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Where Her Secret Lies
Ebony Williams stands alone, strong and radiant in a pale leotard, facing a crowd of thousands. It's the 2015 Made in America Festival in Philadelphia, and the audience of Beyoncé fans is awaiting their queen. Instead of the familiar music, however, poet Maya Angelou's powerful voice rains down: “Many people wonder where my secret lies…," and Williams dances. The spectators fall nearly silent—something unheard of at Beyoncé concerts. Angelou describes the “reach of my arms," “the span of my hips," “the stride of my step," and Williams majestically flows between endless extensions and haughty swagger. An immaculate fouetté melts into a sassy stride. A delicate cabriole falls into a luxurious backbend. The solo, choreographed by Williams herself, represents both facets of her eclectic career as a concert dancer who's conquered the commercial world.
Williams was catapulted into a new chapter of her career last year when, after a decade spent dancing with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, the company unexpectedly shut its doors. Having long used commercial dance as a side gig, she now rocks heels full-time on Beyoncé's Formation World Tour. But she still carries pointe shoes in her dance bag “just in case."
Many dancers have a clear-cut path in the dance world. Williams, however, never felt like she quite fit the confines of either the concert or commercial mold. Having mimicked music videos from the time she could walk, she began training in third grade with Boston Ballet's tuition-free outreach program, Citydance, and started more rigorous classes at Boston Ballet School two years later.
Though her strength made her a standout from a young age, she struggled with being the only black dancer in class and with the cutthroat competition from her peers. She stopped dancing in high school, spending six years away from the studio, but was eventually pulled back. “I always say that dance chose me, because I couldn't stop missing it," she says. Acceptance into The Boston Conservatory sealed the deal. While pursuing her BFA, Williams set her heart on joining the newly founded Cedar Lake, which she felt would allow her to incorporate her natural edge. It took less than a year after graduation for that dream to become reality.
She spent 10 years with the company, performing choreography by contemporary masters like Ohad Naharin, Hofesh Shechter and Crystal Pite. “I learned who I was as a dancer and a human," she says of her time there. “I had the comfort of a company with the freedom to try other things." During off-time, she danced with artists like Rihanna, Fergie and Ciara, and had a starring role in Beyoncé's iconic “Single Ladies" music video in 2008. Meanwhile, she savored the intimacy of the concert dance world and the camaraderie of company life at Cedar Lake.
When the company announced its closing in March 2015, Williams felt the hit. The dancers were shocked to hear that Cedar Lake's founding benefactor had pulled out, and they only had a few months left. “Looking back, I should have seen it coming," she says. “There was a big shift of energy the last six months to a year. Still, I was shocked and devastated. I pictured myself going to shows as an audience member 15 years from now, watching choreography that was created on me, and seeing how it had evolved. Now that will never happen."
Instead of panicking, Williams pushed herself in new directions. She took vocal lessons and auditioned for Broadway and film, even making it to a final cut for The Wiz Live! on NBC. She posted her successes and disappointments (complete with comfort food) to a growing social media following. “My goal was to try everything—and to be okay with not being perfect," she says.
Even on Beyoncé's Formation World Tour, Williams (far right) practices pointework in her downtime. PC Daniela Vesco, Courtesy Clear Talent Group
It wasn't long before Beyoncé's team asked Williams to perform at the 2015 Made in America Festival. She jumped at the chance. “It was a new beginning," she says. “It was the other half of my dream."
Since then, Williams has stayed by Beyoncé's side, marching in formation at the Super Bowl halftime show, breaking the internet with “Lemonade" and, now, on the five-month Formation World Tour. The fast pace of the commercial world initially required some adjustment. “The saying 'Time is money' definitely applies," she says. “The commercial world wants quicker results—from the creation process to learning choreography." Other big changes include the sheer size of the audiences (many holding up phones or iPads) and the perks: gifts from designers and sponsors.
Williams still embraces her classical roots. Between the 2016 Super Bowl and Formation rehearsals, for example, she traveled to the Netherlands to perform with The Francesca Harper Project at the Holland Dance Festival. She also hopes to find time to work with Richard Siegal on an upcoming project and possibly with Crystal Pite. Despite the absence of regular technique classes, she keeps her body in ballet shape on her own with daily warm-ups and exercises. “I always have pointe shoes with me, and I'll do relevés while I watch 'Law & Order' or HGTV," she says. “When Francesca Harper asked me to put them on, I had to trust that it was still in my body, like riding a bike."
