[Dudley Williams is] amazing—an inspiration to everybody, a real poet with movement.
–Alvin Ailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey
In a long, brilliant career, Dudley Williams worked with such artists as Martha Graham, Talley Beatty, and Donald McKayle. Most significantly, he was a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for more than forty years. Although Williams retired from that company in 2005, some months before his 67th birthday, he still teaches at the Ailey School. He also makes guest appearances as a teacher at the Martha Graham School. Williams was a co-founder of Paradigm, an ensemble of older dancers, and he has lately performed in concerts mounted by his colleague Earl Mosley.
Terry Stoller interviewed Dudley Williams in August 2013. In a wide-ranging discussion about his life as a dancer, Williams talked about his fruitful association with Alvin Ailey and the artists of his formative years, the inspirations for his technique, the challenges of working with live musicians—and his desire to “dance forever.” Finally, he paid tribute to three very special absent friends.
Terry Stoller: You had the opportunity as a member of the Alvin Ailey company to work with many choreographers, in addition to Ailey. Was that particular to this company?
Dudley Williams: Alvin gave us that opportunity—first of all, a black company, and it wasn’t all black. He had white dancers and Asian dancers, so it was a mixed company. And the idea of Alvin not wanting to hog the theatre—he brought in choreographers and their different kinds of work. Alvin gave us this opportunity to work with all these fabulous choreographers, and we did not get bored doing the same thing, Alvin’s work. When it came time for Revelations, I knew the evening was over. So I used to relax and do anything I wanted to do. It was wonderful working with him. And that was the concept of dance theatre. I tell my students that. This is called the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—theatre is the operative word. Let’s get some drama going, get some comedy or something going. You have to have theatre. That’s what was presented to us from Alvin.
You worked with other companies as well, so you had points of comparison.
Exactly. And Alvin allowed you to make it your own. He would give me fifth position, and I would do [he demonstrates different arm movements]—so it was not balletic port de bras. I was enjoying myself onstage, and he let me do it. Every night it was different for me.
The Ailey company had a large repertoire, but you were expected to do some of the dances over and over again. I know you talk about reaching into yourself and finding what’s in your heart, but were you able to change movements over the years?
I was there for forty-one years. The so-called famous piece for me was “I Want to Be Ready” in Revelations—I don’t know where they got that from because I enjoyed doing a lot of other works just as much. But with “I Want to Be Ready,” you’re lying on the floor, and you’re supposed to start on the left hip, looking down—and then start moving. One day I got onstage in the blackout and thought, I’m not going to do that. And the lights went on, and I could hear Alvin going in the back, What is he doing? We had people in the company that had died, and I used to call them [he raises his arm with an outstretched hand] and bring them down and then start the dance like they were with me. And when I stretched out, I had to let them go because I had to concentrate on all the other stuff that I had. So I let them go slowly as I was doing my movement. And I looked and saw them go, and then I got into the piece. It was a wonderful experience because it gave me something rather than just doing movement. It gave me some gut. I felt good, and if I felt good, you would see it. Somebody would see it. You can’t please everybody in the audience. You try, but you can’t please everybody. But if you could get one person to shed a tear, you’ve got them. That’s what I used to yearn for.
When you were starting out, were there opportunities for black dancers?
May O’Donnell was my teacher during my high school years. (Nancy Lang was a teacher from high school, and Gertrude Shurr was another teacher.) O’Donnell had a multiracial company, and that’s where I started to dance. There was no, You’re this, you’re that. You can’t do leads. I cannot tell you how fortunate I was. It was all by accident. The High School of Performing Arts. Juilliard. All the companies that I’ve been in. All by accident.
In Jennifer Dunning’s book on Alvin Ailey, it says that Ailey called you when he needed another dancer for an overseas tour.
Exactly. ’Cause I worked with Talley Beatty on these pieces that Alvin was taking across the ocean. I knew the pieces, so I was able to teach it to the company because I rehearsed with Talley Beatty from 9 o’clock in the morning every day. I was able to go to Alvin with the choreography in my head—in my body, actually—and show them what Talley wanted.
