Ballet dancer

Retired ballet dancer promotes diversity as artistic director of Urban Nutcracker

By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor

Tony Williams with the cast of Anthony Williams Urban Nutcracker at the Shubert Theater in Boston in December 2018.
photo/courtesy Peter Paradise Photography

Jamaica Plain – Longtime dance teacher, Tony Williams draws on his two decades of experience performing internationally with major ballet companies to guide dancers ranging from children to young-at-heart adults. Plus, audiences are entertained every year with his contemporary take on a classic holiday tale with “Urban Nutcracker” – albeit live in 2020.

Raised in a Jamaica Plain housing project, Williams was a member of a street gang until his early teens. Already an active athlete, he turned his attention away from the gang and focused on after-school gym workouts at the now closed Boston Young Men’s Christian Union. There he befriends gymnasts who are studying ballet to improve their gymnastics. Williams accepted their invitation to observe a ballet class.

“When I saw the class, I discovered that I really liked ballet,” he recalls. “You could jump and move to the beat of the music. I liked that the ballet was very physically active.

Before long, Williams won a gold medal for trampoline gymnastics at the Charlestown Boys Club and secured opportunities as a skilled dancer.

In 1963, he obtained a scholarship from the Boston School of Ballet. In 1964, he became a founding member of the Boston Ballet and made his professional stage debut at the Boston Arts Festival in the city’s Public Garden.

“Being a poor inner-city kid, it was hard to adapt to an elite world that I had never known,” he acknowledged. “I took all the courses offered by the school, I worked very hard and I could see that the teachers liked me. It was an exciting time, coming of age at 16 and 17; finding something something that I could do very well and be on stage for the first time.

Williams became a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet in 1967. Later in 1967, he began dancing solo roles for several years with the Joffrey Ballet, then based in New York. During his 20-year performing career, he was also principal dancer with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Portugal’s Gulbenkian Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet.

His transition from performing to teaching began in the late 1970s in Greater Boston and throughout New England.

“I used to teach at the Boston Conservatory in the mornings, then go to suburban dance schools and teach in the evenings,” he said of his busy schedule.

In 1995, he founded the nonprofit BalletRox to provide access to dance to a diverse population of students. His mission continued when he opened the Jamaica Plain School of Dance in 2000, renamed the Tony Williams Dance Center in 2006.

“I’m biracial – half black and half white – and I was born in Italy, so I’m also multicultural,” he explained. “I wanted to have a dance school with people from different backgrounds. I decided to move back to my hometown to start school because Jamaica Plain is so racially and socio-economically diverse.

When his school opened in 2000, 17 of the 60 students were boys in hip-hop and tap dancing classes. Williams incorporated these dance styles and musical variation into a Boston-centric production. His annual “Urban Nutcracker” debuted in 2001.

“I didn’t want to do the traditional Tchaikovsky ‘Nutcracker’ that I was brought up on as a young dancer,” he explained. “I came across Duke Ellington’s big band, the jazz orchestration of ‘The Nutcracker’. I had these hip-hop and tap dancers, so I thought I’d do something contemporary. It is based on the same storyline, but takes place in present time.

“Urban Nutcracker” is now produced by the City Ballet of Boston (CBB), which Williams founded in 2018. The nonprofit professional adult ballet company follows the motto “Diversity Through Dance” while awarding scholarships for its apprenticeship program for young people.

“In Boston, you don’t see a lot of black people dancing in ballet companies,” Williams noted. “City Ballet of Boston and ‘Urban Nutcracker’ reflect Boston’s growing diversity.”

The recording of the 2019 production of Urban Nutcracker by Anthony Williams will be streamed:

Friday, December 4 at 7 p.m.

Sunday, December 13, at 2 p.m.

Saturday, December 19 at 7 p.m.

Thursday, December 24, 7 p.m.

More information will be available at urbannutcracker.com and to facebook.com/UrbanNutcracker. Learn more about CBB at CityBalletofBoston.org and facebook.com/CityBalletBoston.

Tony Williams performed in Boston Ballet’s “Jacob’s Pillow” in 1971.
Photo/John Lindquist
The dancers present a scene from “Urban Nutcracker”.
Photo/courtesy Peter Paradise Photography
Tony Williams, Founder and Artistic Director of Tony Williams Dance Center, ‘Urban Nutcracker’ and City Ballet of Boston photo/courtesy Peter Paradise Photography