A Grand Inspiration

Columbia City Ballet enters its 53rd season ready to propel Columbia’s arts community forward

By Shani Gilchrist

Photography by Jeff Amberg

When people hear that the greater Columbia area, with an estimated population of just more than 750,000, is home to three professional dance companies, they often don’t believe it. But Columbia City Ballet, Columbia Classical Ballet and Carolina Ballet have proven their importance to the community, often playing to full houses and adding to the vibrant arts scene, as well as surpassing other South Carolina cities in the amount of activity in a given year.

Of the three companies, the one that really started Columbia’s dance community as it is now known is Columbia City Ballet. Founded in 1961 by Ann Brodie, it originated as a community dance group that put on two performances per year. As demand grew and focus intensified, the group decided to become a professional dance company in the mid 1980s, resulting in an explosion of dance options for local enthusiasts. Now, CCB has just wrapped up its 52nd anniversary season and is about to embark upon a season that will continue to delight and surprise.

The 2012-2013 season was important for executive and artistic director William Starrett as well as the company’s staff and dancers. The company had its highest ticket sales for “Nutcracker” in its history, and audiences lined up to experience the new full-length production of the beloved fairy tale, “Snow White,” and the world premiere of “The Little Prince,” which celebrated its 70th anniversary.

“We also had a three year high for ‘Dracula’ ticket sales,” says William. “The lure and glamorous fascination with vampires has become so current and topical that it keeps our ‘Ballet with a Bite’ popular.”

The Halloween staple is as strong as ever. “After 18 years, ‘Dracula’ sells as many tickets as the longer running and better-known ‘Nutcracker,’” says CCB board president Nancy Kress.

The 52nd season also turned out to be successful for the CCB Black Box Series, held at the Columbia Music Festival Association Art Space. In the company’s first experiment since 2005’s wildly successful “Off The Wall and Onto the Stage,” a collaboration with artist Jonathan Green, dancers were able to share an exploration of body and movement with other Midlands dance professionals.

“It’s a great chance for local contemporary choreographers to work with the professionals in our company,” says William.

In addition to ticketed performances, CCB continued its commitment to educational outreach by reaching more than 11,000 Columbia children. These uniquely designed productions are accompanied by a teacher’s guide and are curriculum driven. Students learned about the craft via the company’s Educational Outreach Series, which was first implemented in 1988. The company also took the program to other cities around the state, reaching an additional 8,900 students. But the education doesn’t stop when the school day is over, William says. “Each child who participates in our outreach program gets a free ticket to see a major full-length production, as long as they bring an adult with them. Many adults work so hard for their children that they will go without for themselves. This way they can enjoy a performance with their child for the price of just one ticket.”

CCB has toured more than 50 cities in the South Carolina and is the resident dance company for Savannah, Ga., and is in talks with the Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs about filling the gaps left behind when the Charleston Ballet Theatre had to close its doors this past year.

Now, as CCB begins its 2013-2014 season, it is propelled by the surge of energy from five decades of loyal audiences, community collaboration and unwavering commitment to quality dancing. This season, it will continue with the traditions that its audience loves, including Halloween performances of “Dracula” and the festive “Nutcracker.” But the secret to keeping a tradition fresh is in the little things … especially when it comes to staunch classics that can’t be altered.

“Some things you can’t change in a ballet, such as in ‘Nutcracker.’ It’s been around forever, and everyone knows it. It’d be like painting a mustache on the ‘Mona Lisa.’ But sometimes I’ll add a little something in to be kind of like ‘Where’s Waldo? What did he change this year?’” William says with a laugh.

“The classics show respect for the fundamentals of the true art of ballet,” says Nancy, who became a part of the board after spending years as a “ballet mom” while her daughter performed with the group. But she says William tends to keep traditions from going stale with his unique creativity. In “Nutcracker,” for example, little pieces of the aesthetic world that inspires William will sometimes show up.

“Last year I was inspired by the Olympics,” he says. “I did the Candy Cane divertissement with ribbons like those used by the Olympic gymnasts. There were three girls who could do the dance with it. They were en pointe, in tutus, dancing with these incredible ribbons. People just loved this version.”

