By Raven Jordan

Ahead of Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Spring Celebration, alum McKinley Willis has choreographed an original performance set to debut in May.  

McKinley Willis choreographed her first performance for Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s upcoming Spring Celebration. Photo by Rayford Johnson

The performance, titled Smile, is a ballet filled with whim, wonder, suspense, and unpredictability. Willis gave a preview of the performance for donors at the Dallas Black Dance Theatre studios on April 21. It’s Willis’ first mainstage production for the company.

Willis, a Dallas native and Booker T. Washington grad, began her time at Dallas Black Dance Theatre in 2015.

The pieces came together while she was working on her dance studies in school five years ago, and the pieces took on the theme of smiling and clowns. She also gravitated toward songs about smiling.

“Specifically Nat King Cole’s “Smile,” I did an exercise in class one day and my colleagues and I really enjoyed the exercise, and I revived it at one point a couple of years ago,” Willis said. “So as I started collecting music, I was like, “What if I did a dance where all the music was titled smile?’” 

Twelve dancers are featured in the performance displaying a wide range of emotions and love as clowns in the span of 30 minutes. Willis says the clown idea came from seeing friends who were actors and reflections on a clowning class she took.

“I was very fascinated with the organization of clowning , like there’s a formula to manipulate,” she says. “So, what if I use the principles of clowning in the dance? Then from there, it kind of evolved.”

This will make Willis the third Dallas Black Dance Academy former student to have come back and choreograph a performance for the dance company.

DBDT Artistic Director Melissa M. Young showing the audience a picture of McKinley Willis when she was a Dallas Black Dance Academy student. Photo by Rayford Johnson

Artistic Director Melissa M. Young, who was also one of Willis’ former instructors at the academy, has seen her dance journey from the early stages. 

“She represents being a woman in art, a Black woman in art, and I’ve seen her choreographing journey from the humble beginnings of the Dallas Black Dance Academy performances to the studio performances,” Young told the audience. “McKinley was so kind to put her professional feet forward. She sent in a proposal and said, “I’m interested in choreographing a work,” which I appreciate her taking the same steps and same channels as anyone else.” 

There are moments throughout the performance where there are multiple situations going on at once where the focus intentionally isn’t in just one area or on specific dancers. 

“I hope, first and foremost, that they [the audience] smile, I hope they laugh. I hope that they learn from it to enjoy life and not to take it so seriously,” Willis says. “I think the way some of the clowns look, some of the ways the clown personalities are so relatable to human life, I hope they can relate to them and just see themselves through clowning.”

Dallas Black Dance Theatre dancers during a preview of ‘Smile.’ Photo by Rayford Johnson

The annual Dallas Black Dance Theatre Spring Celebration will take place at Wyly Theatre in the Arts District May 19 – 20.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre dancers during a preview of ‘Smile.’ Photo by Rayford Johnson