfect for date nights.

“I’m constantly surprised by and most proud … to be able to see so many different people,” she said.

Blow echoed those thoughts, saying the show attracts both “the theater crowd and the hip-hop crowd.”

During the holiday season, “love is in the air,” he said. “People are really having a good time and everyone leaves with that spirit of love.”

He added: “We need that now more than ever.”

Making a Difference: Civic association president successfully fights for elementary magnet school; 'You want to work hard for Jerome and to be like Jerome.'

Amid a state investigation into cheating at his neighborhood’s elementary school, Jerome Legions needed to meet the new principal.

Richmond Public Schools had told the George W. Carver Elementary community in July 2018 that an interim principal would be installed as the National Blue Ribbon School fell under Virginia Department of Education scrutiny.

When Tiawana Giles arrived, Legions was the first to meet with her in her new capacity.

They convened inside the Leigh Street school in the historic neighborhood north of Broad Street and west of Jackson Ward that serves students living in Gilpin Court, the city’s largest public housing community.

Every Friday for months, Legions, Giles and a small group would meet for more than an hour to focus on improving the school.

“He is the most visible, passionate and focused community leader I have ever seen,” Giles said of Legions. “He believes in his community, he knows his community, and he advocates for his community, the city of Richmond and RPS.”

The advocacy is exactly what Legions envisioned before he was elected president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League in 2016, when he would walk his dogs, Kozmo and Bella, through his neighborhood of more than 20 years; an area mostly populated by students at Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Union (his alma mater) universities.

“There are things that can happen here,” he thought then and still thinks now.

Legions, 65, is working to actualize his vision of a thriving neighborhood — with a magnet elementary school and tree-lined streets. That starts with the elementary school.

The state investigation ultimately found that Carver Elementary’s high student achievement was inflated by cheating, a scandal that involved a handful of teachers and administrators. At the school last school year, the first since the cheating was discovered, just 1 in 5 students pass the state’s science tests, and 1 in 3 passed in reading. Fewer than 1 in 4 passed in history, and about 1 in 3 passed in math.

Legions, in the days after the July 2018 release of the state report, advocated for more resources for the school. He called on the city — not just the Carver neighborhood — to rally behind the school.

A proposal eventually shot down by the Richmond School Board had the Carver Elementary school zone merged with the zone of the predominantly white Mary Munford Elementary. While some supported the idea, many, including Legions, opposed it.

Instead, Legions thought, why not put more resources — better facilities and curriculum, for example — into Carver, the second-lowest performing elementary school in the city, and make it a magnet school focused on the arts and sciences like the Philadelphia high school he graduated from?

Legions’ idea, shared widely on social media and at the school system’s roughly 60 community meetings, was embraced by West End families who also opposed pairing schools.

“He advocates for what is best for everyone, not just his neighborhood. At the same time, he bridges the gap between neighborhoods effortlessly while inspiring people around him to do more to help,” said Nicole Thompson, an Albert Hill Middle School parent. “Jerome is a bridge-builder, not just a neighborhood advocate. He brings people together, instead of widening the gap.”

After months of relentless advocacy, the School Board approved Dec. 2 the creation of a Carver magnet school.

“Everyone wants to see schools thrive,” Legions said.

Matt Nilson, a Munford parent opposed to school pairing, said getting to know Legions through the rezoning process inspired him to “do more for Richmond and its schools.”

“He sets an example of hard work, passion and determination to make this city the best it can be,” Nilson said. “You want to work hard for Jerome and to be like Jerome.”

The rezoning effort has been Legions’ largest task as civic association president, but not his only one.

Addressing another issue he encountered on his daily walks, Legions led a partnership with VCU to plant more than 60 trees in the neighborhood last year.

The trees, Legions hopes, will grow along with the neighborhood they were planted in.

“It’s on the rise,” he said of Carver.

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Richmond City Council to pay Chicago-based consultant $215,000 for Navy Hill proposal review

Another set of eyes to review the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan will cost the Richmond City Council $215,000, according to a contract with a Chicago-based consultant the council officially retained last week.

