Career Transition With Alice Williamson

Multidisciplinary artist & creator of Designed by Alice

Alice is a highly skilled creative. Her artistic versatility has led her to work in many visual disciplines from dance to design, photography to film. She began this year as Artist in Residence at Harvard University’s ArtLab with collaborator Dr. Merritt Moore where they continued to explore the possibility of a human and robot pas de deux.

Whether Alice is creating work that features in Vogue, heading up international campaigns, or directing and choreographing original dance films, Alice's thoughtful research and presentation of ideas are unified by a fresh aesthetic vision.

Alice spent the first decade of her career performing as a professional ballet dancer where she worked with some of the most prestigious dance companies, directors, and choreographers of our time. She has always been deeply interested in dance as a transcendent and universally accessible means of communication and human expression. ​ In 2010 Alice founded her successful dance-wear and ballet skirt line under her creative brand name 'Designed by Alice'. She is based in London, UK

We asked Alice to reflect upon her career transition.

Photo by Olivier Bajolle

You started ballet at the age of 16, and while most would see this as a disadvantage, it worked well to your advantage by helping to develop your design talent. Can you share more about those early days and the people who encouraged you to pursue both ballet and design?

Alice Williamson: Yes, it probably is conventionally perceived as a disadvantage. But that depends on your perspective and how ‘zoomed in’ you look at things. The great thing is that I’ll never know the alternative or specifically how much better my body would have developed (for ballet) had I begun serious training earlier. Instead, starting later enabled me to develop a greater range of skills before I specialised: it probably made me a more robust, adaptable, and ultimately resilient artist than I might have been.

I had a few teachers who were vocal in their encouragement for me to continue to pursue both my interests in art and dance simultaneously. Although I came across fewer advocates the further along my career. For example, when I was 16 I went to London to represent my school for a competition showcase. During the interval, one of my teachers smuggled me into a wardrobe at the Opera House to show me a particular costume that had been designed by the dancer who wore it. She told me to always keep both my skills in play, which was such a direct statement and deliberate action that I was rather taken aback. Later on that year she gave me the opportunity to design costumes for the complete cast of my school production of midsummer nights dream. I danced as a fairy too.

Starting vocational training later gave me a different perspective. I really did feel gifted to get the opportunity to pursue ‘the dream’, never owed anything, every year of my career was exciting. I was constantly surprised I even had a career. It all happened so fast!!

Northern Ballet Theatre was your first professional company and also the place that allowed your love for design to grow. Looking back, how did those design opportunities come about?

Alice: Apprenticing with Northern Ballet taught me a lot. I started making stuff to give me more of a sense of self in the studio. My colleagues were very supportive of my creativity. Being part of a touring company is tough and repetitive; they seemed to enjoy watching my ideas take form. I, in turn, enjoyed watching them dance in the things I made. It was at Northern that I refined the ballet skirt, and has since become the foundation products of the Designed by Alice brand!

Did this dual role as a dancer-designer continue when you moved beyond Northern Ballet?

Alice: Yes, and I was encouraged along the way by director Madeleine Ohne when I was at Hong Kong Ballet. I’d always been a bit shy in the dance studio, especially chatting about my other interests, then Madeleine told me that my designs were one of the reasons she hired me. I think that she could see how all these things fed me as a dancer - her saying that gave me more confidence to openly pursue my other creative projects in front of the ballet world, as I knew I needed to be expressive in other ways than just dancing to be fulfilled professionally.

My work was very unestablished when I arrived in Berlin aged 23 but a decent number of people knew about ‘Designed by Alice’. As it seemed worth keeping running, I hired a couple of ‘makers’ and a ‘packer; who took on some of the day to day work. Then my great friend Patrica Zhou dragged me onto Instagram and business bloomed as I began to get really into photography and designing costumes for my fellow dancers at Staatsballett Berlin.

After that, the dance and design projects all carried on in tandem, the design lessening when I had big dance commitments, and keeping me sustained when the dance commitments waned.

How did the idea for Designed by Alice come about? Can you describe those beginning days of creating your brand?

