Christopher Jones, courtesy of Martha Graham Dance Company

On the Rise: Leslie Andrea Williams

Martha Graham said that it takes 10 years to become a Graham dancer. But two years into her job with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Leslie Andrea Williams is well on her way, as luminous in the classics as she is in the troupe's more contemporary repertory. Whether mastering the sculptural specificity of Graham's Diversion of Angels (she's the stately Woman in White) or relishing the droll humor of Annie-B Parson's I used to love you, she's a dancer who can do it all.

Company: Martha Graham Dance Company

Age: 23

Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina

Training: University of North Carolina School of the Arts (high school program, ballet concentration), The Juilliard School

Courtesy of Martha Graham Dance Company

Meeting Martha: Williams studied Graham technique in her first two years at Juilliard, but it was performing in Dark Meadow during her senior year that drew her into the choreographer's imagination. "Actually being involved in a story ballet and getting in touch with a character—that really exposed me to Graham," she says.

"She has nerves of steel. She has absolutely no compunction about standing on one leg for five minutes or taking on a speaking role." —Janet Eilber

Audition adventure: After seeing her dance at Juilliard, Janet Eilber, the Graham company's artistic director, invited Williams to audition. Just minutes from the end of the intense two-day process, Williams strained her shoulder and had to spend the rest of the time icing it. "I was thinking, 'I did the best I could, and this is really unfortunate.' " But that didn't deter Eilber from offering her a contract on the spot. "I was smiling and crying all at the same time," Williams recalls.

Beyond Graham: Williams has also performed in music videos, including two by Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange). "I'm trying to put myself out there as a dancer and find ways to collaborate across art forms—fashion, music, visual art, all of it." She shares her fashion finds at

What her director is saying: "She has attack and flexibility in her legs, expressive range in her arms. But she also has an innate understanding of character," says Eilber. "She's able to fulfill roles that would usually go to a much more mature dancer, like the Pioneering Woman in Appalachian Spring."

Tuning up and out: For body maintenance, Williams swears by the massages and acupuncture at Fishion Herb Center in Manhattan's Chinatown: "It's so cheap, and they really get in there." Her recipe for relaxation after a long day? "An Epsom salt bath and a glass of wine. I always do that, even on tour."

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Ballet BC dancers Tara Williamson, left, and Darren Devaney in RITE by Emily Molnar. Photo by Chris Randle, Courtesy Ballet BC

Why Do Mixed-Rep Companies Still Rely on Ballet for Company Class?

In a single performance by a mixed-rep company, you might see its shape-shifting dancers performing barefoot, in sneakers and in heels. While such a group may have "ballet" in its name and even a rack of tutus in storage, its current relationship to the art form can be tenuous at best. That disconnect grows wider every year as contemporary choreographers look beyond ballet—if not beyond white Western forms entirely—in search of new inspiration and foundational techniques.

Yet dancers at almost all of the world's leading mixed-rep ensembles take ballet classes before rehearsals and shows. Most companies rarely depart from ballet more than twice a week and some never offer alternative classes.

"The question, 'Why do you take ballet class to prepare you for repertory which is not strictly classical?' has been in the air since Diaghilev's time," says Peter Lewton-Brain, Monaco-based president of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. "What you're doing onstage is often not what you're doing in class."