What was the name of that dance?
Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot.
Later on, you do Beatty’s The Road of the Phoebe Snow with the Ailey company.
The Road of the Phoebe Snow, Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot, and Congo Tango Palace—those ballets I knew before I went to Alvin. And Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder, I knew before I got to Ailey.
The Talley Beatty pieces, what company was that with?
It was independent. He was on his own. He tried to get a company, and he couldn’t. It was a call-up.
Really? He was so brilliant.
Yes, he was. He would call you up and say, Would you dance with me?—and then curse you out. He was vicious. He had a filthy mouth, and he would throw ashtrays and chairs at you. You were sitting there, you were talking about the dance to your friend or your partner, and he used to think you were talking about him. And he would say, “What the F are you talking about over there?”—and pick up a stool and throw it at us. So we knew not to whisper. If we wanted to talk, we would go out in the hallway. Exciting life. It just made it all very exciting.
Could you talk about the dance styles you did with the Ailey company?
We did everything. We did Louis Falco, we did Limón, we did Anna Sokolow. We did them all. I think I danced every style.
Did you have training to do that?
We trained during the rehearsal time. There were seven or eight weeks of rehearsal, and we would have seven or eight weeks of class with them, of training in their style of work.
Katherine Dunham was another one. In the heat that we just had in July (with no air-conditioning), they were sitting there drinking white wine, cold, and we were huffing and puffing. It was incredible. Now that I think about it, I was so fortunate. I didn’t think that at the time. Now that I’m not doing all that stuff—I’m still dancing, but I’m not dancing the way I used to, no jumps and spins and kicks.
You also had the chance to work with great musicians.
Oh, yes. Mary Lou Williams, Max Roach, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. I can’t even tell you how fabulous that was. You can’t ask for any more. You have the greats of the great.
Would that be typical of other companies?
No. I mean the music of Duke Ellington. Come on.
According to Robert Tracy’s 1997 profile of you in Dance Magazine, when you were on that first tour and Ailey wanted you to do Reflections in D—for the first time—you were hesitant because of the many hand movements.
Oh, a lot of twiddling of the fingers. I said, “No, Alvin, I can’t do this.” But I learned it in half an hour, and he threw me out onstage that afternoon in Paris. We were on a raked stage, where we rehearsed. Alvin had a knack of giving you the steps and saying, “I’ll be right back,” and then never showing up. He did that with several pieces that I did. He’d say, “Oh, I’ll get to you. I’ll get to you.” There was one piece, we were doing a Bartók piece, and I was saying, “Alvin, what do I do?” “Oh, I’ll get to you. I’ll get to you.” The curtain went up. I hadn’t been given any choreography. I had to improvise. And I was there emoting, doing all kinds of things, and he never said a mumbling word. So what I did, I kept.
That sounds like a performer’s nightmare.
I enjoyed it because I did a lot of Graham stuff. In the sixties, I was doing Graham and Ailey at the same time. I did that for a number of years.
How did you manage that?
Got on the plane and went to Europe. Got off the plane, performed. Got on the plane, came back. Next one, Alvin. Got on the plane and went to Mexico. Got on the plane and came home.
You have to be young to do that.
I was hungry. Two major companies. The Ailey company wasn’t major when we first went to Paris. We were not known in Europe. Through the newspaper, we got known. Through word of mouth, we got known. The first time we went to Paris and were supposed to be there one week—we stayed six. We conquered Europe. Went to England, we were supposed to be there for one week in London—six. Went to Australia, the same thing.
You went to the Soviet Union in 1970.
Four times around the world. The only place I didn’t go was China. In 1985, I don’t think I went to China because I was injured. I hurt something, my knee.
I think you did a lot of knee work in the Ailey dances.
