By Jessica Lockhart
This entertaining version of The Nutcracker reflects Boston’s rich multicultural diversity.
Urban Nutcracker performed by the City Ballet of Boston, Boch Center, Boston, MA, through December 30.
Ballet companies around the world perform The Nutcracker, a classic holiday show that has become a dependable moneymaker. But troupes don’t want their productions to look and sound alike, so each looks to bring a slight twist to the well-known yarn: a little girl who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and dreams that she’s transported to a magical place where dancers from different countries present her with an exotic array of performances. The City Ballet of Boston has come up with a distinctive take on this holiday tale. Urban Nutcracker is all about diversity, focusing on life in big American cities. This version of the venerable ballet features a company of dancers made up of immigrants, refugees, and New Englanders of all types.
The Urban Nutcracker starts off when a live 8-piece jazz band enters from the rear of the theater and makes its way down the aisle and onto the stage. The curtains open onto a gathering of street performers participating in dance battles — tap and hip-hop. The performers are Asian, Latino, African American, and Caucasian. They are tattooed, scrappy, young, and old. The music is funky, the setting is downtown Boston, and the dancers are not doing ballet. This is not your customary Christmas Nutcracker.
But the City Ballet of Boston hasn’t completely tossed out the traditional. The troupe has found a way to work beloved segments of the ballet, such as the waltz of the snowflakes and the sugar plum fairy, into episodes that feature tap dancing Hub construction workers, Boston Public Garden flower petal dancers, hula hoopers, and boxing gloved dancers. We are taken into the Inner City — not just going Urban. The approach serves up an exciting mash-up; the story is still mostly performed via classical ballet moves, but invigorated with the use of street dancing.
Another element that sets off the Urban Nutcracker is its decision to mix up the Nutcracker score. Diversifying the music effectively updates the story. Tchaikovsky’s famous score is drawn on, but there are invigorating flips to the music of Duke Ellington and David Berger. The result is that the dances don’t come off as staid or predictable. For example, the iconic Sugar Plum Fairy initially dances to beat box drums and jazz. Then, as she prepared to do the impressive pirouette turns around the stage, the Tchaikovsky score takes over.
The small live ensemble that performed on-stage filled the theater with contemporary rhythms. The musicians were lead by Dorchester based Bill Whitney. The scenic design by Janie E. Howland, lightning by Scott Clyve, and costume design by Dustin Todd Rennells were bold, outrageously fun, and whimsical. And, in a nod to present day technology, Act II features a giant Google earth map — we are zoomed in from outer space and given close-up looks at the various Lands of Fantasy destinations.
For those who love the Nutcracker because it is a quintessential holiday ballet, the production delivers all the fun and vibrancy of more conventional productions. This is the 18th annual edition of the production, which now features 150 performers. The City Ballet dancers are beautiful and strong; they dance with elegance and grace. There were three guests artists; Khalid Hill, Ruth Bronwen Whitney, and Joe Gonzalez. Also of note: Gianni Di Marco, who played a magically creepy Drosselmeyer, the character who gives the young Clarice (here renamed Ruby) the nutcracker doll. The company dancers, seasoned veterans, that execute the well-known scenes well. Tony Williams, the founder, artistic and executive director of the company, supplies the lively choreography, including a satisfying twist at the end. Ruby, when she awakens from her dream, sees her father entering through the front door dressed in combat fatigues. He is returning from a tour of duty in the military. This Urban Nutcracker has more than one foot in the real world.
Jessica Lockhart is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and has a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is a Maine Association of Broadcasters award winning independent journalist. Currently, she also works as program director at WMPG Community radio.