There have also been times when productions that may strike purists as pop-marketing extravaganzas have turned out to feature bits of highly sophisticated masterpieces woven into the performance. “Almost 70 percent of ‘La Bayadere’ was featured in our production of ‘Aladdin,’” he says.

Accredited to Marius Petipa, “La Bayadere” was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1877. The exotic story of love, murder and vengeful judgment by the gods is set in legendary India and is meant to be performed by extremely powerful and intricately artistic dancers. It became popular in the West after the Kirov Ballet performed a scene while touring the United States in 1961, and a version was later adopted for the American Ballet Theatre in 1980. Since then, the ballet has become the stuff of legends for die-hard ballet scholars, but it isn’t always sustainable in smaller, post-recession markets when billed on its own. To solve that, William added some of the ballet’s choreography to the adaptation of the popular Disney story that Columbians poured in to see. “People might not have known it, but they were seeing an extremely high end of dance,” he says.

CCB essentially gave its hometown a performance that could cost as much as eight times more in a large metropolitan city. William admits that there are ballets that he would love to bring to Columbia, such as “Tchaikovsky,” the controversial story of the composer’s turbulent life, and members of the board have even suggested events like “The Tempest,” but in lean financial times, the organization has felt it best to stick with a proven formula while throwing in surprises that will delight the audience.

Black Box performances will return this season with a bit of an intercontinental twist. Cabaret and dinner theater are making a trendy comeback in cities like London and Paris, and the upcoming season will turn the CMFA Art Space into a similar setting, creating a multilevel experience for the audience.

CCB has weathered economic rollercoasters, diminishing staff numbers and changes in marketing strategies by remaining steadfast in its commitment to craft and by sticking with a proven formula for success. “Alice In Wonderland,” a world premiere, will be coming to the Koger Center with the CCB as they celebrate a special milestone for the timeless story. “Next year is the 150th anniversary of when Lewis Carroll wrote the story in 1864, although it was published the next year. When we’re performing it in February, it will coincide with when it was written,” says William.

Keeping a lean staff and budget has afforded the company some special indulgences. Journy Wilkes-Davis, a principal dancer with the company, highlights one such perk: “For the past couple of years I’ve had the chance to dance with my wife in certain roles such as ‘Arabian’ and ‘Snow’ in ‘Nutcracker.’ Dancing with the person you love is always special because you have a bond on stage that most partners don’t get.”

But the reality of cutbacks means the professional company has dwindled from as many as 40 dancers down to 32. This season four new male dancers have been hired, bringing that number back up to 36. The additions are a relief to all involved.
“The problem with a small company is that it can lead to injuries, because everyone has to dance more,” says William. Injuries were curbed last season thanks to a partnership with USC Orthopaedics and Drayer PT that allowed for the presence of an athletic trainer in the studio, but now having more dancers relieves the actual physical stress.

As economic forecasts improve and CCB continues to show that it is a draw for both tourists and locals, William hopes that public and private funding will grow. “I host ‘Arts WACH’ on Fox, which allows me a good perspective of what’s going on in the arts community and provides me with an opportunity to get the word out to corporate, public and individual donors about how arts are big business. European companies come to town and they understand that. But we’re so young in that way. People know that we have to pay for roads and infrastructure, but sometimes forget that if we don’t have anything for the young executives and their families coming in to do, you are not going to be able to lure them to Columbia or our state.”

New fundraising developments have brought some hope. “Last year the Fat Cat Foundation helped with our educational outreach program’s transportation costs by providing vouchers to the schools to help with gas and transportation,” William says. “We had 17 schools sign up almost immediately.”

CCB has proven itself to be an anchor of Columbia’s dance community, and the city’s cultural community as a whole. “I really see us as a catalyst for what has become the renewing of the Columbia arts scene. As the city’s largest performing arts organization we want to set a standard and be a leader, which is a big responsibility,” William says. “Columbia really is the arts capital here in South Carolina. We have incredible activity throughout the whole year. Charleston puts on a wonderful arts festival with Spoleto, but it only lasts three weeks. Here we have three main dance companies, and there is tremendous support for all of the arts that lasts the whole year round.”

CCB’s commitment to excellence encourages participation, attendance and collaboration from everyone. With such an intense focus and an outcome of sustained loyalty, it is no wonder that the company opens each season with the strength to inspire.

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