For the 17th year, the Tony William Dance Center produces its trademark take on a holiday classic: Anthony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker, now in its 17th year. Celebrating diversity though a creative combination of Duke Ellington’s jazz renditions of the tunes alongside Tchaikovsky’s original score, the company gives Boston a Nutcracker it needs at John Hancock Hall through December 28.
Artistic Director Tony Williams’ vision is golden, and what’s better, he carried out that vision. It’s important to keep tradition alive and breathing by presenting a familiar tale in new ways, and Mr. Williams’ Urban Nutcracker sheds light on a story not otherwise told in Nutcrackers. The protagonist is Clarice, and her father is away serving in Afghanistan. She lives in Downtown Crossing with her mom and brother. Her life is modest, but colorful and full of wonder between her friends and performers she sees on the street.
It’s a community event, both onstage and off—a spectrum of ages are represented, from tiny tots to seasoned doo-wop singers. But the Urban Nutcracker's gracious nature is not only embodied on the stage—the company hosts an Autism sensory-friendly performance (December 27) so that even more audiences can enjoy the marvel of live performance.
Attending this Nutcracker is not a spectator event, but rather something to experience with the performers. The crowd is invited to sing along with the doo-wop trio and clap along with the beat; it’s hard not to get caught up in the cast’s energy.
With each year of production, the Urban Nutcracker features authentic cultural dancers. This year, a flamenco group brought the flair to the Act II Spanish Dance. Guest Soloist Tiago Farinha, a former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performer, was a showstopper with his impressive hip-hop dancing and warm charisma. And as the Sugarplum Fairy, Mariana Zschoerper of the American National Ballet was truly stunning. Her steady elegance brought the entire production to a new level.
Performing alongside professional guest dancers is a great experience for the youth of the company. For these young dancers, Urban Nutcracker is a lesson in live performance, providing role models and the opportunity to dance not only ballet, but tap, hip-hop and jazz as well.
For all its virtues, though, Urban Nutcracker desperately needs an update. With great appreciation for everything the Tony Williams Dance Center is doing right, I desperately wanted it to impress me more. While many of the costumes and props came across as homemade, endearing and eliciting chuckles, the design and execution lack appeal. The libretto and transitions between Ellington’s jazz and Tchaikovsky’s classical music are canned and far from seamless. Much of the dancing, both in choreography and execution, comes across as amateur.
When the Urban Nutcracker reaches its 20th year, I hope the Tony Williams Dance Company possesses the means to celebrate with the makeover it deserves.
The Tony Williams Dance Company performs Anthony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker at John Hancock Hall through December 28. Buy tickets now >>
* Author's note: This review has been update to reflect that the costumes in Anthony Williams' Urban Nutcracker are professionally designed and created.