In 2001, Tony Williams, the first biracial member of Boston Ballet back in the 1960s, noticed he had 20 boys among the 100 kids he was teaching in his ballet school. What could he do with them? How could he get them on stage?
His answer: An Urban Nutcracker incorporating Duke Ellington's music, along with hip-hop, tap, and other musical forms not typically associated with the Christmas ballet tradition. Williams' Urban Nutcracker, now going into its 16th season in Boston, got its start in the fall of 2001, which is much better remembered for 911 than for anything else.
"We had a choice," Williams recalls. "We could either give up because of 9/11, or we could forge ahead. And we forged ahead."
The initial performances took place at the Strand Theater in Dorchester, attracting 4,000 people with virtually no advertising. "We got a spread in The Globe," Williams says. "They were saying, 'What is this Urban Nutcracker?' It was a big hit with the audience from the get-go. I remember going to the Strand Theater as a boy back in the 1950s. I saw saturday cartoons and movies there, so getting to come back there debut the Urban Nutcracker was special."
Over the years, the Urban Nutcracker has grown in terms of audience, number of performances (this year, there are 13), and budget. "The first year, we didn't really have the money to do full sets for act 1," Williams says. "We had a backdrop for act 2, and we had a little, happy, flat Christmas tree."
This year's Urban Nutcracker not only has the costumes, set design, and professionalism you would expect, but it also has appeal to audiences beyond the African American community which initially supported it.
There is a sensory-friendly version of the show for families with members on the autism spectrum. This version has special lighting and other characteristics which make it appropriate for people on the autism spectrum.
"We wanted to make sure that all communities in Boston could see themselves on our stage," Williams says, "or be able to see our production. After our autism-friendly show, we see such excitement in the eyes of the kids in the audience. They see that dance is so powerful and healing, and also for folks who are not on the spectrum. It's wonderful to see how happy those kids are."
Boston's Urban Nutcracker also offers an LGBT-friendly, non-traditional evening as well.
"It was just our way to make it more of a tribute to the city of Boston," Williams says.
"I have many friends in the LGBT community in my ballet school. I thought it would be nice to take our hats off to those folks I've known my whole career and honor dancers from the gay community."
Not to give too much away, but the fun aunt in the party scene is performed by a drag queen. The Arabian dance scene consists of two males instead of a man and a woman. "It's a delicate dance, and it would have been taboo years ago," Williams says. "It's super-athletic and very masculine, but still, it's two men dancing together."
At the LGBT version, you'll also see a man en pointe doing the sugar plum dance, in full sugar plum tutu and headpiece. "People were really shocked to see a man en pointe," Williams laughs. "It's not something that's really done here. There's also a beautiful piece about some lovely same-sex lesbian mothers, but I won't give away the secret to our ending. You'll have to see the show for that."
Williams says that his overall desire for the Urban Nutcracker is to transcend race. "People think of it and say, 'it's a black show,' or 'it's not a white show.' It's not a black show. It's not a white show. It's a fully multicultural show inclusive of all races, all ethnicities, all religions, straight, and gay.
"At the same time, some people are under the impression that it's a community show or an amateur show. They're surprised when they come to find that it's so professional. Having 15 years under our belt is a testament to the artistic integrity and professional presentation of dance through the show."
In short, it's a Nutcracker for the whole family, whether your family is white, black, gay, straight, on the autism spectrum, or not.
What's not to like?
For further information: UrbanNutcracker.com; from 12/16 to 12/31 in Boston.