Chances are, when young American ballet talent Jacob Williams pictured himself performing in The Nutcracker, it never looked quite like this.
For the first show of Mixed Nuts, Arts Umbrella’s annual upending of the classic, he’ll play the lead soldier—the one who’s magically brought to life from the wooden nutcracker doll. He starts to dance with Clara, the girl whose sugarplum dreams are conjuring the action, and then the lights change: all of a sudden he’s busting moves to Missy Elliott at the centre of a hip-hop number, complete with B-boy mice.
“In high school I did dance in a hip-hop crew,” says Williams, a native of Vancouver, Washington, who’s in the Arts Umbrella dance program’s graduating class this year. “It’s definitely one of my favourite styles that I get to do. And I love Missy Elliott.”
But off-the-hook top rocks are not the only thing you’ll see the student perform in this year’s show, which has a Candyland theme that riffs on the sweet-toothed board game.
“By the end of the show, you’ll see me do classical male variations, with double tours and pirouettes,” he says. “There is definitely a switch in how you’re engaging your legs from one to the other. But I’m happy to be warmer: the hip-hop really gets the blood pumping and then I get to present a little more elegant version of dance.”
It’s all in a day’s work for a dancer who chose the Vancouver program for just such versatility. Williams discovered ballet relatively late, at 16, after taking a class as part of his community musical-theatre training. Though contemporary ballet has always spoken to him most, he did a stint at the Oregon Ballet Theatre, where he performed a classic Balanchine Nutcracker.
Around that time he heard about the more cutting-edge Ballet BC, and in hopes of auditioning, he sought out Arts Umbrella, a training program closely aligned with the troupe. “I started looking at all the amazing choreographers that come here,” he says, “and then there’s Arty [artistic director Artemis Gordon] herself, who is so personal with us in a way I hadn’t experienced other places.”
The contemporary work that Williams does at Arts Umbrella, with the likes of Kidd Pivot’s Crystal Pite and Spanish-born Nacho Duato, ultimately connects with him more than the classical form epitomized by The Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince. “I was dancing in the second company in that ballet track, and I’m not necessarily your quintessential male ballet dancer. Lifting all those women—that’s not my body type necessarily,” says Williams, who still loves to take ballet class and gets into the dramatic fantasy of the classical form. “So the vocabulary of dance that I maybe see myself doing is contemporary—it allows me to do so much more.”
Williams is already scheduling auditions for the new year, on the heels of Mixed Nuts. He’s arranging flights to Europe for January and February, when he’ll try out for such companies as the acclaimed Nederlands Dans Theater 2, and then return here to show his stuff for Ballet BC.
But before all that pressure, he’s having fun with Arts Umbrella’s annual holiday show. “We switch parts all the time,” he says of the production’s shifting roles for each performance.
“I think most of all it’s just the community of us as dancers doing it all together and cheering each other on—rooting for each other to do well,” he adds. “Especially for the grand pas at the end, we’re all off-stage rooting for each other to get the technical parts.”
Arts Umbrella Dance presents Mixed Nuts at the Vancouver Playhouse from Friday to Sunday (December 13 to 15).