Q&A: Ann Williams of Dallas Black Dance Theatre

Photo: Brian Guilliaux
Photo: Brian Guilliaux

The Artistic Director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre on the company’s roots and its Cultural Awareness Series, this weekend at the Wyly Theatre.

Dallas — For its 36th season as the oldest, continuously operating professional dance company in Dallas, Dallas Black Dance Theatre presents “History in Motion,” part of the company’s Cultural Awareness Series, Feb. 22-24 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre.

“Powerful and meaningful, each of the works selected for the series represents the impact of African and African-American choreographers in shaping modern dance in today’s world,” according to a DBDT press release.

The program includes a ballet depicting the life of renowned African-American Artist Romare Bearden by Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts instructor Bridget Moore; an African ritualistic dance by Asadata Dafora entitled Awassa Astrige/Ostrich; and Negro Spirituals sung by Sandra King Stewart with narration by DBDT Founder and Artistic Director Ann Williams.

For 36 years, Williams has directed the DBDT from a community-based organization and a semi-professional origination to a full professional dance company. She received her early dance training under Barbara Hollis (a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company), Edith James, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. Williams is a graduate of Prairie View A&M University and received a Master of Arts Degree in Dance and Related Arts from Texas Woman’s University. In 2008, she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy of Dance from Texas Woman’s University.

TheaterJones asks Ann Williams about the inspiration behind this year’s theme “History in Motion,” how the changes in the Dallas Arts scene have impacted the company and her expectations for the organization’s future.

TheaterJones: This years Cultural Awareness Series focuses on the theme History in Motion. How did that concept come about?

Ann Williams: Well, our whole year is centered on this theme History in Motion. History of course because we are celebrating 36 years which is very distinctive to us and motion because it does not stand still. When we looked at our repertory for this year all the pieces really move and it’s more contemporary than ever. Most of our programs for this year also cover [several] eras.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre is celebrating its 36th season. To what do you attribute the companys success?

We really have a great staff especially my relationship with our Executive Director Zenetta Drew. She is in charge of all the business aspects and administration and then I am in charge of all the artistic programs. I never go out on my own in terms of the artistic programs without consulting her. We have planned the last 20 or so seasons together. So, to answer your question it’s really the relationship between the artistic director and executive director and then we are supported by our board of directors.

Can you tell me a little bit about the pieces we are going to see this week?

This program’s title really is African American Choreographers: A Historical Overview. My narration is going to open the program. I am going to tell the audience about the program they are going to see from the very beginning of African American choreographers and how our early years have affected the choreography you see African Americans doing today.

So, we are going to open our program with Awassa Astrige/Ostrich by Asadata Dafora, the first piece of choreography that was ever done by an African-American, and end with choreographers of the new generation, including Bridget Moore and Christopher Huggins. After I go through the pioneers I am going to then talk about the masters, including Tally Beatty and Alvin Ailey and from there go into the new beginners. So, it’s really a journey of historical movement from Black choreographers and the idea is for the audience to be able to see that there is really no place for modern dance without the African American choreographers.

Was this series a collaborative effort between the company and the choreographers?

Yes, it was very much a collaborative effort because the dancers were very involved in this process. In fact, when I sat down a month ago to talk to them about the concept for our February show they were all enthused because there is something that is not in the history books of African American dance and that is improvisation. So, when the dancers hear a poem that is symbolic or a beat of a Blues song they have the opportunity to improvise. I would then relate this too a worship scene in a church where men and women would get up and move which was not choreographed. Some of those very movements and feelings have remained and have become the ideas that African American choreographers now use to make new pieces.

The Dallas Arts scene has changed a lot in the past five years. How have these changes affected your company?

One of the positive changes in the last five years is that we have been able to claim the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre as our home and that is very important to a dance company. Having been here for 36 years and to finally be recognized as having a theater has been a major positive for us.

Another positive is that we now have our own space for the company, academy and the administration located downtown. Being in the Arts District gives us more awareness and we feel has gained us more of an audience. We have also been able to do more collaborative programs with our neighbors, including the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Dallas Theater Center, the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Museum of Art. Those two things could not have been more wonderful for Dallas Black Dance Theatre.

What are your expectations for the future of the organization?

Well, my aspiration for Dallas Black Dance Theatre is that is remains a contemporary modern dance company that does nothing but give out the very best in modern dance which includes having the best dancers and programs. That’s my wish for DBDT, but Ann Williams will not always be here.

I am looking two years out and I want to bring in the next artistic director who is also a choreographer. We don’t want to become like the Martha Graham Company where all the pieces are by that choreographer, but I do feel that it’s time the company brought in an artistic director who would also do choreography so the dancers can begin to look at a certain style. We consider ourselves a repertory company, but this is where I want to see the company going.

This interview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


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