Arts ballet review

’The Urban Nutcracker’: where Ellington meets Tchaikovsky

The City Ballet of Boston presents Anthony Williams’s ‘Urban Nutcracker’

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Kseniya Melyukhina performs as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Petr Metlika

Urban Nutcracker
Original Concept and Principal Choreography by Anthony Williams
Adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman’s book by Anthony Williams & David Ira Rottenberg
Boch Center Shubert Theater

Within the first few minutes after the curtains are drawn at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, hip-hop, tap dancing, and ballet are showcased by the variety of dancers on stage. One thing becomes apparent right away: Anthony Williams’s Urban Nutcracker is not your typical Nutcracker ballet. The dancers are a multicultural and multigenerational group, with children ranging from infants to teens doing impressive tricks and breakdancing to an upbeat, jazzier rendition of the classical Nutcracker tunes. The small live orchestra, led by Dorchester-based musician Bill Whitney, accompanies the dancers throughout the performance, using trombones and drums to blend the rhythms of Duke Ellington and the music of Tchaikovsky as the professional ballet dancers occupy the stage. Throughout the performance, more than 150 performers come together to produce a beautiful, colorful, fun, and family-friendly holiday show that is also an ode to the city of Boston and its diversity.

Anthony Williams himself is a retired international ballet star, dancing with companies Joffrey Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet and performing all over the world. Growing up, he experienced how the arts can transform young lives, and now his dance philosophy revolves around using the arts to unite diverse communities in Boston. When Williams retired, he returned to his hometown of Jamaica Plain, opened a dance school, and created the Urban Nutcracker. Fast forward to 2018, and the Urban Nutcracker now a holiday classic — just celebrated its 18th annual season by moving to the larger stage at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre and re-working the sets of the ballet to fill the new venue. The performance takes place in a winter wonderland with a Boston backdrop designed by Janie Howland, and it is infused with icons from the city like the Citgo Sign. The set comes alive with over 120 vibrant costumes re-imagined by local artist Dustin Todd Rennells and originally designed by Rebecca Cross. And not everyone is wearing ballet shoes — the tap-dancers have bright patterns in their outfits and the break dancers wear sparkly high tops and bomber jackets.

Another surprise for viewers this year was tap dancer Khalid Hill, a renowned professional actor and tap dancer from Boston who joined the production as a special guest artist. The other principal dancers come from around the world and were drawn from the newly formed non-profit dance company City Ballet of Boston, including Betsy Boxberger, Junichi Fukuda, and Kseniya Melyukhina.

The cast works together to tell the classic Nutcracker story in a refreshing, modern way. After a “dance battle” prologue, Act I begins. The Silberhaus household holiday party is paused by the dramatic entrance of Drosselmeyer, who hands out presents to the children, including the magical nutcracker figurine to Ruby. The Nutcracker reminds her of her deployed father, and she quickly grows attached to it, keeping it near her as she goes to sleep. Then, the magic takes over the night; the glowing Christmas tree on set enlarges to an astonishing height, and a battle between the now-alive Nutcracker, Ruby, and the mice ensues. After chasing away the mice, they find their way to the Snow King and Queen, who put on a magnificent display of elegance through their ballet dance in a frosty replica of the Boston Public Garden. Glittery pieces of snow fall from the ceiling, a visually stunning end to an action-packed act.

After the intermission, the performance seemed to become even more intense. The most dramatic and impeccable performance of the night was by Kseniya Melyukhina as the Sugar Plum Fairy. As she leaped and twirled around the stage with such exact precision and grace, there were audible gasps from the audience, and everyone seemed to be entranced. The Sugar Plum Fairy greets the Nutcracker, Ruby, and Drosselmeyer and invites her friends to entertain them. The audience is then treated to a variety of ballet themed from different parts of the world, a rich and exciting experience, before the Sugar Plum Fairy eventually returns Ruby to the living room, where a special ending to the magical adventure awaits.