Dance professor Holly Williams infuses creativity, curiosity into her work

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Sam Ortega

Holly Williams, theatre and dance professor, began dancing as a child and continued the art throughout her life. Williams has worked with various dance companies and operas such as The Austin Lyric Opera and the Mark Morris dance group. 

Kritika Pramod Kulshrestha

For dancer and choreographer Holly Williams, dance is a lifelong process of exploring creativity and continuing perseverance.

Williams, a professor of dance at UT since 1995 and the associate dean of Graduate Studies and Accreditation in the College of Fine Arts, trains her students in contemporary and modern dance, ballet technique and choreography. 

Williams first began dancing as a child and pursued it through college and her career.

“It’s a long, evolving process and there was no ‘Eureka’ type of moment,” Williams said. “It’s a difficult profession so you are constantly evaluating yourself — whether I’m good, whether I’m going to be good enough, you are always asking those questions. For me, it was a long process of peeling off layers to get to the center of ‘this is who I am.’” 

The Austin Lyric Opera, Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Mark Morris dance group are just some of the dance companies and operas that Williams has worked with. She also served on the board of directors for the American College Dance Festival.

Yoav Kaddar, assistant director of dance at West Virginia University, met Williams when they both served on the board of directors. Williams has since choreographed a piece for Kaddar’s students. 

“We come from a somewhat similar modern dance background, so we share similar pedagogical as well as creative philosophies,” Kaddar said.

Williams gives her students the freedom to suggest their own approach to the dance narrative. 

“It’s what makes them different from just being a dancer,” Williams said. “It’s about interpretation, it’s about bringing personality to the performance.”

Rebecca Bagley is one of Williams’ students who is training in contemporary dance and ballet technique. Bagley began dancing when she was in middle school and she is now in her third year in UT’s three-year dance program. She will perform in Williams’ latest piece, “Orchid,” premiering Friday. “Orchid” is one of five major works presented at the event, organized by the department of theatre and dance.

“It was really inspiring for her to ask us to create our own narratives for this piece because a lot of times professors will say ‘here’s the story and this is how you portray it’,” Bagley said, “For me, the first movement is more happy and joyful, it’s a tropical island and the movement is more about me exploring the community and the people around me.”

Williams said “Orchid” evokes feelings about community, loss and wistfulness. She recreates the Hawaiian landscape through traditional music and special projections on stage.

“It’s culturally really interesting and beautiful and evocative,” Williams said. “These are traditional Hawaiian songs and they are sung in Hawaiian. It wasn’t something I was familiar with, but I’ve been to Hawaii and it captured my imagination.”

Williams finds her inspiration for dance in everything around her. She never strives to tell a definitive story through her dance. 

“My experience as a dancer was always one of fascination, curiosity, passion for it and dedication to the incredible work it takes,” Williams said. “That’s what I help our students try to understand and experience themselves.”