Acclaimed choreographer Tony Williams talks innovative rock ballad, ‘Life: In Color’

David Bowie, Prince, and the Rolling Stones are just a few of the innovative artists that made a profound impact on rock and roll.  Paying tribute to some of the biggest rock and roll talent through ballet, Tony Williams Ballet Company presents rock ballad, Life: In Color, which explores memorable music over the past 60 years on Thursday, May 25 and Thursday, May 26.  Performances will be held at the Oberon Theatre, conveniently located in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Tony Williams, acclaimed choreographer and creator of the Tony Williams Ballet Company, talks about his love for dance, nearly meeting David Bowie, and how Life: In Color was born.

Life in Color Tony Williams

Tony Williams Photo courtesy of the Tony Williams Dance Center

Sleeplesscritic:  You are behind the annual Urban Nutcracker, now in its 17th year.  What do you think it is about the Urban Nutcracker that has appealed to audiences for so long?

Tony Williams:  It’s a show about Boston for an audience that wants to see themselves represented onstage.  Our mission is diversity through dance, and there aren’t many shows where an 8 year-old African-American boy can see himself reflected onstage amongst a cast that truly reflects Boston’s multi-cultural community.  While it’s a take on the modern tale of the Nutcracker, it has heart, soul, and a more modern driving force.  We add something new each year.  Whether it’s our LGBT celebration show, a sensory-friendly show for those with autism, or even a selfie stick for our onstage party photo, there is always something fun and unique.  This year we have exciting plans and I can’t wait to share the growth of our Urban Nutcracker show, but we have to keep some elements of surprise.

SC:  What inspired you to become a dancer?  Was there a particular moment where you realized that dance is what you were meant for?

TW:  I was a real jock playing baseball and doing gymnastics.  I never thought about dancing until I was 16 and was always fascinated with classical music. One day I saw a ballet performance at the gym where I worked out and was totally mesmerized by the purple color in the costumes.  Around the same time at the gym, some of the gymnasts said how Russian gymnasts took ballet to improve their skill. I went with one of the gymnasts to the Boston Ballet School and watched him in class. I soon took a class and was hooked, but I stopped after one class because someone said ballet is not for boys. Then, by good fortune, I bumped into one of the dancers that had performed at the gym. I mentioned I saw him dance and tried to become a dancer, but stopped. He encouraged me to continue and here I am more than 50 years later.

SC:  Please tell me about the Tony Williams Dance Center and the Tony Williams Ballet and why you decided to start a dance school.

TW:  I started the Tony Williams Dance Center in 2000. I had been freelancing as a ballet teacher and was traveling all around New England. In order to cut down on travel, I decided to settle down in Boston neighborhood and my hometown, Jamaica Plain.  Things got off to a good start and now the Tony Williams Dance Center is in its 17th year.  My first professional ballet company actually dates back to 1985 when I co-founded Ballet Theatre of Boston with Jose Mateo. From there, I founded the American Concert Ballet (ACB) in 1991. ACB morphed into BalletRox in 1996.  I finally founded my professional dance company, the Tony Williams Ballet, in 2014.

SC:  I was struck by the innovative concept of Tony Williams Ballet’s Life: In Color.  The show infuses 60s rock and jazz into contemporary dance.  Some influences include David Bowie, Prince, and the Rolling Stones.  You’ve said that you felt with the recent deaths of a few of these music legends, now is the time to pay tribute to them.   How did this performance come about from there?

TW:  I was buying a coffee at the City Feed ‘hippie store’ near my studio when I heard Lady Jane by the Rolling Stones.  I hadn’t heard it in quite some time and it brought me back to 60s. I loved that song and was inspired to choreograph to it.

One time, while on a tour with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, we were staying at a hotel in Norfolk, VA.  After we performed one evening, some of my fellow dancers and I had a drink in the hotel lounge. Afterwards, I went up to my room to go to sleep.  The next morning, one of the dancers excitedly told me David Bowie entered the hotel lounge with his band after I went to bed.  He was very friendly and drank with my fellow dancers. Yikes, I really missed out on meeting Bowie!

SC:  What do you think makes this upcoming performance particularly unique?

TW:  These performances will be our first in a 3 – D setting at the Oberon Theatre. It is a night club setting with patrons sitting at tables around an open dance floor with a stage. The dancers perform on the dance floor, stage, bar, the catwalk, and in and amongst the seated patrons!

SC:  What makes you particularly excited about Life:  in Color?  You’ve said this performance is particularly meaningful, an emotional journey.

TW:  The 60s was such an incredible decade. I lived through the Vietnam War as well as the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Robert Kennedy. I lived in New York City and was swept up in that ‘Flower Power & Love’ decade that arose as a counter balance to so much tragedy. Creating Life:  in Color allows me to reflect nostalgically on those times by using certain rock songs that I love from the 60s and 70s.  Witty and entertaining, the show is anchored around the fabulous poetry of Ken Nordine’s 1966 poetry album called Colors.  The playful poems are accompanied with beautiful jazz music. The poetry spans the myriad personality traits of human beings.

SC:  Life:  in Color features Venezuelan dancer Gianni Di Marco, Stoneham native Janelle Gilchrist, veteran dancer Meghan Gaucher, and Hawaiian native Rick Vigo.  Please tell me about how these choreographers got involved.

TW:  I have been working with these talented artists for a number of years and had planned to choreograph Life:  in Color myself, but realized that I did not have sufficient time to create the 30 plus mini- dances in the performance.  So I allotted approximately six dances to each choreographer.  Our costume designer, Dustin Rennells, assisted me with fleshing out a scenario based on my ideas and has created wild and colorful costumes.

SC:  What do you think is the best reason people should attend Life: in Color?

TW:  It will be lots of fun!  You’ll appreciate the fabulous dancers and the wide variety of types and styles of dance, from classical ballet en pointe to circus art, hip hop, and campy jazz.  We aim to entertain with an original artistic approach that will appeal to everyone, not just balletomanes.

Tony Williams Ballet Company presents rock ballad Life:  In Color Thursday, May 25 and Friday, May 26 at the Oberon Theatre, 2 Arrow Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Click here for tickets and further information.

One of Tony Williams’s future projects is a new production of the Jungle Book in partnership with the Aparna Sindhoor Navarasa Dance Theater. Follow Tony Williams Dance Center on Facebook for updates and more.

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