Williams also hopes to expand her choreographic and acting skills, and perhaps even spearhead a few projects of her own. In the meantime, she plans to hold the two sides of her dance persona close. “I couldn't live without either part of my career—the classical or the commercial," she says. “And I'll never let either side go, because both are what make me Ebony."
Her commercial career has made Ebony Williams more of a nomad, which has given her the chance to focus on another passion: mentorship. She's hosted workshops across the country, including in her hometown of Boston, and taught at New York City Dance Alliance's winter intensive. “The young people I teach remind me of myself—sitting there with pen and paper wanting to know it all," she says.
Her biggest lesson is one she wishes she'd heard at a young age: Be yourself. “In the commercial world, I'm pegged as classical, but in the concert world, I'm considered rebellious and funky," says Williams. “I've felt too skinny in some situations and too big in others. I talk to kids about the fact that I'm still afraid to disappoint. I have to remind myself that I'm here because someone sees the best in me, because I can bring joy to others." —RZ
When Rachel Hamrick was in the corps of Universal Ballet in Seoul, her determination to strengthen her flexibility turned into a side hobby that would eventually land her a new career. "I was in La Bayadere for the first time, and I was the first girl out for that arabesque sequence in The Kingdom of the Shades," she says. "I had the flexibility, but I was wobbly because I wasn't stretching in the right way. That's when I first started playing around with the idea of the Flexistretcher. It was tied together then, so it was definitely more makeshift," she says with a laugh, "But I trained with it to help me get the correct alignment so that I would have the strength to sustain the whole act."
Now, Hamrick is running her own business, complete with an ever-growing product line and her FLX training method—all because of her initial need to make it through 38 arabesques.
For the new Broadway season, Ellenore Scott has scored two associate choreographer gigs: For Head Over Heels, which starts previews June 23, Scott is working with choreographer Spencer Liff on an original musical mashing up The Go-Go's punk-rock hits with a narrative based on Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 book, Arcadia. Four days after that show opens, she'll head into rehearsals for this fall's King Kong, collaborating with director/choreographer Drew McOnie and a 20-foot gorilla.
Scott gave us the inside scoop about Head Over Heels, the craziness of her freelance hustle and the most surprising element of working on Broadway.
Dance in movies is a trend as old as time. Movies like The Red Shoes and Singin' in the Rain paved the way for Black Swan and La La Land; dancing stars like Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers led the way for Channing Tatum and Julianne Hough.
Lucky for us, some of Hollywood's most incredible dance scenes have been compiled into this amazing montage, featuring close to 300 films in only seven minutes. So grab the popcorn, cozy on up, and watch the moves that made the movies.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
If you want to know how scary the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s, come see Ishmael Houston-Jones' piece THEM from 1986. This piece reveals the subterranean fears that crept into gay relationships at the time. Houston-Jones is one of downtown's great improvisers, and his six dancers also improvise in response to his suggestions. With Chris Cochrane's edgy guitar riffs and Dennis Cooper's ominous text, there's an unpredictable, near-creepy but epic quality to THEM.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
Chantel Aguirre may call sunny Los Angeles home, but the Shaping Sound company member and NUVO faculty member spends more time in the air, on a tour bus or in a convention ballroom than she does in the City of Angels.
Aguirre, who is married to fellow Shaping Sound member Michael Keefe, generally only spends one week per month at home. "When I'm not working, I'm exploring," Aguirre says. "Michael and I are total travel junkies."
Akram Khan and Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine) is not a pairing we ever would have dreamt up. But now that the music video for "Big God" has dropped, with choreography attributed to Khan and Welch, it seems that we just weren't dreaming big enough.
In the video, Welch leads a group of women standing in an eerily reflective pool of water. They seem untouchable, until they begin shedding their colorful veils, movements morphing to become animalistic and aggressive as the song progresses.
Savannah Lowery is about as well acquainted with the inner workings of a hospital as she is with the intricate footwork of Dewdrop.
As a child, the former New York City Ballet soloist would roam the hospital where her parents worked, pushing buttons and probably getting into too much trouble, she says. While other girls her age were clad in tutus playing ballerina, she was playing doctor.
"It just felt like home. I think it made me not scared of medicine, not scared of a hospital," she says. "I thought it was fascinating what they did."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.