Much Movement in Much Ado About Nothing: Matt Williams talks about his work on the Alley’s new production

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Melissa Pritchett as Ursula and James Belcher as Antonio in
William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Matt Williams brings a well-trained dance eye to the theater stage. Armed with a BFA in Choreography from UC-Irvine, Williams has brought his swift moves to La Mama, Lincoln Center, and Buffalo Contemporary Dance. This is his second collaboration with director Scott Schwartz. He took the time to visit with me about his work on the Alley Theatre’s hilarious new production.

First off, thanks for taking the time to visit with the Houston dance community and congratulations on your vivid work on Much Ado about Nothing. I am always interested the way dance shows up on the theater stage. Can you tell us how you got involved in this project?

MW: Scott Schwartz is a big dance fan and knows how dance can add high energy to a show, whether a musical or a straight play. With such creative original music by Michael Holland, it was a natural progression to have dance in this play.

When Schwartz explained the treatment, which I might describe as whimsical surreal Laugh-In meets James in the Giant Peach (Houston, you have to see it to believe it), what went through your mind movement wise?

MW: At first, nothing. I had no idea after looking at the costumes and set what I was going to do. But then 10 minutes later, once the dizziness settled, I could think again. I started at a very basic level. I drew from what I knew already and then researched genres that were “Group” type party dances. I studied styles from 19th Century Grand Marches and Quadrilles to the Polka and Schottische.

The look and feel is so eclectic and your dances really reflect that. One minute I feel like I am watching a Brazilian carnival, the next, a Chinese New Year festival. Can you comment about how you integrated the visual wildness of the production into your choreography?

MW: It was actually an easy integration. My choreography tends to have this type of eclectic wildness already. That is partly why Scott chose me as the choreographer. A good director knows how to assemble an effective creative team. Scott’s a good director.

One of the dances actually had a functional component in that the stage was cleared as part of the dance. How do you see dance as an effective way to transform the space?

MW: Well let’s face it; it’s just more interesting to “dance” a set change. In addition, I love to work with props. The set in this instance was a big “prop.” So we figured out how we could turn the poles and casters and balloons into dance partners. I’m sure you recall Fred Astaire’s duet with a coat rack, same thing. Gene Kelly did it too, with a variety of props and set pieces.

There are nods to straight Shakespeare hidden in everything from
the costumes to your dances. During the last dance you snuck in a bit of Elizabethan flavor. Tell us how that came about?

MW: That was just dumb luck. I’m sure in my subconscious it was there too; it just bubbled up.

Obviously the Alley actors are an embodied lot, but are not trained dancers (with the exception of Melissa Pritchett). How does that curb or inspire your movement choices? SEE CORRECTION

MW: When you are working with folks who are not trained dancers you
simply take a step and water it down. I’ve always thought of dance as fancy
skipping and walking. So you take a glissade assemble for instance,
simplify it, and it’s a hop from one foot to the other, then a jump to
two feet. My choreography is usually narrative. Actors connect with that. I
think actors in many cases, are more interesting to watch dance because of
their ability to communicate with their faces. And, I never call them
non-dancers. Everybody can dance, we all just dance differently.

Do you have any tips for choreographers wanting to break into theater?

MW: Teach dance (so you can practice choreographing and get paid for it), put together a good reel (5 minutes of high quality footage of your choreography, however you can get it), be a great “people person,” make friends with directors, be open to choreographing anything, and, most importantly, help other people in the business. Refer folks to jobs you can’t take, help an actor find a place to live, feed a starving stage manager, do anything that crosses your path to help. It will come back to you. But don’t do it because you expect good karma to boomerang back to you, do it out of love.

What’s next for you?

MW: I’m getting married on March 10th to the most beautiful, thoughtful, courageous, and loving woman. Her name is Jennifer.

Thanks for your time and best of luck with the big day!

Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre through November 5, 2006. Call 713-228-8421 or visit www.alleytheatre.org

Correction: I have since been informed that several members of the Alley cast are indeed trained in dance. My since apologies to those dancer/actors.

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