Everybody on their toes

Tony Williams, whose “Urban Nutcracker’’ opens tonight, was Boston Ballet’s first black dancer. He started the company BalletRox last year. Tony Williams, whose “Urban Nutcracker’’ opens tonight, was Boston Ballet’s first black dancer. He started the company BalletRox last year. (Kim Kennedy)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / December 4, 2009

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Tonight is the opening of the “Urban Nutcracker,’’ an alt-version of the holiday classic. Instead of a party scene at a lavish Bavarian estate, this one opens with a single mother and her two children at Downtown Crossing. That’s just the start of the differences: Besides traditional ballet, the “Urban Nutcracker’’ this year features hip-hop, tap, swing dance, Chinese dancers, and an African-American step team from Boston Latin School. The “Urban Nutcracker’’ is the brainchild of Tony Williams, who was the first black dancer with the Boston Ballet. He started the dance company BalletRox last year, and also runs the Tony Williams Dance Center in Jamaica Plain.

Q. Tell me about growing up in Boston.

A. I grew up at the Bromley-Heath housing projects in Jamaica Plain and went to Boston public schools. I have four sisters and four brothers. My father was an alcoholic, like a lot of men who came home from World War II really changed. My father met my mother in Naples. She’s Italian, and she had never seen a black man before in her life. She moved here and they had eight more kids after me. She was the Rock of Gibraltar and raised us all very strictly. My father was a great guy who loved his wife and children. He just had this disease.

Q. You got into dance after you followed some guys from your gym to ballet lessons. How did that go?

A. They had heard that the Russian gymnastics team took ballet lessons. I loved gymnastics. So I followed them to ballet and took a class. Ballet mixes art and athleticism and I just loved seeing all the pretty young girls in pink tights. They gave me a scholarship [to Boston Ballet school] and after dancing nine months, I was on stage. That was the year the New England Civic Ballet changed its name to the Boston Ballet. By 1967, I was a principal dancer.

Q. Did you dance in “The Nutcracker’’?

A. I did, and the first time I did the Russian dance. As part of my own company, I have a girl from Russia and a girl from Ukraine. They’re doing an authentic Russian dance in this year’s “Urban Nutcracker.’’

Q. How did you come up with the idea for the “Urban Nutcracker’’?

A. I had like 14 boys in tap class and I remembered when I was in “The Nutcracker’’ and that was such a big deal. I said, I’d love to do a “Nutcracker’’ to give the kids a chance to dance. We could never compete with the traditional “Nutcracker’’ at the Opera House. I wanted to do a guerrilla version, an inner-city version. By the way, we also have a tree that grows on stage, and snowflakes.

Q. Who are your dancers?

A. We have a very multiracial cast. We have black, white, Latino, Asian-American, gay, straight, inner-city, suburban. It’s like a big stew.

Q. Are you in it?

A. I’m 63. Two years ago, I went in as Drosselmeier. I overstretched. There’s this one scene where I run on stage and as I ran I popped my groin muscle and then I popped the other one.

Interview was condensed and edited.

URBAN NUTCRACKER Will be performed Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Dec. 4-20, at John Hancock Hall, 180 Berkeley St. For tickets and information, go to

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