In the other-worldly dance universe of Christopher Williams, objects, costumes, and sounds are as vital to the whole as the movements themselves. The 31-year-old artist, one of two guest choreographers taking part in Princeton University’s Spring Dance Festival at the Berlind Theater Friday through Sunday, February 23 through 25, incorporates his skill as a puppet-master into the imaginative dances he creates.
“For me, puppets are often an extension of the human anatomy in my work,” says Williams, hurriedly putting the finishing touches on a costume with a needle and thread. He is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the university’s Hagan Dance Studio, where a rehearsal of the duet in “Tir na Nog,” the work he has created for students in the Program in Theater and Dance, is about to begin. With two photographers clicking away in the studio, Williams wants the dancers in full costume and make-up. He stitches as he talks.
“In this case, I’m using puppets to bring the human anatomy to a place that would not have been possible without them,” he says. “I use puppets to enhance the magic of the situation.”
Williams has the compact body and quick, precise movements of a dancer. He is intensely focused yet sweet-natured, quick to compliment his dancers and offer them encouragement. Williams was introduced to puppetry while he was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, studying dance with renowned choreographer Viola Farber. During those years, he took time to study in Paris at a mime school, the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques LeCoq.
Although there was no specific session at the school on puppetry, there was an emphasis on mask work. “I really got a sense of freedom in looking to these other forms to complement the abstract dancing,” Williams says.
He was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. Williams’ father is a retired senior systems analyst at Syracuse University and a computer consultant; his mother taught biology but quit to raise her two sons. Williams started taking ballet when he was 10, but stopped in junior high for the usual reasons. “Kids gave me a hard time,” he says. “But I went back to dance in college. Afterward, I moved to New York and began making my own work.”
He studied at the Merce Cunningham Studio and danced with several companies including Tere O’Connor Dance and Douglas Dunn & Dancers. Williams was a founding member of Terrain, the company of choreographer Rebecca Lazier, who is the associate director of Princeton University’s dance program. His own works have been performed at New York’s La Mama, the Danspace Project, and as part of the annual Fall for Dance series at City Center. Williams received the prestigious New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” award in 2005.
In recent months, Williams has been commuting from New York City to teach at Princeton. He and choreographer James Martin are this academic year’s guest teachers and the guest choreographers in the spring dance program. Also being performed this weekend are works by Lazier, the program’s director, Ze’eva Cohen, faculty member Meghan Durham, and several students.
There is no dance major at Princeton, but students can earn certificates in dance along with their regular degrees in other subjects. Yet those rehearsing for Williams’ and Martin’s works in the studio a few weeks ago looked startlingly professional.
“The level of students here is getting higher and higher,” says Lazier, “starting with incoming freshmen. They just have higher levels of training. And they are starting to see Princeton as a strong arts place. I think the word is getting out there.”
While Lazier is impressed at the level of solid dance training her students have, she is not surprised at their professionalism. “There is a correlation between the level of concentration I see here in the studio and academic excellence,” she says. “It makes sense when you think about it.”
Having Williams and Martin in the studio this year has been a positive experience for the students, Lazier says. “It’s so exciting to have them both doing a piece for the concert,” she says. “I knew Jim would bring his daring physicality, and that would expand their range. And then there is Christopher, whose work is clearly dance but dance that comes not just from personal experience but from the mythological, too. With them, I feel like our range is getting broader and broader and more diverse.”
Williams came up with “Tira na Nog” when he began thinking about what kind of piece he would create for his Princeton students. A mythological story of a roaming island just beyond the known horizon, the work has music composed by Princeton graduate student Gregory Spears.
“The term ‘Tir na Nog’ means ‘dance of the young,’” says Williams. “I had recently worked on a piece with some very seasoned dancers, so this was something different. I was inspired by their youth. It’s a fairy tale that comments on mortality by holding youth as an ideal.”
Sophomore Elizabeth Schwall and junior Hans Rinderknecht are dancing in “Tir na Nog.” At rehearsal, their costumes reflect the supernatural world the piece creates. Schwall’s strong, articulated movements suggest years of strong ballet training. The folds of her billowy white skirt have silver leaves that sparkle in the light. Her face is painted stark white; her lips are bright red. On her head, she wears a wreath of white leaves that Williams has fashioned.
They rehearse together for Williams; then Rinderknecht launches into his solo. As he veers one way and then another, he cries out, almost moaning. It’s all part of the piece.
“I often use vocalization, and here it’s to augment the world of this particular tale,” says Williams. “I was taught in school that an interesting state of theater is before the text even emerges on stage. My dances lie between the abstract and just the beginnings of the birth of the text. I’m vocalizing in moments when it’s necessary. You only hear animals vocalize when it’s necessary, and that is my intention. I like to put human beings into worlds slightly beyond our own. I’m very interested in putting the human body in other contexts.”
Spring Dance Festival, Friday, February 23, 8 p.m.; Saturday, February 24, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, February 25, 3 p.m. Princeton University Theater and Dance Program, Berlind Theater, University Place. Works by New York-based guest choreographers James Martin and Christopher Williams as well as faculty members. $15. 609-258-2787.