You wouldn’t expect Navarra Novy-Williams to stand out in a company like Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Surrounded by powerhouse performers, her 5′ 3″ frame seems delicate, her demeanor demure. But then she begins to dance, and an unexpected quirkiness escapes. She moves with a playful, almost childlike energy that draws you in because you can’t predict what she’ll pull out next—each moment feels like a surprise.
Novy-Williams, 26, started dancing at her public elementary school in New Jersey, but didn’t become serious about dance until she was a teenager. “I was all over the place,” she says, listing a schedule that included ballet training with former American Ballet Theatre dancer Elaine Kudo, school productions of Fosse musicals and modern rehearsals with a student company. “But I never really thought dancing was what I’d do with my life.”
Unsure of what she wanted, Novy-Williams enrolled in Juilliard after high school. “I felt like I needed to learn more, be exposed to more before I could decide which direction I wanted to go in,” she explains. During college, she took advantage of a variety of opportunities, from dancing as an extra in Across The Universe to performing William Forsythe’s Limb’s Theorem on a national tour for Juilliard’s 100th anniversary.
Those experiences made her realize she loved contemporary ballet, and shortly after graduating in 2006 she auditioned for Cedar Lake. Ballet master Alexandra Damiani immediately recognized Novy-Williams from Springboard Danse Montreal, a contemporary workshop that both had participated in the previous summer. “I remembered Navarra because she looked like a little ballerina doll, but pulled out this gutsy, grounded movement and threw herself into these beautifully ugly positions,” says Damiani. “And I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”
Although the Cedar Lake artistic staff liked Novy-Williams, there were no openings at the time. So she joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, where she performed premieres by choreographers such as Mats Ek, Mauro Bigonzetti and Christopher Wheeldon.
Her versatile training had prepared her well for the demands of a repertory company where dancers need to quickly adapt to many styles. Three years in, however, being jack-of-all-dance-trades began to wear on her; she felt like her focus was constantly fractured. “I just wanted to delve into one specific style for once,” she says. In particular, she wanted to explore Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. She’d worked with Naharin at Les Grands and loved his emphasis on improvisation and personal investigation. “Gaga offered a chance to find my own movement voice instead of always taking on someone else’s,” she says. In 2009, she traveled to Israel to join Naharin’s Batsheva Ensemble (the second company).
Just a year later, Cedar Lake called with an opening. She was torn. “To leave Israel was not an easy decision,” Novy-Williams admits. “But I missed home. Plus, Cedar Lake is doing something really special—no other companies in New York perform the work they do.”
At Cedar Lake, Novy-Williams quickly dove back into the day-to-day life of a repertory company, always working on new material, always trying to master a new choreographer’s style. “I definitely miss Batsheva,” she says. “But I do enjoy the challenge of working my body in different ways over the course of the same day.” She’s earned a reputation for hanging around the studio after hours to help choreographers try out new phrases or work out the kinks on her own. When she’s not being used during rehearsals, she checks on her lines with other dancers and practices movement on the side, watching herself in the mirror to perfect the angles. “She’s always pushing herself,” says Damiani. “She’s unattached to any one way of doing things; she is so open, and unafraid of asking questions.”
Rather than set goals for the future, Novy-Williams says she prefers to focus on the present. “For me, it’s more important that I’m fulfilled wherever I am in the moment,” she says, “and then sometimes surprising things happen.”
At a Glance
Company: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Training: Elaine Kudo’s Theatre Arts Dance America, Juilliard
Former Companies: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Batsheva Ensemble
Favorite Roles: Mauro Bigonzetti’s Cantata
Dream Choreographer to Work With: Andrea Miller
Dance Idol: Margie Gillis