Retired ballet dancer promotes diversity as artistic director

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By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor

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

Jamaica Plain – Longtime dance educator Tony Williams draws on his two decades of experience performing internationally with major ballet companies as he guides dancers ranging from children to young-at-heart adults. Additionally, audiences are entertained annually by his contemporary spin on a classic holiday tale with “Urban Nutcracker” – albeit online in 2020.

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

“When I saw the class, I found that I really loved ballet,” he recalled. “You could jump and move to the music. I liked that ballet was very physically active.”

Within a brief period of time, Williams won a gold medal for trampoline gymnastics at Charlestown Boys Club and achieved opportunities as a skilled dancer.

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

“Being a poor kid from the inner-city, it was hard to adjust to an elite world that I had never experienced,” he acknowledged. “I took every single class the school offered, worked very hard and could see that the teachers appreciated me. It was an exciting time, coming of age at 16 and 17; finding something I could do very well and being onstage for the first time.”

Williams progressed to principal dancer with Boston Ballet in 1967. Later in ’67, he started dancing soloist roles for several years with Joffrey Ballet, based at the time in New York City. His 20-year performance career also included principal dancer stints with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Gulbenkian Ballet of Portugal, and the Norwegian National Ballet.

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

“I’d teach at Boston Conservatory in the morning, and then drive out to suburban dance schools and teach at night,” he said of his demanding schedule.

In 1995, he founded the nonprofit BalletRox to access dance to a diverse population of students. His mission continued when he opened Jamaica Plain School of Dance in 2000, renamed 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 folks from different backgrounds. I decided to come back to my hometown to start the school because Jamaica Plain is very diverse racially and socioeconomically.”

When his school opened in 2000, 17 of the 60 students were boys in hip-hop and tap classes. Williams incorporated these dance styles and a 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 raised on as a young dancer,” he relayed. “I somehow came across Duke Ellington’s big band, jazz orchestration of ‘The Nutcracker.’ I had these hip-hop and tap dancers, so I thought I’d do something contemporary. It’s based on the same storyline, but takes place in the present time.”

“Urban Nutcracker” is now produced by 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 youth apprentice program.

“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 the growing diversity of Boston.”

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

Friday, Dec.  4, at 7 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 13, at 2 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 19, at 7p.m.

Thursday, Dec. 24, 7 p.m.

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

Tony Williams performs in Boston Ballet’s 1971 “Jacob’s Pillow.”
Photo/John Lindquist
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