Alice: I was 20, I’d just completed one season at Northern Ballet and was recovering from an ankle operation. Rehabbing at home whilst commuting twice a week on a 7-hour round trip for a specialist physio in London wasn’t exactly where I’d pictured myself. With no dance work, I’d taken up a job at my local restaurant but was becoming really fed up with the gig and increasingly worried about how it would all affect my audition availability and career prospects. I decided to start working for myself instead; that way I could create the terms. I’d been quite a prolific card and jewellery maker for fairs as a teenager and my leotard and skirt creations had been really popular at Northern Ballet. I planned to turn all these things into my official side-hustle. I chose the name ‘Designed by Alice’ because it was quite open and I wanted there to be room for an evolution away from dance-wear to anything that I could create.

Many dancers aspire to build (dancewear) brands, but the reality is that it's a far from easy feat, especially when one has no industry experience outside of ballet. Did you experience similar challenges, and how did you overcome them?

Alice: I didn’t really have an end vision to build a brand. I get a lot of joy from making things for people, but honestly, I just wanted to be a dancer: I needed to have a flexible schedule to get to auditions and I needed money to pay for physio and flights. Running my own business seemed the best solution to get back to dancing with a company. That said, I liked acquiring the skills to grow the business; I enjoy working hard. It was also satisfying to have solid evidence of my work in product form rather than always creating with ephemeral dance. I sourced the best material I could find and spent years refining a really elegant and durable product. I love taking photos and I did a fair bit of hustling in the early days … the brand grew around that.

Do you think it's important for dancers to get some industry experience before diving into a new venture?

Alice: Not necessarily, the experience is always useful and informative But if you're willing to think broadly, listen, and adapt quickly I see no reason why you shouldn't just give it a go. Even if it will undoubtedly go better the second and third time around! So many skills are universally applicable even if the industry-specific knowledge needs acquiring.

Brand aside, you are working to create positive change for the next generation of dancers. Can you share more about that?

Alice: I am passionate about encouraging the next generation of dancers to broaden their career horizons, both out of necessity and for general fulfillment. The industry is tough and volatile and yet a huge number of students graduate having only been taught with rigid and outdated thinking. This seems a totally mad way to equip someone to survive let alone thrive in such a fluid and creative industry that demands fit, fast and adaptive thinking as well as bodies.

And how about your most recent position as Artist In Residence at Harvard's University's ArtLab with collaborator Dr. Merritt Moore?

Photo by Merritt Moore

Alice: That was a brilliant challenge, I’ve spent more than a decade honing mostly non-verbal skills so it was fun to begin putting a voice to it all.

The project is ongoing and really inspiring. It’s essentially the creation of a ballet duet between a human and a robot. Working in a collaborative way with Merritt is great. Collaborative work is possibly one of my favourite post-ballet work dynamics. Merritt represents the intellectual diversity and curiosity that I felt was lacking from my experience as a company dancer. We complement each other whilst also overlapping on some of our ballet experiences. Merritt is an impressive scientist - she has a Ph.D. in quantum physics - as well as being a gifted professional dancer. I am into visuals, art, music, and of course movements after my years spent as a dance artist and designer. The dynamic part of our partnership is that we both love playing at the edge of our comfort zones... in the spaces between specialties.

When Merritt initially invited me to create a duet on her with a robot in Oslo last year I was unsure. I’d define myself as more of a tree person. In the end, I thought that probably was the very reason I should engage with the concept. I become totally inspired.

We were fortunate to then be invited to take the project to Harvard as artists-in-residence this Jan/Feb. We had the best time developing its technical multi-facets, ( both artistic and scientific) within their innovative art-lab hub set-up. Now I am writing up a proposal for the third and probable final ‘artistic; stage with this particular robot: it will be in London and it’s especially exciting to get going again after COVID's ‘great pause’ we can’t both can’t wait to share our work. And see what happens next!

What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or about to go on the journey?

Alice: Go for it. Explore. There are so many other interesting and fulfilling prospects out there that will have a different: equal to value. You don’t have to follow a certain route to success. I think you’ll be surprised how you’ll thrive!

Connect with Alice via

Website: designed by alice

Instagram: @designedbyalice