Artistic Director and founder Tony Williams describes how ‘Urban Nutcracker’ became a hit

What if the spirit of Boston as well as hip hop, tap, Mexican folk dance, flamenco, swing dancing and more were weaved into Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker?  Celebrating its 19th anniversary, The City Ballet of Boston (CBB) presents Tony Williams’ family friendly Urban Nutcracker from Thursday, December 19 through Saturday, December 28 at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.  Click here for a sneak peek at the show.

Tony Williams, acclaimed choreographer, founder, and Artistic Director of the Urban Nutcracker and the Tony Williams Dance Center, talks about Urban Nutcracker’s humble beginnings and how it has evolved to become the hit it is today while every year featuring something new.

Urban Nutcracker Tony WIlliams

Founder and Artistic Director of Urban Nutcracker Tony Williams Photo courtesy of Tony Williams/City Ballet of Boston

Sleepless Critic:  What I love about Urban Nutcracker is while the traditional Nutcracker is rooted in fantasy, the heart of the Urban Nutcracker is in Boston and its history.  What inspired this concept?

Tony Williams:  I was raised in Boston and danced in the premiere of the first major professional production of Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker conducted by famed conductor of the Boston Pops Arthur Fiedler in 1965.  I danced in the traditional Nutcracker for many years and when I stopped, I still performed large and smaller productions in and around Boston.

About 20 years ago, I started my dance school in Jamaica Plain.  I had two male African American dancers working for me teaching tap and hip hop.  In my school’s first year of enrollment, I had about 20 boys which is a huge amount of boys than in most dance schools.  I had the makings of a youth cast for a production and wanted to showcase the kids, but most of the boys came for tap and hip hop where I was teaching ballet.

I thought about putting on The Nutcracker and the parents can be involved and bring their kids.  With so many traditional Nutcrackers out there, maybe we can create an urban contemporary Nutcracker with hip hop, tap, and ballet incorporating our hip hop teacher Ricardo Foster and tap teacher Khalid Hill.

Coincidentally around that time, I came across Duke Ellington’s jazzy, big band Nutcracker Suite.  I can use that and mix in the traditional Nutcracker like a soup and hope it turns out right.  A smaller dance troupe also performed a Nutcracker in New York City around that time.  Their background was in New York City and they based the show in Central Park.   I decided to freshen up this old classic chestnut, The Nutcracker, and put it in present day Boston.

Urban Nutcracker Boston Tree Lighting

Sneak Peek of the Urban Nutcracker at this year’s Boston Tree Lighting in the Boston Common Photo courtesy of Tony Williams/City Ballet of Boston

SC:  It has been very successful because I believe next year will be Urban Nutcracker’s 20th anniversary in 2020.

TW:  It’s amazing we’ve succeeded all of these years.  We evolve, tweak, and polish the show every year and it’s a challenge financially to pull it all together.  The first year we were on a shoestring budget.

People have supported the show all of these years and I feel fortunate it is still around.  Not so much for my personal ego, but for the opportunity to have it for the City of Boston.  You don’t have to know Boston in order to like the show but if you do, you will have more of a connection to it.

SC:  You feature some traditional and international roots in the Urban Nutcracker such as The Russian Dance.

TW:  We have the Russian Dance which we call Caviar Caper, the Arabian Dance we call Desert Chiffon, and the Chinese or Tea Dance which we call Ginseng Brise.  Brise is the French word for a dance step in ballet.

This year, we have a major addition to Act II and one of the divertissements will be based on the story, Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey from 1941.  We introduced ducks in the snow scene in the past and it didn’t quite fit.  This year we are calling it Mrs. Mallard and her Duckling Delights with a tap dancing policeman and Mother Duck will dance on Pointe.  The cute baby ducks have their own dance which the kids will love.

We’re doing a new Russian dance with two couples and many more surprises!

Urban Nutcracker Ballet with edge

Urban Nutcracker cast Photo courtesy of Tony Williams/City Ballet of Boston

SC:  How did this become a tradition?  The reception must have been extraordinary that first year.

TW:  The first year we were trying to introduce this new creation was right after 911 and the whole world was in a depression.  A friend of mine told me it wasn’t the time to do this kind of show and I thought about that.

I was sad about what had happened, but working with the young kids brought about a rebirth of hope and I continue the show because of them.  We did three sold out performances the first year at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester.

I was so nervous that first night and had no idea how it would be received.  We had no money or advertisements except a great story in the Globe.  From the opening dance in the prologue right before the story line began, the dancers and musicians in Downtown Crossing and Quincy Market danced outside with their hats out for donations.  The ovation was so loud and that’s when we knew we had something.

SC:  I understand that the show features The City Ballet of Boston.  Is that your troupe?

TW:  It used to be the Tony Williams Ballet Company, but last year it evolved into the non-profit City Ballet of Boston.  The core group is comprised of eight cohesive adult professional dancers that have been with me for the second year.  It is expected we have top notch professional dancers at the Shubert Theatre which is partly why I did that with the company.  I call it City Ballet of Boston because we are proud of Boston.  Hopefully, when I am no longer around, The CBB will be able to produce this show for generations to come.

A woman who happens to work at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre came for the first time last year and brought her three year old daughter while her husband was away on business.   Her parents were visiting from Chicago and the four of them came to the show.  She told me afterwards she really enjoyed the show, but was struck that her daughter, father, and mother were so raptly attentive to the show as well.   Each generation enjoyed it!

SC:  What are your future plans?

TW:  We have the family production, Peter and the Wolf from April 29 to May 2, 2020 at the Calderwood Pavilion.  We’ve been doing some classical and contemporary pieces and it will be something for everybody.

SC:  You tend to mix contemporary with traditional dance.

TW:  I do it because it is intriguing creatively, artistically, and it’s fun to work that way.

SC:  That way you can keep surprising people with your work.

TW:  I need to do something fresh not only for the audience and the dancers, but I get a charge out of that too.

Urban Nutcracker returns to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street in Boston, Massachusetts from Thursday, December 19 through Saturday, December 28.  Click here for more information, tickets, and learn more about Tony Williams and his work.

 

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.