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It’s All About Love

Six dancers enter from stage left and position themselves along the rear wall, their backs to the audience. Today, the light through a row of windows casts them in silhouette. They look like filigreed latticework as they stand, some in first position, some with one foot arched, heel resting against the opposing ankle. After a beat, they casually step into a wider stance: easy knees, softness in the torso, maybe an arm to the hip. Stationary for a moment, then they disperse. Today is the first time they have access to the theater—the James and Martha Duffy Performance Space at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. The premiere of “Smile, though your heart is aching,” choreographed and directed by Megan Williams, is a mere three weeks out.

Rehearsal for Megan Williams's “Smile, though your heart is aching.” Photograph by Julie Lemberger

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“This is a dance about love, full of love songs and love vignettes, intermingled with big architectural love landscapes,” says Williams. A full-length work for ten dancers and six musicians, the show’s title is from the popular song written by Charlie Chaplin that composer Eve Beglarian references in a section of her music. “It felt like an appropriate title pull for the whole work, as we soldier on through many heartaches these days,” says Williams. 

Today’s rehearsal will focus on adjusting to the space, rather than full-out dancing. What’s not present occupies a fair amount of psychic acreage: Three cast members are missing due to touring commitments, some of those present are taking it easy due to muscle strain, and the musicians won’t arrive until March 30, a week before opening. On performance night, risers to seat an audience of 150 will extend out to cover a good portion of the floor, and the dancers have questions about where the audience ends and the stage begins. Williams walks out to an invisible line of demarcation. “Let’s say even with that door,” she says, pointing to an exit at stage left. 

Rehearsal begins with Williams playing a recorded passage of music the dancers are hearing for the first time. “The music is not just wallpaper,” she tells me. “Literally the musicians are onstage, you’ll see them performing. I consider this as much a music show as a dance show.” Said music is from a body of work that composer Beglarian has been making since 1986 in response to songs of fourteenth-century French poet/composer Guillaume de Machaut. “They’re about love, passion, desire, possession, and loss, yearning,” she says—the same themes Williams draws on for her movement landscape. 

Rehearsal for Megan Williams's “Smile, though your heart is aching.” Photograph by Julie Lemberger

A former member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Williams has in the past identified more as performer than choreographer. “I was always a choreographer,” she says. “I just wasn’t pursuing choreography on any scale. I was focused on being a dancer, a mother, and a teacher.” She began to form the movement ideas for “Smile” during a 2019 fellowship with Center for Ballet and the Arts. “I decided to fiddle around with ballet vocabulary,” she says. “What if I took ballet steps I knew really well and kind of tossed them into a blender and played with them rhythmically and spatially?” She also wanted to bring in a modern dance sensibility as counterpoint. “I was interested in these dancers who, like myself, came out of training programs or histories where ballet was a part of the fabric of what you did as a dancer, but ballet was not the thing you were pursuing,” she says. “They have this incredible ballet technique.”

In the rehearsal, Chelsea Enjer Hecht takes her place for a solo that is an example of this modern dance sensibility. Lying prone, Hecht rolls across the floor as if she’s been pushed down a steep hill. From this opening sequence, she then moves into an impressive series of off-center standing balances. 

After a break the dancers gather around Williams to watch a video on her phone. “Réka, could you learn Michael’s part for today?” she says. Michael Bryan Wang is dance captain for “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway, and must leave at noon. This section begins with the dancers forming a line from which they cascade to the floor in canon to lie side by side, then rise up again, Réka Echerer marking Wang’s moves from behind. They look incredibly fluid as they do this more than once. “Let the space catch you as well, let the air help you down,” Williams calls out while watching. 

Rehearsal for Megan Williams's “Smile, though your heart is aching.” Photograph by Julie Lemberger

At this time four years ago Williams was also three weeks out from a premiere when the country shut down due to Covid. The original version of what has now become “Smile” was postponed, then rescheduled, and eventually shelved entirely. Williams paid her performers but she didn’t have a chance to film the production, leaving her without valuable documentation that would help her generate support for a new work. “I had some momentum,” she says. “When it fell apart I had to start all over again.”

She’s producing “Smile” with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and a musical grant to pay the composer. So, in addition to the artistic risk of launching an ambitious work, her personal funds are also on the line. “I’m paying for this out of my teaching money,” she says. That doesn’t mean she’s skimping, I realize, as she scrolls on her phone to show me photos of sheer mesh costumes commissioned from designer Claire Fleury. “The colors are brighter than we thought they’d be,” she says. “I sent her a palette of what was available in the fourteenth century: indigo, oxblood red, mustard yellow, all done with natural dye. But she works with synthetic material.” Williams considers that update on a par with what Beglarian is doing to bring Machaut’s medieval songs into present day. 

The final section on the rehearsal docket is “Can I Have it Without Begging.” Williams tells me this music was written in the #MeToo time and contains a certain sexual tension. “In our research, we were thinking about ballet duets that are about desire, full of clutching moments” which she demonstrates by entwining her arms as if they were dancers wrapped in a passionate pas de deux. “The kind of high drama that can be seen in certain ballet, that's sort of fake,” she goes on to explain. “I think it’s funny and interesting. The artifice of it stirs up something in me. We have distilled and compressed it in this section so that everyone is impassioned, everyone is ecstatic all at the same time.”

Rehearsal for Megan Williams's “Smile, though your heart is aching.” Photograph by Julie Lemberger

This section is the show’s climax, and when done full out there is much jumping and lifting. Today, those who lift are absent, so the partnerless pantomime by raising their arms in a V. “Let’s do it again,” says Williams. “This time to find out what you don’t know about it.” Mykel Marai Nairne stops to clarify a particular move for Echerer. “That’s an upper body curve, not a pike,” Williams points out, and stands to demonstrate the difference, flexing and straightening her back. 

“Smile,” when complete, will clock in at 65 minutes. There are nine sections of instrumental music, with five shorter vocal sections interspersed. Williams takes three solos—cameos, she says—each about three minutes. The composer herself will accompany Williams on one. My sense of the work is piecemeal at this point, with only snippets of the delightful music and incomplete samples of movement. Yet I am swept into the pride and collaborative energy in the room. The dancers are pure pleasure to watch—mid-career professionals in their thirties, most of this group were in Williams’ work four years ago. That they’ve returned is testament to the project. 

“People say it’s kind of crazy to do something at this scale,” Williams says. “I want to not feel afraid to just make something on a scale that really fulfills my vision. You only have one life,” she adds. “What are you waiting for? I’m in that mode right now. I’m excited, the dancers are excited, the musicians are excited, we’re ready to perform.”

“Smile, though your heart is aching” will be performed April 5, 6, and 7 at the James and
Martha Duffy Performance Space of Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New

Karen Hildebrand

Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.



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