April 30, 2007

There is something at once elfin and steely about Robyn Mineko Williams. Petite and perfectly proportioned, with a delicately chiseled face that suggests both serenity and hidden mischief, she moves with such fleetness and clarity onstage that she often seems indistinguishable from the light.

Earlier this year when fellow dancer Cheryl Mann suffered a knee injury, choreographer Lucas Crandall, who also serves as artistic associate for Hubbard Street, invited Williams to learn Gimme. He had created the demanding duet for Mann and Tobin Del Cuore (see cover story, August 2005), and they had performed it at the 2004 world premiere at Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium and in its Chicago debut early in 2005.


A quirky, acrobatic, almost cartoonish portrayal of a push-pull romantic relationship—in which the woman wears a short red dress and clunky Doc Martens boots—Gimme’s theatrical gimmick involves a length of rope that often tethers the woman to her partner. At some moments it appears that she is on a leash, at others that she is a marionette. Set to jig-like contemporary folk music by the Norwegian group Bla Bergens Borduner, the pas de deux can move from dark to light with just a flick of the wrist or a little comic chase.


Crandall says he cast Williams, who has been a member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for six years, and is a very girlish-looking 29, “partly because she had similar qualities to Cheryl—not quite tomboyish, but capable of being both a little tough and soft.”


“But she also is just a really beautiful dancer and it was time for her to step up,” says Crandall. Robyn is a bit smaller than Cheryl, so she does some things a little faster. That’s the nice thing about duets; every pair makes the piece look just slightly different.”


Williams, who began studying at age 5 and spent four years with the River North Dance Chicago company before joining Hubbard Street, watched when Crandall first created Gimme during a Hubbard Street workshop, but never thought she’d get to dance it.


“I’m really surprised and excited about doing it,” says Williams, who began learning the role this past summer.“It’s just so much fun to put on those big boots and feel huge. Lucas says he thinks about the duet as being for Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner, and I love that sense of being a punky cartoon character. Dancing this piece you really feel the yo-yo effect of a couple in a relationship and always fighting about something stupid. But it’s done with a playful frustration more than an ‘I hate you’ kind of quality.”


As for trying to dance in the footsteps of the original performers, Williams seems unfazed. “Lucas is very specific, but he also gives dancers quite a bit of freedom, so from the start I felt as if I could walk into the studio and not worry about any pre-conceived ideas,” she says. “This piece feels very comfortable. In fact, I’ve never once thought about the way it was done before, and that’s quite unlike me, because I’ve always been a big observer of my peers, and only recently started feeling a sense of overall confidence as a dancer. I think what is most important in this piece is the chemistry with my partner.”


In that regard, Williams’ experience with Gimme has been a double learning process. She was initially scheduled to make her debut in the work at this summer’s Aspen Dance Festival, but her partner, Patrick Simoniello (who has since returned to the Joffrey Ballet), had an injury. Hubbard Street dancer Yarden Ronen has now taken over the role. He and Williams got to alternate with Mann and Del Cuore when Gimme was performed during the troupe’s season last fall at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance. They will also perform it during upcoming tours and engagements.


“The back and forth in Gimme is tricky, and so is finding the right tension in that string,” says Williams. “But the most difficult part is the opening of the piece, which is performed to silence. Once the music starts it’s a big relief.” —Hedy Weiss