Wilson, Billy

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From The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 16, 1994

Billy Wilson, 59, a Philadelphia native who choreographed popular Broadway productions that included Bubbling Brown Sugar, died Sunday at St. Vincent's Hospital of an AIDS-related illness. Mr. Wilson lived in Teaneck, N.J. His other Broadway credits included the popular 1976 black revival of Guys and Dolls; Odyssey, starring Yul Brynner, and Stop the World I Want to Get Off, starring Sammy Davis Jr.

A native of Philadelphia, Mr. Wilson received his early dance training at the Sidney King School and attended Peirce Junior College and Temple University. At age 15, he won a scholarship to study classical ballet at the Philadelphia Guild Ballet School and Company. At 19, he made his New York debut in the City Center production of Carmen Jones, then appeared on stage in Bells Are Ringing, starring Judy Holliday, and Jamaica, starring Lena Horne. He was principal dancer with the National Ballet of Holland from 1961 to 1965, and headed his own company, the Dance Theater of Boston, for about three years in the early 1980s.

"What was so special about Billy was the way he could switch so easily from ballet to Broadway," said dancer Dyann Robinson, a friend of 20 years. His ballets are in the repertories of Philadanco, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theater of Harlem.

"Losing Billy Wilson at such a young age is a great personal loss for me," Arthur Mitchell, co-founder and artistic director of the Dance Theater of Harlem, said yesterday. "Over the last 15 years, he has given the company four wonderful works. . . . We will miss him, but his artistry will live always in the immediacy of our performances."

Mr. Wilson's specialty was bringing to life the culture and music of Harlem in its heyday. Bubbling Brown Sugar, a hit on Broadway in 1976, was a nostalgic look at the period from the 1920s to 1940s with the music of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. He also choreographed Eubie, the popular musical tribute to songwriter Eubie Blake.

Mr. Wilson received three Tony Award nominations and several Drama Desk nominations and won an Emmy for his choreography in the syndicated television show Zoom, which ran on PBS from 1976 to 1981. In the mid-'80s, as an associate professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Mr. Wilson was head of the dance program and taught jazz, ballet and workshops in musical theater and acting.

Mr. Wilson is survived by his former wife, Sonja; daughter, Alexis; a son, Parker; a granddaughter; a brother, and a sister. His companion of 18 years, Chip Garnett, died in February.

A private graveside service will be held tomorrow in Philadelphia. A memorial service is being planned for next month in New York.

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Date of Death: 8/14/1994

Age at Death: 59


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