Urban Nutcracker to Make Triumphant Return to The Strand

Boston has a "Nutcracker" for many a niche market - a Jewish "Nutcracker," a gay "Nutcracker" - all competing with the Boston Ballet version , the world's most popular production of the world's most popular ballet.

This weekend the Strand presents the second season of Anthony Williams' "Urban Nutcracker." No stuffy Victorian drawing-rooms here. Kids from Jones Hill and Mattapan connect right away to the bucket-cats in the prologue pounding out driving rhythms and to the tappers in Act II exploding in kinetic routines.

Last year when producer choreographer Williams set out to create yet another "Nutcracker," one with an inner-city edge, one which the folks he grew up with in the Bromley-Heath Projects could appreciate, he knew he would need more than the hook of some black dancers. Williams envisioned ballet that would rock and since he was teaching at Roxbury Community College at the time, the company name BalletRox clicked. For his "Urban Nutcracker" to excite critical acclaim and to endure, the dancing had to be of a truly high caliber. That's why for his Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, he sought the loan of Dance Theatre of Harlem performers, Kellye Saunders and Donald Williams.

Saunders and Williams are back this year heading an expanded ensemble. Having sold out three performances last year at the Strand, BalletRox hopes to fill all 1400 seats for an additional fourth show this weekend.

With more guest artists and other new wrinkles, the current production is worth a visit even by those wowed last December. The storyline still is a contemporary parallel to the familiar E.T.A. Hoffman fantasy.

Single mother Mrs. Williams takes her children Clarice and Omar on a Christmas Eve shopping spree to a Downtown Crossing-like locale. They are so impressed by the magic tricks of street entertainers Drosselmeyer and Minimeyer that they invite the duo back to their apartment. Here the plot dovetails better with the conventional story, where Drosselmeyer gives Clarice a nutcracker, which her bratty brother damages. The Christmas tree grows, mice and toy soldiers do battle, and so on. Act II transpires in "Fantasyland," where some of the divertissements are conventional and some decidedly less so.

For example, Mother Ginger who hides her Polichinelles under billowing skirts has been booted out by the Old Man in the Shoe and his tapping newsboys. Roxbury-born Klahid Hill, who danced in Savion Glover's "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk" on Broadway, leads the squad of tapping youngsters.

The customary Russian and Spanish sequences, however, do not seem out of place in this context. Even the traditional dances are more accessible to diverse audiences insomuch that the dancers are themselves diverse.

While a good 60 percent of music is the original Tchaikovsky score, many of the show's highlights are set to Duke Ellington's take on the familiar melodies. There's swing music for the party dance, and in last year's showstopper, a unitarded dude named "Leif Branch" joined the ladies for the "Dew Drop Bop" a/k/a "The Waltz of the Flowers."

It would also be a mistake to think of "Urban Nutcracker" as an all-black show.

"It's pretty evenly mixed between black, white and brown dancers. Last year all our snowflakes were white. It's hard to find black girls who can dance en pointe, but this year we have three black snowflakes," says Williams, who notes that he himself comes from a biracial background.

Dance Theatre of Harlem provides the four major stars: principal dancers Saunders and Williams are joined this year by Boston-born Jhe Russell and Ramon Thielen. They are backed by young professionals studying at local dance schools as well as at prestigious institutions like Julliard and Boston Conservatory.

But Dorchester residents bring much of the energy and expertise to the Strand stage. In fact, Clarice, the center of all the spectacle, is danced by Mattapan resident Aura Pavlova Tavarez. Clarice's mother, both on stage and in real life, is Leta Tavarez , who has been running the Uptown Dance Center in Uphams Corner for 12 years and was pregnant with Aura when she opened her studio in that location.

The children who embody "the essence and mission of BalletRox's Urban Nutcracker" include several other local youngsters. Xzeniyeju Chukwuezi is a soldier in the battle scene while his brother Cjaiilon Andrade is one of the tapping shoeboys. Malaysha Hardy of Harbor Crest Court is a Hoopette, this show's version of the Candy Canes, and Alana Brown of Napier Park is one of the Wall kids.

Among the new features of the 2002 production: Youth Pro Musica will provide the orchestral voices during the snow scene. The Variasians, a local a cappella group will appear briefly in opening street sequence, sing Christmas carols in the lobby during intermission and accompany the Chinese dancer in the second act. This season too the company debut a newly commissioned apartment drop. Next year, they hope to add a scrim for the opening street scene.

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