The sum is $25,000 more than the council originally indicated it would spend on a consulting firm to vet the proposal that would replace the Richmond Coliseum and redevelop 21 acres of publicly owned downtown real estate. Some council members said they learned of the higher price tag only after the contract was executed on Dec. 16.

“I’m just not sure it’s a good use of the taxpayer’s dollars,” said Kristen Larson, the 4th District councilwoman.

Hiring the firm, C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc., was already a point of contention on the council. Earlier this month, Larson and three other council members tried to block the hire. They cited a link between the C.H. Johnson Consulting and a consultant that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration previously hired, Hunden Strategic Partners.

The founder of Hunden Strategic Partners worked for C.H. Johnson Consulting from December 2000 to February 2006. Larson and opponents of the hire said they viewed the link as a conflict of interest and questioned whether C.H. Johnson Consulting would provide an impartial analysis if hired.

Despite the objections, a majority of the council voted to solidify the choice.

The firm was one of two that responded to the council’s solicitation, issued in late September and closed three weeks later, in mid-October. The other was the Robert Bobb Group, a consulting firm headed by former Richmond city manager, Robert Bobb.

The Bobb Group stated it would take four to six months to review the plans as required by the council’s RFP, according to its bid, which the Department of Procurement Services provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. It proposed a price tag of $750,000 to do so in that time frame, or $250,000 for a 60-day, truncated study.

C.H. Johnson Consulting initially estimated a review of the project would cost $250,000, but winnowed the sum down to $215,000 after conferring with the procurement selection panel.

A draft timeline sent to council members by City Council Chief of Staff Lawrence R. Anderson shows a deadline of Feb. 10 for the firm to present its findings. That would be two weeks before a final vote on the project, scheduled for Feb. 24, according to the timeline.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration spent 18 months reviewing and negotiating terms of the project with NH District Corp., the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II.

Stoney released the plans in August. Since then, a citizen commission the council appointed reviewed the project. This week, the commission warned the proposal poses a risk to the city’s funding for core services and schools.

The plans call for: a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum; more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

Virginia lawmakers will again push to ban use of phones while driving

Saying distracted driving is an epidemic that is leading to preventable deaths, advocates for a ban on using cellphones while driving in Virginia will make a push for legislation again next year.

Lawmakers supporting the effort say changes in the makeup of the General Assembly mean the bill has a good chance of passage.

“I think we’ll get it done on a bipartisan basis,” Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said at a news conference Monday in Alexandria that was broadcast on Facebook by the safety group DriveSmart Virginia.

Current Virginia law forbids entering text or numbers on a phone while driving. But the law is virtually useless, Surovell said, because it’s impossible for police to prove someone violated it. And the law allows someone to scroll Facebook or play video games on a phone while driving, he said.

Highway safety advocates say the best next step toward reducing distracted driving is to end handheld phone use by drivers.

“It’s really an epidemic that we need to solve, and I’m hoping this session we will do it,” Surovell said. The General Assembly convenes Jan. 8.

Surovell was joined at the news conference by police and other safety advocates. They said Virginia is behind other states; the District of Columbia and 21 states ban use of handheld devices while driving.

Surovell said he began focusing on the issue in 2011 when a family came to him after their 18-year-old son was killed by a driver who had been texting up until the collision.

A bill to ban use of handheld phones while driving has passed both chambers of the legislature but died in conference committee.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam tried to revive the bill by amending legislation by Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, that banned use of handheld phones in construction zones. When lawmakers reconvened in April, the amendment passed the Senate but died in the House, where it was opposed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.

Helping make the case for the bill at the news conference was Mindy Schulz, whose baby son, Tristan Schulz, was killed in 2016 by a motorist as his mother was pushing him in a stroller in a crosswalk in Loudoun County. John F. Miller IV, a golf instructor, was convicted of two misdemeanor charges.

Shulz described the anguish of learning her son, 5½ months old, was dead, and seeing his body with her grieving husband.

“The moment I knew my son was dead was the moment I felt my soul physically rip apart,” she said. “My heart has been in a tortured state, a visceral longing, searching for him ever since.”