Tribute held for iconic dancer Dudley Williams

Zita Allen | 2/12/2016, 3:02 p.m.
“Love, Forever Dudley,” the recent tribute to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater soloist Dudley Williams, had all the warmth of ...

“Love, Forever Dudley,” the recent tribute to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater soloist Dudley Williams, had all the warmth of a loving family reunion.

Ailey Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison, Artistic Director Robert Battle and others gathered at the Ailey Citigroup theater to share memories, tears and laughter and to honor Williams who, when he passed in 2015 at age 76 after four decades with the AAADT, was the longest tenured dancer in the company’s history.

Saying that he “danced sublimely and with extraordinary musicality and technique,” Jamison pointed to Williams’ 2014 performance in “Revelations” as an example of his amazing talent and power.

“There he was at 76, spinning and dropping to his knees in the ‘Rocka My Soul’ finale alongside the younger male dancers—to his knees!” she said emphatically.

The point was not lost on an audience that knew it is no secret mature dancers’ joints sometimes pay the price for years of breathtaking agility and flexibility. Not so for Williams. In fact, Jamison, chuckling, recalled how Ailey once asked him, “Dudley, don’t you think it’s about that time?”

Williams’ response was simply, “No.” If anything, Williams was proof that “age ain’t nothing but a number.”

“His walk was light, his manner sublime,” Jamison said, adding, “Watching him, there was so much to be learned about dance that simply could not be taught.” New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning once described Williams as “the epitome of the male lyric modern dancer.”

Battle also spoke of Williams’ ability to seamlessly merge movement and music. He recalled seeing his poignant performance of the signature solo Ailey created for him, which was set to and named after Donny Hathaway’s soulful “A Song for You,” during Ailey’s funeral at Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Battle said, “The memory of Dudley Williams dancing is a healing in his absence.”

For those anxious to see him dance once more, there was the video “Dudley Dances,” which captured him floating through space on the melodies of music, stopping occasionally to share his love of dance, at one point sharing, “I don’t think it’s time to hang up my toe shoes. If I can walk, I can still dance. That’s how I think about it.” The fact that the video was made when Williams was 62 years old and had already been with the AAADT for 35 years made these pronouncements all the more impressive. (Thankfully, a video of Williams in “A Song for You” from Ailey’s “Love Songs” is available on YouTube.)

“Dudley was the evidence of all our possibilities,” declared choreographer and former Ailey dancer George Faison, one member of the impressive roster joining Jamison and Battle to share heartfelt memories and pay tribute along with Ailey II Artistic Director Emerita Sylvia Waters, Hector Mercado and Donna Wood Sanders.

In their own way, each echoed Waters’ declaration that “Dudley was dance royalty,” sharing descriptions of him as “musical, elegant, energetic, passionate and honest” and referred to “his wry sense of humor.” Waters recalled their shared subway rides as young dance students to and from, what Williams called, “Los Bronx.”

Jamison recalled his tendency to give friends descriptive nicknames. “Mine was Emma,” she said, pausing to add, “Don’t ask me why.” Wood recalled the silly notes he scribbled on pads they used as props while dancing in Jennifer Mueller’s “Crosswords.”

Interwoven throughout the program were excerpts of dances that captured facets of Williams’ distinguished career. Former Ailey soloists Renee Robinson and AAADT Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya performed the flirty duet from Donald McKayle’s “Rainbow Round My Shoulder.” Dancer Blakeley White-McGuire captured the brilliance of the Graham technique Williams performed before joining Ailey in Graham’s “Deep Song,” and Matthew Rushing masterfully channeled Williams in a flawless performance of “A Song for You.”

Bracketing the evening were two excerpts from a dance Williams performed countless times, Ailey’s “Revelations.” The first, “I Been Buked,” was performed by talented Ailey School students while the evening closed with a joyful, celebratory performance of “Rocka My Soul” by Linda Celeste Sims, Hope Boykin and other members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

All in all, “Love, Forever Dudley” was a poignant love song for him and all who love and miss him.