Twenty years ago, dancer Erika Lambe became Boston Ballet’s first Black Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker.” During much of her time with the company, she was the only Black ballerina.
Now Lambe is involved with a version of the classic ballet dedicated to putting artists of color front and center. This season, City Ballet of Boston’s production of “Anthony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker” also celebrates a landmark 20th anniversary. Williams’s multicultural twist on the ballet classic, set in present-day downtown Boston, blends the traditional Tchaikovsky score with Duke Ellington’s jazzy version and features dance styles ranging from ballet and flamenco to hip-hop.
“There’s no other ‘Nutcracker’ like this,” Lambe says. “Its whole intent is to speak to a more diverse audience, unlike the more traditional productions. And our rehearsals are in Jamaica Plain, next to Dorchester and Roxbury. Twenty years ago, people in this community wouldn’t even consider going to a ballet, but this has brought them into the theaters and gives kids exposure to dance, ballet in particular. It’s such a holiday tradition.”
This year, Lambe reprises her role as the Mother in “Urban Nutcracker,” and a role behind the scenes, too, as ballet mistress, running the children’s rehearsals, working with some of the adults in the production, teaching upper-level classes in City Ballet of Boston’s school, and running its introductory Relevé program. She’s also helping in the wardrobe department, refurbishing costumes and making new tiaras.
Now in her 50s, Lambe, who grew up in Brookline, has been enmeshed in the dance world since she began classes at the age of 4. She says she was never one of those kids who dreamed of being a ballerina, but after seeing a Boston Ballet “Nutcracker” production when she was 6, she was hooked, beginning training with the company as one of only a handful of students of color. “I hated ballet, but I wanted to be in ‘The Nutcracker.’ Dance came easily and I just kept progressing, getting different roles.” When she was 10, she says, the ballet master pushed for her to be given the role of Clara. Boston Ballet founder E. Virginia Williams demurred, saying the ballet was a period piece, but she cast Lambe in other challenging roles to showcase her talent.
At the age of 16, Lambe began her professional career at Dance Theater of Harlem under the legendary Arthur Mitchell, which led to three years of “great opportunities.” Then Edward Villella invited her into the fledgling Miami City Ballet. In 1993, she joined Boston Ballet, dancing with the company until 2004. “I did a lot. Jumping was my forte, and I was a quick study. I remember I got thrown into a solo [last minute] in ‘Raymonda’ — and I got a good review!” she recalls with a delighted laugh.
Lambe comes by her drive and enthusiasm honestly. Her mother is Afrika Hayes Lambe, a beloved Boston area dance accompanist with an impressive background as a vocal soloist as well. At the age of 88, Afrika is still accompanying ballet classes, known for her expansive memory in repertoire ranging from ballet classics to Broadway tunes.
Erika’s grandfather was the internationally acclaimed tenor Roland Hayes, whose father had been enslaved and was later emancipated. Roland went on to fill concert halls and shatter racial barriers around the world. “A lot of my grandfather’s history informs me,” Lambe says, citing Hayes’s tireless fight against racism and inequity to blaze a trail for generations of Black vocalists and become one of the highest-paid recitalists in the world by the 1920s.
“I had hoped to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps,” says Erika Lambe. “I wanted to be a principal or soloist at Boston Ballet, but it just didn’t happen. I got some principal roles so I did get the opportunities, just not the title. I had a great career dancing … but I feel like maybe what I’m doing now is more meaningful.”
Williams, a progressive dance educator and former principal dancer with Boston Ballet, remembers chatting with an 8-year-old Lambe and her family in the company’s studios, and being intrigued to see other Black faces amid all the white ones. He says at his own school, Lambe has become an inspiring role model. “Students and parents can identify with her,” Williams says. “She really cares about them, and she’s passionate, reliable, professional, and very proactive about getting things done.”
Lambe who has taught widely in Greater Boston, also currently teaches at Reading’s Northeast School of Ballet and created a program to bring students from the school’s youth company into the upcoming “Urban Nutcracker” production. “It’s a great exchange,” says Williams, “a nice bridge between the white suburbs and inner-city kids. … People that come to the show are struck by the diversity onstage, in the audience, the dance styles, and how it comes together in a big stew with lots of spices, and that diversity comes across as what life is, and that’s very welcoming. Our first show happened right after 9/11, now this one’s right after COVID. I hope it offers the community a kind of a salve to help us heal wounds.”
Lambe adds, “I think Tony [Williams] is trying to change the culture of ballet and the arts in Boston. It’s important for children to learn there are Black dancers in Boston, to know the history … to know there is a place for them to dance.”
“Anthony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker” runs Dec. 18-23, at Boch Center Shubert Theatre, $29-$98, www.bochcenter.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.