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Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer  |  January 22, 2014

Versatility a prized trait at Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet (preview)

It's all too easy in dance to specialize, to dwell on one form at the expense of all others.

But at Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, dabbling in other arenas isn't just permitted. It's encouraged as a means of gaining talent, experience and perspective.

Hence the many company biographies that include not only degrees from world-class dance schools but also appearances on hit TV programs and work alongside the likes of Beyonc.

"Most people feel like they have to do one or the other," said Cedar Lake dancer Ebony Williams, noting the divide between commercial and artistic pursuits. "But it's possible to do both, in a little bit of a potluck."

Williams is living proof of that claim. An eight-year member of Cedar Lake, the cutting-edge, New York-based troupe heading to PlayhouseSquare this week on the DanceCleveland series, she's also one of Beyonc's "single ladies" and a dancer with pop stars Rihanna, Ciara and Fergie.

But while her days are long and calendar packed, Williams said she loves the contrast. That's why she joined Cedar Lake, in fact, a company that prides itself on choreographic diversity: to be several dancers in one.

She saw eclectic programs like the one headed here featuring works by Jiri Kylian, Crystal Pite and Andonis Foniadakis and chose Cedar Lake without reservation over the more famous Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal and Cirque du Soleil.

"I go from classical [ballet] to modern [dance], and the next minute I'm with Beyonc," Williams said. "It challenges me to be schizophrenic, to think on my feet. It helps me grow. I'm known to a wider audience, and I'm not just dancing for dancers."

More widely known still may be Williams' Cedar Lake colleague, Billy Bell. Before joining the company in 2012, he rose to the top five and toured the country with the popular TV show "So You Think You Can Dance." He's also appeared in music videos and launched a collective for aspiring dancers.

Specialization isn't what got him so far. Rather, Bell said he had to be the ultimate chameleon, to be interested in all forms of dance and view every opportunity as a learning experience.

"I just approached all of it as movement," Bell said, recalling his days on TV. "I just kind of mimicked the choreographer."

It's a lesson he still applies at Cedar Lake, the company he sought out post-graduation after witnessing a performance at his Florida high school that opened his eyes to the artistic possibilities of dance.

What's more, it's a lesson he actively tries to teach others at the master-classes he leads when the company tours, and will present here Jan. 24 and 25. Being open-minded and dancing outside the box aren't just fun. They're practically required.

"You can always pick something up," Bell noted. "I find it inspiring. It gives you a different perspective. I think the two worlds really do complement each other."

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