The “E.” stood for Ellen. Other than the inscrutability of that initial, E. Virginia Williams was not someone given much to mystery. She had a famously forthright manner and an inimitable voice, with a pronounced Boston accent that never left in doubt the identity of the speaker.
Certainly, there was no great mystery about Williams’s two passions, which united to become a third. She loved dance. She loved to teach. She brought the two together to form New England Civic Ballet in 1958, then Boston Ballet in 1963.
Born in Salem in 1914, Williams grew up in Melrose. That’s where she would open the first of several ballet schools. Others were in Malden, Wakefield, Stoneham, and Back Bay. She liked to say that the reason she formed a company was that she hated to see her students have to move elsewhere to find jobs.
Williams’s father was descended from Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Her mother’s family went back to the first boat to land at Plymouth after the Mayflower. Williams’s grandfather had owned five clipper ships in the China trade, sailing out of Salem, and her mother sailed around Cape Horn on one of the family ships.
“My father wanted to be a painter,” she once recalled, “but the family persuaded him to go into business instead.” Perhaps it’s from him that Williams got her artistic bent. “From about the time I was, oh, about 2 years old, my mother took me to the matinee vaudeville shows,” she said in a 1976 Boston Herald interview. “We’d see fine Russian ballet dancers — between other acts, you know, of dog tricks and singers — and I adored them, and tried to imitate them at home.”
At 5, Williams had her first dance lesson. It made such an impression that 60 years later she could still remember what she’d worn: “a little white dress with a blue sash, white stockings, and white shoes.”
Williams’s parents had an ulterior motive, trying to overcome their daughter’s painful shyness. “My parents thought that dancing lessons would help that,” she explained in a 1983 Globe interview. “They gave me acting and piano lessons, too.”
It was dancing that took. Like any dancer, though, Williams loved music. Her second husband, Herbert Hobbs, was a pianist and organist. Her first marriage, to Carl Nelson, ended in divorce after 12 years. The couple had a daughter, Carla.
Williams was drawn to many forms of dance. That catholic taste would find notable expression in the early years of Boston Ballet, when works by Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham were featured, as well as traditional repertoire.
“I first studied dancing with Italian teachers,” Williams said in that 1983 interview. “The Boston Opera at that time had a ballet company from Italy. I also had modern dance training in Boston with Dana Sieveling, who taught what was called interpretative dancing and mime, and with Miriam Winslow, who had danced with Denishawn. I took classes with any dance teacher who came to Boston, even Spanish dance with Rita Hayworth’s uncle. Towards the end of high school I went to New York on vacations to study with different Russian teachers there.”
One of the teachers, Tatiana Chamie, had been a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Williams had a further Ballets Russes connections, of sorts. One of that company’s showpieces was “Petrushka.” As a child, Williams was an extra in the carnival scene in a Boston performance of the ballet. She later described being so awestruck by being onstage that she thought the transformation of Petrushka from man to doll “was magic, just as the kids in the audience must have.”
Williams briefly performed as a dancer with the Boston Opera company, but her father objected to any stage career. So she decided to teach dance.
Another of Williams’s teachers on those New York visits was George Balanchine. He, too, had a Ballets Russes connection, having been its ballet master. But it was his subsequent position, as artistic director of the New York City Ballet and, by extension, foremost figure in American ballet, that meant he would play a crucial role in Williams’s career.
She had first staged a professional ballet performance in the early ’50s, renting the Boston Opera House to showcase her students. She liked to say it took her five years to pay off the debt. “I didn’t know about [musicians’] overtime. I just said, ‘Well, it’s not right yet, so keep going.’” She knew better by 1958, when she founded New England Civic Ballet. Williams did everything from take tickets to choreograph. She did the latter well enough that works of hers were performed by the Joffrey and Pennsylvania ballets.
After seeing the company dance at two regional festivals, Balanchine liked what he had seen well enough to offer to coach Williams once a month in New York (the equivalent of Picasso giving someone monthly drawing lessons) and let her watch New York City Ballet classes and rehearsals. More important, he recommended the company for a $144,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1963. That seed money helped New England Civic Ballet become Boston Ballet.
In 1974, the theater critic Elliot Norton wrote of Williams: “In appearance and manner, she is a mild, pleasant, slightly harried middle-aged Bostonian. But she has a driving energy which, if Boston Edison could succeed in harnessing it, would light up the sky and make the nights safe for promenading.”
Williams served as the ballet’s director, then co-director when the celebrated Balanchine ballerina Violette Verdy came aboard in 1980. Williams stepped down three years later, taking the title of artistic adviser. “It’s getting too hard for me to put in a seven-day week,” she said making the announcement, “which is what running this company requires.”
She died a year later, of complications following circulatory surgery.
Reflecting on her career, Williams said in 1983, “The geography of ballet is funny; I think of Nureyev coming from that tiny little hamlet [in the Soviet Union] and of myself in Melrose. When I started, nobody thought that Puritan New England would spawn anything as exotic as a ballet company, but here we are.”Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.