A new generation of American Ballet Theatre stars are dancing at the Kennedy Center, and Katherine “Katie” Williams is at the top of the list as a soloist. She will perform a special role in ABT’s production of “Giselle,” one of the world’s most cherished ballets.
Williams is slated to dance the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, those brides-to-be who die on the eve of their wedding, this Friday and Saturday evening in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Friends have posted good wishes for her D.C. engagement, followed by the ABT tour that will take her to 21 cities on both coasts.
Her parents, who moved from Woodstock in Howard County a few years ago, are travelling from Hawaii to see their daughter perform. Her sisters and dance friends will be there, too.
Local dance fans might have spotted Williams’ promise years ago when she first stepped on stage as a tiny ballerina in a Columbia dance recital. Others surely took note when the teenage ballerina was plucked from the corps for the coveted role of Sugarplum Fairy in the Ballet Royale production of “The Nutcracker,” directed by Donna Pidel
“Katie is very lovely,” Pidel saidduring a break in her teaching at Ballet Conservatoire XIV. “Her natural ability to understand the nuances of movement and musicality combined is one of the attributes that makes her a beautiful and graceful dancer. It doesn’t hurt that she is so nice, either.”
Pidel will receive the “Howie” award for arts education at the Rising Stars Gala March 28.
Svetlana Kratsova, director of L’Etoile, the Classical Russian Ballet Academy in Columbia and Williams’ coach during her teen years, predicted Williams would become a soloist at ABT.
“I was right,” she said enthusiastically. “I’m so proud of her.”
“It is always special to perform soloist parts because it allows you to show your individuality to the audience,” said Williams, who was born in Hawaii, grew up in Woodstrock, and graduated from Marriotts Ridge High School before taking off for a professinal career in dance. “Myrtha is my first principal role and it’s a huge deal,” she said with more than a hint of pride in a recent telephone conversation from ABT’s Manhattan studios.
“I’m so happy for Katie…she is so sweet,” said Stephen King, after a rehearsal with the Misako Ballet Company that performs this Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Jim Rouse Theater. “Katie is also strong and focused, and Queen Myrtha will showcase her dramatic talent.”
King partnered Williams during their early danace careers in Howard County, then took off to perform in Europe. His sister Rebecca King, (who shared roles with Williams in those previously mentioned productions) dances as the first soloist with the Finnish Ballet.
For over a century and a half, “Giselle” has been called the “ultimate romantic ballet.” At its premiere in Paris in 1841, it was hailed as one of the greatest of all dances and remains today the supreme achievement of that era with the perfect fusion of dance and drama.
The ballet has also been dubbed “the ‘Hamlet’ of dance.” because it provides the performers with a double challenge to dance and to act. The ballet relates the story of a simple peasant girl who goes mad and dies for the love of an aristocrat who deceives her. In the after-life, she becomes a “Willi,” a spirit who haunts men to dance until death. And it’s up to Queen Myrtha, to keep her gals in line.
“For the first time, I learned the part of Myrtha. It was a bit of a whirlwind since I only had a short time to rehearse,” admitted Williams when asked how she prepared for this dramatic role. “While I was learning the choreography, I was studying the characters. Where do they come from and what is their story? I try to do prep work to get the feeling behind the steps.”
As Myrtha, all-powerful queen of the Wilis, whose cold, imperious solo awakens the ghost-maidens and commands their would-be-husbands to dance until death, Williams is mesmerizing as her ghostly floats across the stage. Katie’s gift is her gracious presence – she never seems to sweat or lose her patience.
“Yes, I would call Myrtha a feminist,said Williams, without hesitation. “She is reigning in a tribe of women and celebrating their power.”
And when Giselle challenges this power and continues to dance for her beloved until the bell rings to end the spell, Myrtha raises a branch of rosemary to symbolize “remembrance.” Perhaps she lost this battle, but she is still queen and will be back another night.
“She’s cruel, that’s true,” said Williams, "but I find her to be more about justice rather than a cold-blooded killer.”
On an upbeat note, Katie mentioned that she’s excited to be coming home to perform…and maybe even having some good Maryland crab cakes.
American Ballet Theater performs “Giselle” Thursday, Feb. 13 through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the John F. Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Katherine Williams performs the role of Myrtha on Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, call toll-free 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.