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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Christopher Williams

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa AsantewaaInfiniteBody

Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams
(photo: Andrew Jordan)

Christopher Williams is a critically-acclaimed choreographer, dancer, and puppet artist working in New York City and abroad since 1999. His works have been presented internationally in France, England, Italy, Colombia, Holland, Spain, Malawi, and Russia as well as nationally at in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and at Jacob’s Pillow, and in local venues including Lincoln Center, City Center, Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, PS 122, La Mama, and the 92nd Street Y. His commissioners include The Joyce Theater, New York Live Arts, Danspace Project, Opéra National de Bordeaux, English National Opera, Perm Opera & Ballet Theater, Interlochen Center for the Arts, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Princeton University, Philadelphia Dance Projects, Dickinson College, and HERE Arts Center’s Dream Music Puppetry Program. His awards include a 2005 New York Dance & Performance “Bessie” Award and fellowships from The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Center for Ballet and the Arts, and Bogliasco Foundation. He has also been awarded residencies via Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Robert Wilson's Watermill Center, The Liguria Study Center for Arts & Humanities, Bethany Arts Community, the Anderson Center, Movement Research, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, Bates Dance Festival, Djerassi, Yaddo, The Yard, and the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland. He holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, and has performed for Douglas Dunn, Tere O’Connor, Rebecca Lazier, Yoshiko Chuma, John Kelly, and Basil Twist, among others.

Three werewolf cubs in Wolf-in-Skins,
a dance-opera co-created by Christopher Williams
composer Gregory Spears and visual designer Andrew Jordan
(photo: Andrew Jordan)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

Indeed. 2020 was to be an unprecedented “two-show” year for me with commissions from both The Joyce Theater for their Pride Festival at the end of June and from New York Live Arts (where I am currently--and now in theory--a Live Feed Resident Artist). A dream and recent project of mine has been to re-imagine a series of celebrated works from the Ballets Russes era in my own queer choreographic idiom. As part of my preparations to present New York premières of my all-male versions of The Afternoon of a Faun and Les Sylphides at the Joyce, I managed to squeeze in an initial rehearsal intensive with New York City Ballet principal dancer Taylor Stanley, Corps de Ballet member Davide Riccardo, and an outstanding group of contemporary dancers (Brandon Collwes, Charles Gowin, Casey Hess, Justin Lynch, Alexander Olivieri, Logan Pedon, Mac Twining, and Carlo Antonio Villanueva) just before the necessity to isolate became apparent. It remains to be seen whether or not the shows will happen, and I am grappling with how to prepare for them if they do.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

As a “noticeably artistic” boy who loved all things magical and mythological, I couldn’t simply draw a unicorn, or sculpt the Pegasus in plasticine, for example. I had to get up snort, stomp, and prance around the house, don faux wings, toss my imaginary mane, and leap off the couch in an effort to embody the mystical essence of such untouchable beings.

My exasperated parents tried putting me in gymnastics. After seeing my neighbor’s local ballet recital (in which I saw dance for the first time as a form of supernatural transformation) I decided that I wanted to be her.

I started classes. I stopped because I was teased by peers. I later found and threw myself into theater in high school. I started contemporary dance in college under the late dame Viola Farber and knew I had come home. I continued my education at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and returned from Europe knowing that I was to be a choreographer.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning? How does your practice function within the world we have now?

During my imposed “home residency” I’ve been afforded the opportunity to practice a “broader picture” viewpoint with regards to the pieces I’ve currently got in the works. A day or two ago I began thinking again about the six-part dance opera cycle I started working on years ago but have had to keep on the back burner because of the especially limited arts funding climate in our country.

As we find ourselves suddenly bereft of live collective cultural experiences, there is an outcry for them. With the outpouring of performance being made available online to answer that call (including Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle thanks to the Met Opera’s recent free live streaming, the watching of which rekindled thought on my own epic work), it is clear to me just how much we’ve always needed them.

I’m having visions once again of commingling art forms that have become codified and disparate over time but that share a common primordial ancestry. I’m tasking myself with further honing this “Gesamtkunstwerk-style” performance genre that will be able to serve my community just as ritualized performance guided society in ancient Greece, or as far back as the Paleolithic, when the distinct function of performed rituals was to ensure the survival and good health of humankind.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

At this moment in my artistic life, I find myself caring most about discovering as much as we can about the origins of humanity, fostering speculation about our evolution, and generating meaningful new cultural experiences while we continue to exist on this planet. All these things--our origins, our future, and meaning in our current existence-- have been poetically addressed from time immemorial in the mythology and folklore of our many cultures. I guess that’s why I’m obsessed with making movement-based performance centering around mythic or folkloric themes. If such themes have survived and evolved for so long (shapeshifting many times over and recurring in a multitude of cultures), there must be something to them--something of innate value to humanity. My artistic practice, a means to flesh out mythopoetic visions from my own contemporary queer perspective, simply aims to further the conversation about the meaning and value of that certain something today.


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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