Theater & art

history repeating

‘Urban Nutcracker’ celebrates the diversity of the season

From left, “Urban Nutcracker” in 2002 and 2012.

When I took my seat in John Hancock Hall recently for one of the holiday season’s first performances of the “Urban Nutcracker,” an event I’d never seen, I wondered how in the world “urban” could be made to fit snugly with Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

I wasn’t skeptical, just curious, because I recall my annual elementary school field trips back in the day to see the original “Nutcracker” performed by a classical ballet company. And I remember the only things urban about those performances were that Chrysler Hall in my home city, Norfolk, Va., was located downtown, and there was a housing project a few blocks away.

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But the moment the curtain rose on Boston dance guru Tony Williams’s 13th season of the “Urban Nutcracker,” I got it. The scene wasn’t some snowy, woodsy setting that could just as easily have been a backdrop for a Lexus December to Remember TV commercial. It was a street corner, with a park bench, a vendor, and apartment buildings in the background. There was a different kind of energy, one not at all driven by the powerful music of an orchestra but by the excitement of the people on that corner.

And those people, oh those people – not just petite white dancers in tights, but rather white people, and black people, Latinos, and so on. The crowd of “shoppers” milling about included dreadlocked African-American tap dancer Khalid Hill, and a quartet of elderly black and Latino men who hummed in harmony and snapped their fingers, impressed at the tap lesson that Hill was giving to a young white girl. A few feet away a separate group took turns break dancing, until their leader spotted Hill’s character, and they had a hip-hop-styled dance off, while the passing shoppers and onlookers applauded both sides. Meanwhile “Sleigh Ride” and other classic tunes played in the background.

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The rest of the show continued in the same manner – racially and culturally diverse performances that remained true to the storyline but musically bounced from Tchaikovsky to Duke Ellington’s jazz Nutcracker Suite, to ambiguous but fun, bouncy hip-hop beats. Even some of the couples and families that attended the Christmas party at young Clarice’s (Clara in the original “Nutcracker”) house – the party where Drosselmeyer gifts her the nutcracker doll – were interracial and multiracial.

I love classical ballet and “original” performances. But often “original” just means old in the arts world. You really don’t get more “original” that Williams’ version of “The Nutcracker” that features people who reflect the increasingly diverse neighborhoods of Boston and, frankly, many other metro areas in the United States. And at a time when TV pundits are poking fun at non-white families who choose to envision Santa Claus in their own skin color, the “Urban Nutcracker” drives home the importance of teaching children that when it comes to fantasy, especially holiday fantasy, all looks and all styles are fair game as long as the story is good.

I’ll be going back. This time with my son.

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.
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