Tchaikovsky in Jordans
'The Urban Nutcracker' gives classic holiday story a contemporary spin
The lights rise on dancer and poet Ramiro Vaughan, wearing red sneakers and matching hat. With a mix of spoken word and street style dance, he leads the audience through the streets of Boston’s Downtown Crossing, where he meets a doo-wop group and woos a girl. The Citgo sign shines in the background like a contemporary North Star. One thing’s for sure, “The Urban Nutcracker” isn’t like any Tchaikovsky you’ve seen before.
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Tony Williams, retired charter member of the Boston Ballet and founder of Tony Williams Dance Center, debuted “The Urban Nutcracker” in 2001 at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. “I grew up with a black father and a white mother,” says Williams. “My whole life has been in two worlds, and Boston was pretty much a white dance world.” In both his dance center and in “The Urban Nutcracker,” Williams seeks to make opportunities for dancers of color, opportunities that didn’t exist when he made his name.
The show, at the Back Bay Events Center through Dec. 28, provides a potpourri of dance styles and music genres, relying heavily on Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite,” a jazzy rendition of the old classic. The first act is the strongest and most transformative of the show. Though the story is familiar, it doesn’t seem like the “Nutcracker” — it feels like something better, like Boston. Williams says the prologue is updated every year to stay true to the audience’s experience of the city.
In scene two of the act, the holiday party at the re-named Williams home, the audience finds a flirtatious aunt with a flask, parents dancing to jazz music and Ms. Williams kissing a photo of her husband who’s been deployed with the army. The families all have bi-racial sets of parents, a black father and a white mother, perhaps an allusion to Williams’s own upbringing. Throughout the show, diverse ages and body types are included.
Act two is less dynamic and adventurous. Though the land of fantasy does mix tap, jazz and even a smidge of hip-hop into the routine, the Snow Queen errs closer to the traditional side. The heart and enthusiasm of the troupe permeates the second half of the production, even if the contemporary punch weakens.
Williams stresses that the production uses professional dancers. Indeed, even the child dancers perform with the grace and precision of experts. “The Urban Nutcracker” has been an opportunity for Williams to show that diversity isn’t, and shouldn’t be, relegated to amateur projects.
“The Urban Nutcracker” is more than a pristine display of dance form. It’s an honest reflection and celebration of Boston and the people that live here. And better still, it’s wildly entertaining.
“When we did it in 2001, it broke a lot of new ground,” says Williams. “In 2017, with what’s going on in politics, it’s much more important now to be a beacon of hope and inclusion.”