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SAB 90 - Stanley Williams

Who was Stanley Williams?

“[Stanley] Williams entered the Royal Theatre at nine. ‘The audition was very simple. You take your shoes and socks off and they look at your feet. Then you walk, and march. Next, they play some music and see if you can move in time to it. We did a little polka, a little waltz, and that was it. I loved it from the day I started. Instinctively I realized that was what I wanted to do.’

“The program of ballet training Williams entered was rigorous and old-fashioned. Six days a week, year after year, […] he went through the Bournonville ‘class’ assigned to that day, each with its unvarying sequence of exercises and enchaînements set to prescribed music. […] Williams was instructed in this method for seven years by Karl Merrild.”

Svend Kragh-Jacobsen (Copenhagen’s senior dance critic) said, “He had acquired a very nice and clean style. He could do the things right. He had exceptional tenure, épaulement, and very nice feet. He was a handsome boy, and rather a quiet boy. You didn’t notice him primarily for his temperament at the start. And then something extraordinary happened. In 1948, Leonide Massine came here and set his Symphonie Fantastique on our company. Their performance was wonderful, especially for one very young man, Stanley Williams. This very nice and correct and not-too-passionate boy suddenly cracked open as a dramatic dancer. But, instead of building on this, the Theatre never really used him in that way again.”

“In the end Williams’ onstage career was prematurely curtailed by injury—a torn Achilles’ tendon—which limited him to less strenuous dancing roles, and mime parts in which he excelled. But nearly a decade before he gave his farewell performance, as Dr. Coppelius, his interests had been diverted in good measure to teaching.” [continued in next post]

—Tobi Tobias, Dance Magazine, March 1981.

(left) Photo of a young Stanley. Sourced from Dance Magazine.

(right) Williams with Kirsten Rally. Flemming Flint center. Photo by Jack Mitchell.


How did Stanley get from Copenhagen to SAB?

When NYCB was touring in Copenhagen in 1956, and Tanny was truck with polio, Balanchine stayed in Copenhagen with Tanny while the company continued on. At this point Stanley was now teaching at the Royal Theatre school. He said,

“Sometimes [Balanchine] would turn up at the theater early in the morning and watch me teach the children’s class. I thought, boy, he must be bored silly with this. then I would go downstairs and watch while he staged his Serenade and Apollo for our company, and it made this enormous impression on me—it was flabbergasting—to see how he got the dancers to do what he wanted with the choreography. Then, just when he was leaving Denmark, he came up to me and asked if I would give him my home address; I never thought to ask why. And I never heard from him. Four years later Erik Bruhn returned to us after a guest appearance with the New York City Ballet and told me Mr. Balanchine had said to him, ‘You know, you have a teacher in Denmark I would like to invite over here, but I can’t remember his name.’ ‘Oh,’ Erik said, ‘You must mean Stanley.’

“My first class for them was at the old City Center [1960]. The company hadn’t moved yet to the State Theater. I found the office, someone pointed me down a flight of stairs to where I could change, showed me the studio. I peeked in. The whole company was there. I was terrified. I had never taught in English before. I was saying to myself, Stanley, you must be crazy to be trying this.”

—Tobi Tobias, Dance Magazine, March 1981.

Stanley continued teaching in Copenhagen, and visiting SAB to teach. In 1963 the Royal Theatre administration asked Stanley to either settle down in Copenhagen, taking no more leaves of absence, or to retire. Stanley choose to accept Balanchine’s invitation to join the faculty of SAB in 1964.

(left) Stanley (back) teaching at the Royal Theatre. Photo by Gutenburghus.

(right) Stanley teaching at SAB. Photo by Jack Vartoogian, 1980.


What were Stanley Williams classes like?

“Williams is working at a far more abstract level. He is absorbed with the intrinsic quality of a given step or dance phrase—its unique look and feel; its shape, its rhythm, the quality of its energy. For him, the authentic conception of an action puts a dancer halfway on the path to its proper execution.

“What Williams does say in so many words can seem, on superficial examination, perverse. In order to get the visual or kinetic effect he wants, he instructs by contraries. On jumps he’ll warn at the instant of take-off, “Don’t jump,” because he’s after the buoyancy that is a gift of the prefatory plié, not gross thirst. On turns, in pursuit of the single frontal image in which the dancer appears magically suspended, rather than a whirling blue, he cautions, “Don’t turn.” “Am I confusing you a little bit?” he inquires, tilting his head quizzically.

“To get the airborne dancers’ feet arrowing correctly he reminds them that, aloft, they are on pointe. Or: “I see you have two arms girls. But you should have only one. From the fingertips right across the chest to the other set of fingertips. One arm.”

—Tobi Tobias, Dance Magazine, March 1981.

(left) Stanley with Helgi Tómasson. Photo by Martha Swope, 1977.

(right) Stanley teaching, Baryshnikov at the barre (front). Michael Byars, Ricky Weiss, Pablo Savoye, Joseph Marlborough. Photo by Jack Vartoogian, 1980.


What was it like to train with Stanley?

Peter Martins: “I’ve studied with Stanley since I was a boy and to this day, whenever I’m free, I take his class. Why? Because he is constantly renewing himself. He is constantly reconsidering the material of our métier and finding a fresh way to approach it. He is never what he was before, but always evolving new insights and explanations to intrigue you.”

Villella: “His teaching was a revelation to me. He had investigated the technique—exhaustively—discovered where different kinds of movement came from. Physically, there was a wonderful simplicity about his material, coupled with an immensely refined musicality. His teaching was precisely and carefully structured and elucidated. It was my salvation.”

—Tobi Tobias, Dance Magazine, March 1981.

(left) Stanley and Peter Martins. Photo by Martha Swope.

(center) Stanley and Robert Tracy

(right) Stanley. Peter Lewton-Brain (far left) Robert Tracy (back center) Steve Jones (far right) in the 1980s. Photo by Carolyn George

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