When Anthony Williams’s “Urban Nutcracker” bursts onto the stage of the Boch Center Shubert Theatre Dec. 19-28, the semi-professional production by his City Ballet of Boston will be enlivened by a passel of 75 kids in all shapes and sizes and from varied cultural backgrounds. A contemporary, multicultural version of the holiday dance classic set in the city of Boston, “Urban Nutcracker” embraces not just ballet, but styles ranging from street dance and tap to flamenco, and it’s less about the perfect arabesque than the spirit of inclusion and community.
“I’m trying to reflect the city as we see it today, its true diversity,” says Williams, who created the show 19 years ago. “In most of the downtown theaters, you hardly see that diversity in the audience or onstage. We have diversity of cast, of music — Duke Ellington along with the Tchaikovsky — different dance traditions, and the diversity of the audience.” (Through the Boch Center’s ticket access program with the sponsorship of Adage Capital, the production is providing 3,000 free tickets to underprivileged Boston area children and their families.)
Williams, Boston Ballet’s first African-American principal dancer and a beloved teacher, is a man on a mission. He found his own calling in ballet at age 16 after trouble as a member of a street gang. He has offered scholarship dance training for inner city kids for more than a quarter century — his studio’s goal is “diversity through dance.” “That experience [of studying dance] has helped young people grow into responsible adults,” Williams says.
However, finding kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods around the city who can dance and whose families can commit to an intensive rehearsal and performance schedule is no easy task. But Williams has a new, secret weapon in Jason Jordan. A professionally trained dancer/choreographer with lead roles in the show, Jordan is also a full-time dance teacher at the Orchard Park K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury who is committed to spreading the joy of movement to every kid he meets.
Jordan teaches dance to roughly 400 students each year, and as he joins the “Urban Nutcracker” family for the first time this season, he’s also helping Williams find talented young dancers for a new scholarship program at Tony Williams Dance Center. Set to launch with open auditions in January, the program is called City Ballet Relevé and will provide free, intensive ballet training to roughly 15 youngsters, aged 8-12, from underserved communities. “I see Jason as a conduit,” Williams says, “a perfect pipeline from the Boston public schools.”
The program, funded through a grant from the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, is designed to serve as the first step of a sequential feeder system for Williams’s company, which Williams says he started partly as a way to keep “Urban Nutcracker” going even after he’s gone. (No worries — retirement is not in the immediate future for the vigorous 73-year-old.) The program will be small scale, audition-based, fast tracked, and offer lots of personal attention. “We’re looking for kids that have the drive and passion, even if they don’t have great feet and perfect bodies,” says Williams.
Like Williams, Jordan identifies with the kids he’s looking to recruit. “What Tony is trying to do with this program, that was my life,” he says. “It’s mind-blowing that I can help kids have a similar life change.” Jordan got his first taste of the power of dance at the age of seven, when he wowed the crowd at a Brooklyn house party and walked off with the $5 prize for best dancer. The following year, he auditioned into what is now called Ballet Tech, a New York City public school designed by Eliot Feld in 1977 to provide rigorous ballet training for children who might not otherwise be exposed to the art form. “I didn’t know much about ballet,” Jordan recalls, “but I knew I wanted to dance, and the access to training and validation for a young boy like me — it was everything. It changed my life.”
By age 15, Jordan was dancing professionally, a feat he says was unheard of in his neighborhood. He went on to a promising career, performing with Feld Ballets/NY, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, RUBBERBANDance, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and Buglisi Dance Theatre, among others. The New York Times called him a “coolly confident … luxuriant” dancer. When a hip injury required surgery, Jordan says the public school job in Boston “… just landed in my lap. I took it for two years to get insurance, have the surgery, then I was going to go back to dancing. But I fell in love with the kids, and seven years later, I’m still here teaching and loving it.”
Now 41, Jordan says “Urban Nutcracker” is letting him reconnect to the joy of rehearsing and performing. “I was missing something in life that is so beautiful, and this is an opportunity to dance and have connections with all the these happy kids running around, going over the steps. You can see the excitement in their faces.”
The new City Ballet Relevé will help extend the energy and enthusiasm of the “Urban Nutcracker” experience into a serious ballet program. “It’s a buzz when I see the amount of talent that would have gone untapped otherwise,” he says. “I think of all the things I’ve learned and been blessed with — I love giving that back.”
Presented by City Ballet of Boston. At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Dec. 19-28. Tickets $29-$69; 866-348-9738, www.bochcenter.org