"Doing commercial jobs feels like recess." —Ebony Williams
Ballet fans know Ebony Williams as one of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s most striking dancers, with beautiful feet and legs that add ballerina polish to the company’s diverse repertoire. But to the rest of the world, Williams is best known as one of the backup dancers who helped make Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” music video a sensation. In fact, Williams has become a go-to girl on the commercial scene: She recently appeared in Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video, and has also worked with Jennifer Hudson, Rihanna and Fergie.
Though Williams has bona fide ballet credentials—she trained at Boston Ballet School and The Boston Conservatory—she sees her commercial gigs as a return to her roots. “When I was a kid, I started out learning all the street styles with my friends, and that was how people first noticed that I should probably be in dance school,” she says. “While I was training in ballet I had to put all that on the back burner for a while so that I could become a technician. Now that I have the technique, it’s fun to come back to the type of dance I started out doing.”
Williams sees her forays into commercial work as opportunities to grow. “Every dancer should try to experience dance in every way they can,” she says. “Frankly, I get itchy and antsy if I’m not doing something on the side! There’s always more to learn.”
I had grown up watching Kyra Nichols and Wendy Whelan dancing "Diamonds," and it was my absolute dream to dance it, too. I immediately connected to "Diamonds." It's big, dramatic movement, nothing small, and I don't think there's anything small about my dancing. I have to reach deep down in my soul to do this ballet, to rise to the level of the choreography, the costumes..."Diamonds" is just on another level from anything else I've done. It takes everything out of you, if you're willing to put that much into it.
Monday morning class after a three-day weekend? Stiff. After eight weeks off? Agonizing.
For most professional dancers on their summer layoff, a break from the daily grind is simultaneously exciting and unnerving. These months are often reserved for recovery and rest—a necessary opportunity to let the body repair and recharge. How dancers spend their summer break is mixed: some teach at summer intensives; some take the extended time to travel, visiting family or exploring internationally; some choose not to pause, performing at galas or festivals; and some just want to stay home, feet up, movies on. Depending on where you dance, the break might span a couple weeks or a couple months. Regardless of length, it involves a physical wind down, as well as a build back up. While it's never going to feel entirely easy, here are a few pro tips to help smooth the transition between 1 and 100 percent.
The soloist in "Rubies" has been one of my favorite roles since the first time I danced it. I was in the corps then and it was one of my first big parts. It's so powerful and freeing. My favorite moment is when I come straight down center towards the audience, doing these sort of strutting walks on pointe. You're not playing to anyone else onstage. You're playing straight to the house. And the section with the four boys is really unusual; it's not often that a woman is onstage with four men, but she's still the one in charge. When I'm doing the penchés going offstage at the end of the first movement, I try to be calm and hope that the audience can't tell I'm trembling inside, or that my supporting leg is wobbling.
Maura Bell was determined to have a ballet career. But as a high school senior, she didn't feel ready to audition for companies yet. “I knew I had more maturing to do, both technically and as a young woman," she remembers. Bell started researching collegiate options and discovered that Indiana University's ballet department hosted a two-week summer intensive for pre-college students. “The reputation of IU spoke for itself, so I decided to do the summer intensive to get a feel for what it would be like to go there."
The deciding moment came at the end of her second week, when department chair Michael Vernon led her and fellow students on a tour of IU's Musical Arts Center. “I remember standing on that stage—it's the size of the Met— and it just clicked: This was where I wanted to be, my dream school," she recalls. Bell auditioned for the ballet department that fall. Four years later, she credits the training and connections she made at IU with her ultimate post-graduation success: a contract with Saint Louis Ballet.
College summer programs offer students a chance to experience what life would be like as a dance major, and introduce them to a wide range of possibilities for their training and future career. Even those on the fence about going to school could benefit from spending a few weeks on campus—along with the strong focus on individual development, collegiate summer intensives allow students to meet year-round faculty and current dance majors, scope out the dorms and dance facilities, and do some major networking.
I think "Emeralds" is more of an acquired taste than "Rubies" or "Diamonds." There aren't really any difficult steps, but it's extremely hard to pull off because of its simplicity. You can't just "sell it." But the musicality and simplicity come together so perfectly to make it dramatic and sweeping, and just so much fun to dance.
Former New York City Ballet principal Suzanne Farrell is famous as George Balanchine's muse, yet Balanchine wasn't the only choreographer whom she inspired. In 1984 her then-husband, Paul Mejia, also a former NYCB dancer, created a piece for her called Eight by Adler, a jazzy ballet set to the music of Richard Adler. Beginning at 0:45 after a short intro, Farrell performs the first movement in this clip from the ballet's premiere with the Chicago City Ballet.The slender, long-limbed Farrell saunters across the stage, at moments giving the audience playful smiles and sideways glances. The choreography feels improvisational, befitting Farrell's proclivity for off-balance, suspended movement. With a full jazz band onstage, the music is equally the star in this solo. Even though the slow and sultry piece is a far cry from Balanchine's fast footwork, Farrell's mesmerizing performance in Eight by Adler is a stunning example of Mr. B's famous slogan: "See the music, hear the dance." Happy #ThrowbackThursday!