And low on the floor. When you’re standing up, bent. Everything is down and ground level. You’ve got to look at your public, and whoever’s up there will get it, eventually. I loved it. And now I’m trying to teach that very same thing, and kids do not understand—to be low to the ground and to move the way they feel.
Modern dance is low to the ground?
You have floor primitives. Air primitives. We learned that from Louis Horst. He was Martha Graham’s musician. He played the piano for her in the early days. We had all that training in modern dance. Galliards. Minuets. All the musical terms, we had to dance to. Dancers today are not doing that. They’re doing anything they can kick. Multiple turns.
Why is that?
They go to class, and the teacher is in class with their socks on, and they’re doing all these crazy things from wherever they studied. These young dancers that are teaching nowadays are trying to make a technique for themselves. People my age have passed away or stopped dancing. And so the young dancers don’t have anybody to look up to and say, I would like to work in that technique. To get them to do the Graham technique is a chore—and to do it right, to do it with passion.
Graham was also about going deep into yourself?
Oh, yes. If you see Graham with the shmatte on her head, all that torment that she was going through, that theatrical thing—that’s what we all want to dance. That’s her “I Want to Be Ready,” as mine was the Lester Horton technique. I never studied the Horton technique. I just did the coccyx balance and hinges, the lateral, a T, and that was it. And I did some Graham stuff.
So you were able to change some of those movements as you developed.
With Alvin. Not too many choreographers work like Alvin. Most of them say, do this, and you do that. And if you can get away with doing a little extra, that’s fine.
What about with Talley Beatty?
No. Just the step, please. Nothing else. And if you don’t do just the step, I’ll throw an ashtray at you. You have to do what he gives you. And then you can put the extra little energy. Make an accent, rather than going one and two: and a one, and a two, whatever the step is—accents. That’s what keeps the dance alive.
You premiered some heroic roles: Martin Luther King Jr. in Three Black Kings and Nelson Mandela in Survivors.
Those were very special. Survivors wasn’t done for Mandela. It was done for his wife, Winnie. She’s the one that comes to the jail, and she consoles him. It’s usually the other way around. The man protects the woman. But she comes to the jail with five others—they were “the people,” and they were behind Winnie and Mandela. But it was really a dance for Sharrell Mesh. She was blossoming, and Alvin wanted to use her. Alvin told me, “This isn’t a dance for you. This is a dance for her.” It was a pleasure working with her because she was so tender when she came to the jail. And we made—not love, not sex, but we kissed. And then at the end [he demonstrates the gesture]: right arm up and the fist.
Max Roach composed the music and played for that.
And Abbey Lincoln sang.
I’m wondering whether the dance experience changes if you’re using percussion for the counts.
When I first started rehearsing that piece, I only had the violin section of the piece. I went to Fire Island, and I was on the beach dancing away just to the violin section because I had to count it out. Alvin left it to me to count out. Usually he counted it all out and gave you a paper with all the counts on it. But I went to the beach, and I counted it out, and then when I got back and I heard it with the drums, I said, “Oh, that’s the way it goes.” Then we worked together. Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln came to the studio, and we worked on it. We were fortunate. We didn’t have just a videotape—we had the actual people right there. And then when they got into the orchestra pit, they played something else, as musicians could. They improvise. You can’t count on them.
Just before I broke for the summer, I said to my students, This is your pianist. He doesn’t need this job. He has his own gig. He’s just here for cigarette money. And I tell them, When the curtain goes up and you have a live musician, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Whatever you have choreographed or memorized, you have that in your head, and just keep the beat, ma’am, just keep that beat going and act and dance in between. It’s a terror and a challenge. I’m quoting Martha Graham, but I can see where she meant that. It’s a terror, but a challenge at the same time. You just can’t rely on one, two, three, four; one, two, three—. You’ve got to dance in between that.
As a singer, you can have a conversation with the musicians. And if it’s not exactly the same thing each time, it’s OK, because you can play off one another. But it seems that you can’t really do that as a dancer.
