A dancer’s life comes with glory and suffering, but it’s often through the pain that a dancer recognizes what lies at the heart of the art.
Just ask Morgan “Mo” Williams, who with Melissa Sue Anderson formed SueMo Dance Company four years ago. The Milwaukee dance troupe will give a local performance at 3 p.m. Aug. 12 in the Wilson Theater at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Vogel Hall.
Before forming SueMo, Williams was dancing toward stardom.
“I started dancing right out of high school,” says Williams, a graduate of the Chicago Academy for the Arts. “I worked with Dance Kaleidoscope in Indianapolis and Eisenhower Dance Detroit. I was on seasons 10 and 11 of So You Think You Can Dance and made it all the way to Las Vegas.
“I was 23 years old and had never had another job,” he adds. “I guess I thought I was really hot shit.”
It seemed as if nothing was going to stop him.
But then something did stop him, and painfully so.
It was an injury, and it happened twice.
During a 2013 Eisenhower Dance duet performance — “Virgo,” choreographed by the late Paul Christiano — Williams tore his left meniscus, one of the wedge-shaped pieces of cartilage that acts as a “shock absorber” between the thighbone and the kneecap.
The injury, resulting from too much hyperflexion on Williams’ left knee, is a common one among athletes who play contact sports and dancers whose joints take regular beatings.
He required arthroscopic surgery and rehabilitation of six to eight months.
Then, in 2015, Williams tore the meniscus a second time while auditioning with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He repeated the surgical procedure, physical therapy and recovery time.
“The first time I think the universe was trying to tell me to slow down,” Williams says. “I was doing a lot. I was not mentally stable. And I didn’t have the level of humility that I needed to be a professional dancer.”
By the second injury, the message he received was to appreciate what he had rather than to continue seeking something he was not going to find.
Williams had already been living in Milwaukee, and he decided to focus on filling a perceived need in the local market.
The recovery process also got Williams away from a very active schedule of guest teaching at dance schools around the country and thinking about forming his own dance company.
He had taught alongside Anderson, who had extensive dance experience in movies and television, and approached her with the idea. Both found jobs in the Milwaukee metro area and started SueMo.
“I always knew that I wanted to have my own dance company some day, but never thought it would happen so quickly,” Williams says. “Eventually, I’d like us to be a touring repertory dance company so I can present my art and my dancers around the country.”
In addition to SueMo, Williams serves as pre-professional co-director of Studio One Dance Company in Wales, while Anderson teaches at the Brookfield Center for the Arts.
SueMo has performed in various venues in the Milwaukee area, including the Milwaukee Fringe Festival, the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, the black box theater at Danceworks downtown and also festivals from Atlanta to Los Angeles.
“I like to mix concert and commercial dancing,” Williams says.
Concert dancing tends to be more formalized, while commercial is like the kind of dancing seen in Broadway shows. The blend makes dance more accessible, Williams says.
“Some people call it contemporary fusion, with a blend of ballet, jazz, hip hop and other forms,” he says. “At the end of the day, it is all contemporary.”
Williams says Milwaukee is underserved in this area but boasts a lot of talent.
“A lot of dancers think they have to go to Los Angeles or New York, but there is talent and opportunity everywhere,” he says. “Milwaukee is a growing city with a growing dance movement, and I feel that we may be at the forefront of that movement. We cater to all aspects of contemporary.”
The dancer’s drive is powering the company’s growth.
“We call it the SueMo Dance Experience because you’re going to experience something,” he says. “I just want to put my art in your face!”