Boston is a center for higher education, sports, government, history, tourism and culture for much of New England. While offering concerts, plays, art exhibits, and other events year-round, during the holiday season Bean Town hosts special programs ranging from a month-long series of concerts by the Boston Pops to presentations like Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” and traditional performances of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” by the Boston Ballet, now in its seventh season.
There are also “alternative” celebrations such as the “Urban Nutcracker,” which opens Dec. 20 at the Boch Center Shubert Theater and features Chatham native Christopher John Phillips.
Now 29, Phillips’ interest in dance began early when his mother Kathy Doyle, who currently works for the Chatham Properties Group, took him to see the Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” Also influenced by Michael Jackson’s pop videos, he persuaded his mother to allow him to take dance lessons with G. Valerie Buck, founder of the Chatham Ballet and Dance Arts Center, Naomi Turner, director of Studio 878, a non-profit dance education organization subsidizing the training for young dancers, and at the Academy of the Performing Arts in Orleans.
Upon graduation from Chatham High School in 2007, he left the Cape for the State University of New York at Purchase where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in performance and choreography in 2011. Relocating to western Massachusetts, Phillips worked as a “freelance dancer” and trained with some of the best teachers in the world including Jacqueline Akhmedova of the Akhmedova Ballet Academy of Silver Spring, Md., Ilya Kuznetsov, composer and actor, known for Stravinsky et les Ballets Russes, Swan Lake and Chuzhoe, Misha Tchoupakov, Assistant Professor at School of Dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Peter Pawlyshyn, one time Principal Guest Artist with the Boston Ballet, and Sueann Townsend, a dancer, instructor, and choreographer from Rochester, N.Y.
The first three performances of “Urban Nutcracker” were held in 2001 in the Strand Theater in Dorchester; the show was developed by the legendary Anthony Williams. Combining the classical music of Tchaikovsky and the rhythms of Duke Ellington with hip-hop and ballet, Urban Nutcracker is a holiday treat with an inner-city twist. For this truly Boston version, Williams reimagined and personalized the tale to become an inner-city story with a neon-buzz. One hundred and fifty performers, including 16 professional dancers from the City Ballet of Boston, community members and children, will take the stage to showcase a broad diversity of dance forms celebrating multicultural Boston. The show explores iconic Boston scenes such as Make Way for Ducklings, Top of the Hub, Chinatown, and the Boston Public Garden as the story follows the magical journey of Ruby and her Nutcracker guide through classical ballet, tap, hip-hop, jazz, flamenco, vogueing, swing and more.
Phillips guest performed as Cavalier in the 2012 production of “Urban Nutcracker,” and since moving to Boston in 2017 he has become a principal company member of the City Ballet of Boston, which offers him a more consistent opportunity to perfect his art while also guesting for companies such as Vacanti Ballets, North Atlantic Dance Theater of Boston, International Ballet Company of Norwell, Pioneer Valley Ballet in Easthampton, Amherst Ballet, and the Cape Cod Dance Festival in Provincetown.
Following completion of the performances of the City Ballet of Boston’s fall show “Souvenir,” in October, all-day rehearsals began for this year’s “Urban Nutcracker,” in which Phillips will dance the parts of Party Dad/Swing Dancer and Cavalier at all performances, and of Snow King, Arabian, and Russian on select dates. In discussing this experience, Phillips explains that a musician takes the music written by its composer and applies his technical knowledge in playing that music on his instrument while using his creative ability to interpret the piece. As a ballet dancer Phillips takes the choreography developed by the choreographer based on the composer’s music, uses his physical ability and talent to accomplish the series of steps that comprise the ballet while sometimes applying his creativity to give the dance his own interpretation.
“Each dancer does something different to bring flavor to the table, so to speak,” Phillips said. “Even though the steps are the same for different casts, different dancers give a different feel because of different interpretations. When I am given choreography, I also interpret what the choreographer wants the ballet to look like, essentially, taking it a step further, taking initiative to take it to a new level, something fresh. That is another side of how I make decisions and artistic choices.”
Combining the artistic vision of Tony Williams, the historic tradition of “The Nutcracker,” the classical music of Tchaikovsky, jazz and more modern musical forms, contemporary ballet and other dances styles, and iconic aspects of Boston, the City Ballet of Boston, with participation by adults and children from the community, offers in “Urban Nutcracker” a unique and rich experience to those who attend its performances.