Why Tony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker Inspires Not Just The Audience But The Performers, Too

11/06/2017 04:09 pm ET
Peter Paradise Michaels
Peter Paradise Michaels
Peter Paradise Michaels
Peter Paradise Michaels
Peter Paradise Michaels

The most striking thing about Tony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker, which begins its 17th season in Boston’s Back Bay Events Center on December 15th, isn’t the fact that you’ve got a cast of hundreds of seasoned young dancers, professional and amateur together, and that they all know how to find their costumes and makeup, and get on and off stage exactly at the right moment.

It isn’t the fusion of Tchaikovsky, Duke Ellington, hip-hop, and other musical styles seamlessly blended together.

Nor is it the Boston landmarks in the unique set design—the Citgo sign and Fenway Park’s Green Monster, for example—that you won’t see in any other production of The Nutcracker anywhere on the planet.

And it’s not even the special production they do for children with autism or other sensory issues, performed without the sort of lighting effects and loud noises that would impede that audience’s enjoyment of the performance.

The most striking thing about Tony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker is that if it weren’t for Tony Williams, there is probably not a single kid in the production who would appear in a ballet program anywhere.

Williams, the son of an Italian mother and an African – American father; who met in war – torn Napoli during WWII - is a charter member of the Boston Ballet.

He started his own dance school, the Tony Williams Dance Center because he wanted to bring the benefits of dance to inner-city kids who otherwise might not have been exposed to it.

As a young man, Williams was a jock, but when he found ballet, he discovered that the lovely girls he met were far more enjoyable than the sweaty guys he encountered at the gym.

“It was an easy choice,” he laughs.

Thousands of inner-city Boston kids have studied dance at Williams’ school, located in a business and arts complex carved out of an old brewery -- the Sam Adams Brewing Company has its tourist center there -- in Jamaica Plain.

“There’s a place here for everyone,” Williams says. “Our kids are African American, Asian, white, born in the United States, born elsewhere, low-income, middle-income, no income.

“They learn the common language of dance, whether it’s ballet, hip-hop, or something in between.

“And they all come together on stage, performing for parents, family, and strangers.

“The experience transforms the audience, because they realize just how much these young people are capable of. And, of course, the experience transforms the dancers themselves. Many of them never knew they had it in them to perform at such a high level.”

This year, the Urban Nutcracker features Sean Fielder, founder of the Boston Tap Company and a renowned dancer who will perform in the Street Prologue and Tap City (which is Mother Ginger in the traditional Nutcracker).

Fielder performed in the Missy Elliott video “The Rain” and in Savion Glover’s “Bring in ‘Da Noise Bring in ‘Da Funk.”

Audiences will also witness a “battle” in this year’s edition between soldier female dancers on point and rats doing hip-hop.

The Tony Williams Urban Nutcracker has become a staple in Boston during the holiday season because it provides the opportunity for audience members of all races and ethnicities “to see people who look like them on stage,” Williams says.

“If you go backstage during the performances, it looks like a traffic jam. But all the kids know their roles and their entrances. I don’t know how we get the trains running on time, but we do.

“How often can you come to a show that’s transformative, not just for the audience but for the performers? That’s what the Urban Nutcracker is all about.”

Performances begin Friday, December 15 in Boston’s Back Bay Events Center. For further information, www.urbannutcracker.com.

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