"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.”
"Doing commercial jobs feels like recess." —Ebony Williams
Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.
They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!
This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.
As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.
I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.
My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.
A telegram from Lincoln Kirstein to Arthur Mitchell inviting him to join New York City Ballet; an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Suzanne Farrell and Mitchell in Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue; a sparkly red and purple Firebird costume and headpiece from Dance Theatre of Harlem's 1982 production—these are just some of the treasures on display at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery as part of an exhibit titled Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer. Open to the public through March 11, this collection offers a glimpse into Mitchell's boundary-breaking life and career.
Mitchell was raised in Harlem, and joined NYCB in 1955 at the age of 21. He quickly rose to the rank of principal, and is known for originating lead roles in works such as Agon and A Midsummer Night's Dream. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1969, Mitchell co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with his former teacher, Karel Shook. Under his over 40-year directorship, DTH became the first African American classical ballet company to achieve international acclaim. In 2015 Mitchell donated his archive to Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, starting a chain of events including a performance last October designed to share his vast contributions to diversity in dance with the public.
Arthur Mitchell in class, 1960s. Photo by Milton Oleaga. Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.
You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.
How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.
Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas
As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."
McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.
Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.
Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.
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