No. On a live recording, Sarah Vaughan sang: “Tha-anks for the memory. Of candlelight and wine, castles on the Rhine—Parthenon. Parthenon? …” She starts again, and it’s totally different. She gets to that word again, and she says, I don’t get this word here. She does it three times. I got in my head—I said, That’s excellent. That’s good for the dance. I’ll do my dance differently each time I start. And that’s what I used. I used her singing. Every time I did a dance, I would try to do it differently.
You can’t do that if you’re partnering.
No. I was a soloist. I did do groups and partnering. Then you have to dance with the person—or the persons. I used to tell them in Revelations, “Don’t watch me.” I’d been known to blank out. I’d be thinking of the steak dinner that I wanted. When I got to Revelations, it was the end of the night, and I knew it well. Alvin used to rehearse us like crazy. “All the dancers and Dudley,” he used to say. ’Cause I used to mark everything. I came in teaching. So I was trying to look around to see who was doing what. So therefore, I was marking and trying to see what was in back of me, and Alvin wanted me to do it full out. I was the one that taught them.
You were a ballet master?
I was a ballet master for a short period of time. And then it was just too much—to do my own work, to concentrate on moi. I was interested in only moi. And then Alvin asked me to assist him. He wanted to give me the company after he died. I said, Alvin, I don’t want this company. And his mother and his brother—they were in the hotel—they tried to get me to head the company, and I didn’t want the job. You’ve got to be a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a doctor, a nurse, a psychiatrist. You have to have a different hat. I couldn’t choreograph. I know how to change things, but I don’t know how to choreograph. And I had no desire to choreograph. Why would I want a company that depends on every year something different coming into the rep? It didn’t make sense to me.
In everything I’ve read about you, from very early on, you were highly praised, and then you became a legend.
Terry, I don’t understand it to this day.
I’ve read that you’re one of the great dancers of your time.
I didn’t read the stuff.
You didn’t take pleasure from being so appreciated?
It never entered my mind. I still don’t think that way. It’s the audience that thinks that way. I think I’m an OK dancer. That’s what I always say to myself: I’m an OK dancer.
What about passing on your dances, showing somebody else how to do your work?
You know what I do? I just show them the steps.
Would you watch the person do the dance?
Oh, yeah. I was in Barcelona, and I was in the audience, and Clive Thompson was onstage doing Love Songs, and he made what I thought were some errors. I said, “No, Clive, it’s so and so and so and so.” And Alvin said, “Let him do what he wants to do.” And that’s the way I started teaching everything. I didn’t give them any of my—Alvin used to call it giving away your secrets. I didn’t try to tell them, Hold, but don’t hold. You’re not really stopping, but you’re slowing up the movement. It’s like the Schlitz sign they used to have in the bars. It was a lamp, and it had all different cutouts on the shade. And as it revolved, you would see the different designs it made on the wall. I said, That’s what I want to incorporate in my dancing, and that was years before I became whatever you called me. I said, I want to dance like that. So it’s not all the same: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight; two, two, three, four, five—then it’s absolutely boring to do. If it’s boring to me, it’s going to be boring to you.
Did James Truitte show you “I Want to Be Ready”?
He’s the one that choreographed the piece. Alvin arranged it. James Truitte choreographed the piece because they were at the Horton school in California, and they went through the coccyx balance, the lateral, the T—all those positions, Jimmy Truitte taught me. And then after Jimmy left the company, Alvin started rehearsing Revelations to bring other people in. And I came out to do Revelations, and he said, “Should I change it for you, Chicken?” He used to call me Chicken. And I said, “I can’t go down on my knee”—I had hurt my knee. “I can’t do the five, four, swing.” They have names for all these sets. I said, “I can’t do that attitude and go to the floor at the end.” So we went into the Graham technique, and I snatched up out of the Graham technique, and I used it.
What kept you wanting to stay with the Ailey company?
Wanting to dance.
Was it wanting to be part of that particular company?
