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By Kathy Adams
Few dancers know instinctively how to convey a character’s emotional depths. But when Arolyn Williams impulsively clutched her gown near the end of Ballet West’s production of Hamlet and Ophelia Pas de Deux, she made clear with a single, striking gesture that Ophelia’s madness was imminent. Williams approached Val Caniparoli’s choreography with an open mind, not trying to think through each moment. “I didn’t plan on grabbing my dress,” she says, “but the impulse to act in a certain way takes over.”
That dramatic instinct has led to exciting roles for Williams in recent seasons. Not many dancers below principal rank find themselves cast as Ophelia, or Titania in Ashton’s The Dream, or Cio-Cio San in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly. But Williams, 25, is getting more opportunities to show her musicality, impeccable footwork, and blissfully light upper body. Critics and choreographers have noted the dancer’s ability to fly through the most technical of challenges. It seemed no suprise when artistic director Adam Sklute promoted Williams to demi-soloist for the 2010–11 season.
Williams knew when she was little that she wanted to be a ballerina. She skipped around her family’s home in Lee, New Hampshire, in a tiara and makeshift pointe shoes and started classes at age 6. When Williams was in sixth grade, her family moved to Rowe, Massachusetts, and she began taking class at Pioneer Valley Ballet, an hour’s drive away. She got strong training, she says, but by her junior year in high school, she knew it was time for a change. “I wanted to audition for North Carolina School of the Arts,” she says. “One day we hopped in the car and drove all the way to North Carolina!” Fortunately, she was accepted.
In the spring of 2004, the school held a workshop where artistic directors from around the country were invited to scout for dancers. Ballet West’s artistic director at the time, Jonas Kage, saw Williams and asked her to join Ballet West II.
Williams spent two years in the second company and came to love Salt Lake City’s outdoorsy lifestyle. Next came a company apprenticeship and then a slot in the corps. Her first year she was cast as Ophelia. “Arolyn immediately caught my eye,” says Caniparoli. “Her phrasing and musicality were way beyond her years. She fully grasped Ophelia’s character.”
When Welch came in 2009 to set Madame Butterfly, Sklute offered Williams the opportunity to learn the lead. She studied the part like a Stanislavsky actor, digging deep into the score and libretto. “She performed in the second cast,” says Sklute, “and there was not a dry eye in the house.” Williams’ face eloquently conveyed Butterfly’s despair at relinquishing her son as her large, dark eyes helplessly followed the boy offstage.
Williams looks forward to learning Kylián’s Sinfonietta, and Sklute’s new version of The Sleeping Beauty next season. Her dream role, though, is Giselle. “The dancer has to be ethereal and weightless in the second act, like you could just blow away, but at the same time do all the petit allegro and jumps. And of course part of me thinks it would just be so fun to go crazy onstage!”
With any luck, audiences will have an opportunity some day to see Williams inhabit the role.
Kathy Adams is a Salt Lake City dance writer.
Photo of Arolyn as the Spring Fairy in Cinderella by Ryan Galbraith, Courtesy Ballet West.