by Jenny Ouellette and Anna Brooks
Reprinted from the 2022 Spoleto Festival USA program book
In 2014, Ebony Williams made her Spoleto debut with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Audiences may remember her dancing: powerful yet precise with liquid-like limbs flowing this way and that—a radiant, fearless, and inimitable mover. Outside of the contemporary ballet realm, Williams was renowned, too. At home in socks, pointe shoes, and high heels, the Boston native was conquering both the concert dance and the commercial dance worlds with performances alongside Beyoncé, Rihanna, Fergie, and Ciara.
Fast forward to 2022, and Williams’s search for new challenges has only intensified. She claims her role as dancemaker, creating stage performances for Aicia Keys and Doja Cat and serving as an associate choreographer for the film In the Heights and for Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill.
This season, Williams returns to Spoleto for more boundary breaking: choreographing a baroque-meets-contemporary opera. Following a winter workshop for Karim Sulayman’s Unholy Wars, Williams shared her first operatic experiences and divulged how creating work set to Monteverdi and Alicia Keys is wildly different in one sense yet, at its core, all the same.
What was your first reaction when you were asked to choreograph Unholy Wars?
I was surprised, because typically one might see an opera and no dance is involved. So, my first question was: Am I allowed to have a dancer? After talking to Karim and Kevin [Newbury, director], and getting an understanding of what their expectations were for me as choreographer, I was really excited because of the possibility of pairing such intricate movement with incredible, amazing voices.
The dancer, Coral Dolphin, has a similar classical meets- commercial resumé. What draws you to her?
I’ve known Coral for a long time. At Cedar Lake I used to host girls’ nights—invite a group of women into the dance studio as a way to build camaraderie and share creativity. Before that, we’d done a commercial job together for Jennifer Hudson. At the time, Coral was working with Ronald K. Brown. I loved her versatility. And when it came to Unholy Wars, I knew she was the right person. She exhibits strength and grace at the same time, which completely inspires me. Plus, she understands my vocabulary, so I felt safe in working with her in this capacity.
What was the process when setting movement for Coral?
The first day of the workshop was the absolute first day that Coral and I started to work on the material. It was pretty go-with-the-flow, which I thrive in. The process, however, was a combination of the collaborative and improvisational. I am familiar with Coral’s movement quality—which was one of the reasons I selected her. She’s also skilled in capoeira, which allows for a moment of fight choreography. So, while I knew a few things I wanted to incorporate, I didn’t have
specific movement planned. I’m a huge collaborator, so also learning Karim’s vision of the work was hugely important and helped to lay a lot of the groundwork.
In watching Unholy Wars, there’s a seamlessness between Coral and the singers’ movements. How is that achieved? What is it like to set movement on non-dancing singers?
While these singers didn’t have strong dance backgrounds, they are all great natural movers. That was such a boon, because you never know what to expect at the start of a new project. I tend to use visual imagery to help singers get to a place that allows them to be comfortable in their skin to move.
Karim is a natural mover. He’s tall with a strong presence—it was easy to capitalize on that. Plus, he knows the material so well because it is his, which helped create movement to convey a story. That allows for that seamlessness. Raha Mirzadegan had a background in fighting. Its crucial to find those moments in nondancers’ everyday lives that may feel like dance. Using their strengths as much as possible can make it feel fluid. I was also more at ease knowing that I had the support of Coral, who took on a role of associate choreographer and could help coach the other performers.
You’ve owned the titles dancer, choreographer, and director. Do you see others following in your footsteps?
I think the role of creator has been in the depths of most dancers for a long time. I know I considered myself a creator long before I was credited for it. But now, especially in going through the pandemic, dancers have found the courage to be OK with not staying in one box. Artists want to make sure their voices are heard. Artists have always been a huge part of the awakening after trying times, and art can help move the needle and bring a lot out of the dark. Now we are moving forward in a space where we won’t just be quiet, especially when it comes to our own work. Artists don’t want to wait for someone else to create a job. They want to be the person who’s driving the ship—not just jumping on board.
Is your approach to choreography different when you’re creating movement for a world tour versus a concert dance piece—or even this opera?
For me, music drives everything and all the elements. So that’s a similarity of where creation starts.
Still, it depends on the artists I’m working with, because everyone has different backgrounds and needs. Alicia Keys is very different from Beyoncé. Even for one artist, choreographing for a live show is different from TV. Movement for a show in an arena that holds hundreds of thousands of people is different than work for 20,000 people or even 5,000 people. Choreographers must be chameleons, always.
Is there anything that you might take from this experience and apply to your other projects?
I want to continue to push artists who I work with and let them know it’s OK to step outside of your box. It’s so evident that the Unholy Wars team really wants to do that. I do feel like this process has made me stronger as an artist. And because I am diving into several different genres, often all at once, it’s reaffirming to know that it’s possible, especially for my personal growth as a choreographer, director, and creator. I am moving towards that trust in myself.