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Christopher Williams: transforming the strange to the beautiful.

There is something oddly anachronistic about Christopher Williams, the 28-year-old dancer, choreographer, and puppet-master. An intense, medium-size man with a relatively long torso and short, strong legs, his extraordinary jump and sad-clown face make viewers think of Nijinsky. In any onstage group, he's the one you notice, fusing a high]y developed aesthetic sense with the intense focus of a forest animal.

Born in Washington, D.C., he grew up in Syracuse, NY. With support from his parents (mom's a former biology teacher; dad's a senior systems analyst at Syracuse University), Williams studied ballet while in elementary school, but stopped in high school because his classmates gave him a hard time. "I became a big musical theater guy, played Cinderella's prince and the wolf in Into the Woods. I thought I would be an actor, but I got hooked on contemporary dance through Viola Farber at Sarah Lawrence College and could never go back." Williams, who has also studied at the Merce Cunningham school, has composed for his church choir--good preparation for his deeply musical choreography.

"Most of my work has its seed in the concept of stretching beyond humanity into the supernatural, through exploring the space of the unknown," he declared over breakfast on a recent morning. "It's different from normal contemporary dance--it's a puppet show!"

He's performed around the continent and in Bogota, Paris, and St. Petersburg, in his own work, dances by other choreographers, and projects by puppeteers Basil Twist and Dan Hurlin. While al Sarah Lawrence, he pursued a diploma front Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques LeCoq, a French mime school. He's held creative residencies at Djerassi, the White Oak Plantation, Earthdance, and The Yard. In January 2005 he'll be in residence at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Although his main concern is his own choreography, Williams also dances in the companies of Douglas Dunn, Wendy Rogers, Eliza Miller, Risa Jaroslow, and Rebecca Lazier, and performs with Tere O'Connor this month at The Kitchen. Last winter he appeared in a performance by John Kelly, who says of him, "Christopher is an extraordinary talent. When we worked in the studio I gave him lots of animal imagery, which he responded to like a prodigions dolphin. He has a vivid imagination and a facile technique. He is, like me, a restless artist, a chameleon."

Last summer at The Yard, an arts colony devoted entirely to dance, he spent a month making Mandragora Vulgaris, a work based on the medieval legend of the mandrake root. It's performed by Williams and four women whose costumes--padded tangles that resemble parsnips or horseradish--conceal small puppets he made himself. His long-range plan, he says, is to dance for five more years, and then concentrate on his own choreography. He's crafting a cycle of dances inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts. "I'm fascinated by the horrific, erotic, tender, emotionally charged iconography of that time," he says. He broadens his focus on the medieval period to include the plastic arts in his dancing. "Bosch's The Garden of Earthly, Delights cries out for puppetry," he says. "The experience of that painting is how I want to impart lily concept to an audience--from a hellish to a paradisiacal world."

You would think that, what with performing in five troupes, he'd earn enough to support himself and his work. But he also tends box office at a Brooklyn performance space and models for life drawing classes to make ends meet. "A year ago," he says, "the dancing would have been enough, but I feel the change in the economic state. I haven't taken a ballet class in a long time, because I can't pay for it."

When he teaches, he draws from everything he's ever studied, "trying to build a composite from all of the parts. The most interesting dancing accesses so many different qualities; I want dancers to be able to shift qualities seamlessly. To do that you have to build stamina. I see in many dancers a great ability, but it's not sustained through an entire phrase."

"Nijinsky's The Rite of Spring is my favorite piece of choreography ever," he says, referring to Millicent Hodson's reconstruction for the Jeffrey Ballet in the 1980s. He'd like to take on Stravinsky's epochal music himself, but doesn't feel ready yet. "I'd have to be really established to tackle that score. It takes true mastery."

Elizabeth Zimmer, a senior editor at The Village Voice, edited the text of Envisioning Dance for Film and Video, published by Routledge in 2002 (see "DM Recommends," page 69).
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Title Annotation:On the Rise
Author:Zimmer, Elizabeth
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:754
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