That particular company—since I spent so many years with it, I felt entitled. That’s what kept me with them. When I was with the Graham company, I wasn’t Hercules. I wasn’t one of those muscle men. And it was a woman’s company. It was about Martha. It wasn’t about Paul Taylor or Bertram Ross or anybody else that danced with her. We used to go around and idolize Martha. With Alvin, we never did that. Even when he was dancing. He was dancing for a short period of time. It was my desire to be there, and I fought hard for that.
Dancers often retire at a certain age. Did you go through some soul-searching about continuing?
No. I can do it. I can raise my leg—
Come to think of it, Fred Astaire was dancing at a later age.
Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, May O’Donnell, José Limón, Danny Nagrin. All these people. Alvin was alive when I said I want to dance forever. He gave me a book by Daniel Nagrin, How to Dance Forever. I never read it. I don’t want to know about your interests and how you want to do it. I’m concerned about me, how I want to do it. Let me do it the way I want to do it. I don’t need any secrets.
Tell me about Paradigm. Are you still involved with them?
Isn’t that funny! I was thinking about that last night. I haven’t heard from Gus [Solomons Jr.] or Carmen [de Lavallade] in at least a year and a half. The three of us started Paradigm. It built to a little company with Sarita Allen, Hope Clarke, Michael Blake, Robert La Fosse, Valda Setterfield, and Karen Brown. Anyway, I haven’t heard from them. Gus hurt his back.
You’re involved with a different group now?
Yes. Earl Mosley. He teaches at the Ailey School, and he gives a concert for his students, once, twice a year. He has choreographed two pieces for me. Brian Harlan Brooks choreographed a piece for me titled The Lesson, and I did it during the winter at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center.
So you’re working.
Not every day like I used to, but it’s nice to put the cigarettes down for a couple of hours and perform.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
There’s something that I’ve never told any interviewer, and I want to say this, and I mean it from the heart. I grew up with fabulous dancers: Ramon Segarra, Bob Powell, Bill Louther. Those three guys, they were with Alvin and Martha. Ramon Segarra wasn’t with Martha. He was with City Ballet and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. But we had a thing when we were talking about dance and what we were going to do in 2000 and what we were going to do in 2001, and so forth. I owe them because I stole all the cookies. We used to say, “I’m going to steal all the cookies when I get to so-and-so.” And I’m the only one left, so I have the cookies in my hand. They all died some strange way—and young. It was four of us that were so close. And I owe them the fact that we had engaged in battle amongst ourselves: Who can be better? Alvin used to say, you’re only in competition with yourself. That’s not true. You’re in competition with others, but it doesn’t have to be vicious. I don’t have to put glass in your toe shoes. I just have to be better than you. And that’s the way we worked it. But I’m the only one that’s alive to inherit those cookies. I’m very fortunate, and I know I’m very fortunate. I can still dance.
Dudley Williams passed away in late spring 2015. He was 76.
Unless otherwise specified, the dances cited in the interview were choreographed by Alvin Ailey. Mary Barnett was his co-choreographer for Survivors. In the graphic, the majority of the dances were choreographed by Alvin Ailey, except for the following: Hobo Sapiens by George Faison; Caravan by Louis Falco; The Road of the Phoebe Snow, Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot, and Congo Tango Palace by Talley Beatty; Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder by Donald McKayle; Metallics by Paul Sanasardo.
Archival footage of Dudley Williams in rehearsal and in performance can be viewed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. His work can also be seen in a number of films that feature the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In addition, there are clips of the Paradigm ensemble with Dudley Williams, Gus Solomons Jr., and Carmen de Lavallade in the film Carmen & Geoffrey: The Extraordinary Lives of Dancers Carmen de Lavallade & Geoffrey Holder.
Ailey, Alvin. Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. With A. Peter Bailey. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1995. See page 122.
Dunning, Jennifer. Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. See page 188.
Tracy, Robert. “Dudley Williams: Love Songs to Alvin.” Dance Magazine 71, no. 12 (Dec. 1997): 54–57.
Photograph by Wolfgang Strunz.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council