Ballet West has been running for 53 seasons as of this fall, and a company with that kind of legacy doesn't shy away from any kind of show, whether it be traditional or experimental. On Nov. 4, the company premieres its production of Madame Butterfly
with a live orchestra, running for only eight performances out of the Capitol Theatre. Today we chat with one of the leading dancers of the production, Arolyn Williams, about her career and her thoughts on the show before it kicks off this weekend. (All pictures provided courtesy of Ballet West.
Gavin: Hey Arolyn! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hey! So I've been with Ballet West for my whole career so far, starting in Ballet West II, for 12 seasons, going on 13. I was promoted to principal dancer in 2013. When I'm not dancing, I really love hiking and camping. When we have a layoff during the summer, most often my husband and I will be taking a road trip somewhere, or camping in one of the national parks. Cooking and good food and good beer are also high up on my list.
What first got you interested in ballet as you were growing up?
I went to see The Nutcracker
when I was three and was spellbound. I wanted to start ballet classes right away, but I had to wait until I turned 6, which seemed like a long time. Later, when I was around 10, the Washington Ballet toured to the area, and a few of us got to be extras in their Hansel and Gretel
. That was the first time I was around real professional dancers, and realized that it could be an actual career. The idea that you could get paid to dance, I was set on it from then on.
What was it like for you getting involved with dance early on and learning the ropes?
I was lucky to have really good teachers. My first had danced with Houston and Boston Ballet, and later, when my family moved to Massachusetts, I studied with Gail Collins. Her son, Jeremy, had been a principal with American Ballet Theater, and he gave a lot of insight into what it was like in the professional ballet world. My mom and I spent a lot of time driving, as the school was an hour away. My whole world revolved around ballet at this point, so anything I might have been missing out on didn't really bother me. Most of all, I just loved being onstage and performing.
What made you decide to join the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and what was your time like there?
I knew I wanted to go away to study somewhere year-round, and it just felt like the right time. It was a spur of the moment audition, and I'm so happy I ended up going to UNCSA. Because it is an arts
school, not just ballet, I was surrounded by musicians, visual artists, film students, theater students, etc. It really opened up my world in a good way, and I felt so free being with other people who were also so passionate about their art.
How did the opportunity come about to join Ballet West II in 2004?
During our spring performance at UNCSA, I was dancing the lead in a Lynn Corbett Taylor piece called Lost and Found
. The school had invited a bunch of artistic directors there to see the shows and give lectures and teach masterclasses. The following day, after the show, one of my teachers told me I needed to go take the Ballet West masterclass. I hadn't been planning on it, because they had a reputation for being a really tall company, and I was shorter than the height requirement at the time. Afterward, Jonas Kage (artistic director at the time) offered me a Ballet West II position. It was their first year starting it up, but I was over the moon to get a real paying job in a major ballet company. I honestly would have taken anything at that point, so I feel really lucky that it ended up being here, in such an awesome company in a place I've come to love.
What was your time like being a part of that section of the company and performing in Utah in general?
At first, it was intimidating, just being in a company. There are unspoken rules that you don't necessarily learn in school. My first year, we did a lot of outreach, probably 80+ shows of Ballet West for Kids. It was hard, because you are dancing in all of these difficult spaces, but I loved it too. You come out with so many funny stories, and seeing all the reactions from the kids really makes you appreciate how special a job it is. When you spend that much time together, your group becomes like a little family. It was also nice getting the extra coaching and the chance to work on some principal roles. Once you get into the main company, you get less attention, you have to figure out how to constantly be working on yourself without someone always pushing you. I also fell in love with Utah at this time. I had grown up hiking in Massachusetts, and my first summer here I discovered I could walk right into the foothills, which offered endless exploration. I went hiking there practically every day.
What would you say you learned the most from BWII before joining the primary company in 2006?
Mainly being responsible and on top of it. The way you present yourself. How to dance well in the corps and give even the smallest roles respect and value. I'm really grateful for those two years. Although I didn't necessarily realize it at the time, I needed them, and by the second year, I was much more ready.
How would you say you've developed as a performer as you've grown to be a part of the principal dance crew?
It definitely took me awhile to adjust. When you are the underdog, it is almost easier. Once you are a principal, it's not such a big deal anymore if you have a good show; you are expected
to deliver all the time. The audience knows you and expects to see a certain level of excellence. At first, it was hard dealing with that pressure, because I felt like I was the same dancer I've always been, it was only the title that had changed. And yet suddenly you are being held to a different standard. Eventually, if you don't want it to make you crazy, you just have to own it, know that you've been promoted for a reason, and identify and capitalize on what makes you special as a dancer instead of comparing yourself to others. I'm trying to just enjoy where I'm at now, to let it be freeing instead of paralyzing.
What have been your favorite shows you've performed to date, and why?
Well, Madame Butterfly
for sure is one of my favorites; it was my first real breakout role last time we did it, so it's close to my heart in that respect. The movement feels organic to me, and I love the acting. Getting to perform Titania in Ashton's The Dream
, and getting coached by Anthony Dowell. Also Nicolo Fonte's Rite of Spring
and Helen Pickett's But Never Doubt I Love
What kind of honor is it for you to be performing in Madame Butterfly?
It's always an honor getting to dance the title role of a ballet; even as principal dancers, this is never guaranteed. So it comes with responsibility as well. I love this ballet so much, and I really want to do it justice. It's also such a rare and special opportunity getting to return to a dramatic role like this after seven years. It is so interesting to get to see it through new eyes and a different perspective.
What's your favorite part of the overall show that you enjoy performing the most?
The pas de deux between Butterfly and Pinkerton at the end of the first act is my favorite part to dance
. It just flows and builds with the music, and you really feel like you are being swept off your feet. It is so challenging and so long, but that allows you some freedom, too. You have time to go from feeling shy and scared to falling deeply and totally in love with this guy. The last scene is also one of my favorites, even though it is so painful. The music just puts you in that place, and there's something that is both cathartic and scary and satisfying about emotionally going somewhere that intense with a character.
How has it been bringing this show to life with the other dancers and crew?
It's been amazing watching everyone bring it to life. I think this company is really strong when it comes to acting, and I find it so inspiring watching everyone giving it their all. It makes it that much easier to lose yourself in the world when everyone is equally committed. I already think it's really powerful even in the studio with piano music, so I can't wait to get onstage with the costumes and the orchestra!
What are your thoughts going into opening night?
I'm really excited! I can't wait to share this gorgeous ballet with audiences. I hope that all of our hard work comes through, and audiences are able to lose themselves in the story with us. For me, I hope that when I get out there I won't have to think about anything, that I can just step aside and let Butterfly take over.
What can we expect from you over the rest of 2016 and going into next year?
Next up is The Nutcracker.
I'll be dancing a few different roles, but my favorites are Grand Pas (Sugarplum Fairy) and the Snow Pas de Deux. Grand Pas is so sweeping and romantic, while still being technically very pure. And I love the material, just the inherent goodness of the Sugarplum Fairy. Snow Pas is just magical, and the music is so exciting. I'm also really excited to revisit Sleeping Beauty
in February. Last time we performed it, I broke my foot, so I'm looking forward to dancing it feeling strong. It is such a technical challenge, but that can be really satisfying in its own way.