Charleston lost its professional ballet company in early 2013 after a year of controversy and organizational turmoil.
Beginning in the 2011-12 season, the Charleston Ballet Theatre experienced two mass resignations of board members and struggled with financial, contractual and administrative challenges that proved too much to bear.
Now, a little more than one year after the company's collapse, two new efforts are underway to re-establish professional ballet in the Lowcountry, even as CBT's former leaders carry on with occasional performances presented by the dance school they run.
Local dance action is not limited to this: Columbia Ballet recently has added Charleston to its tour circuit, and modern dance ensembles such as Annex Dance Company and the Charleston Dance Project are expanding their programming and collaborations.
The flurry of activity is occurring as construction crews work in high gear to finish the Gaillard Center, which is scheduled to open in the spring of 2015.
The Gaillard Management Corporation, responsible in part for booking the hall and ensuring that it generates adequate revenue, would benefit from any regular tenant, such as a new ballet company or contemporary dance group, robust enough to use the space on a regular basis, its managers and city officials have said.
The Charleston Ballet Theatre was active for 25 years, proving that classical dance had an audience in town and could be supported over the long term. The two new companies in formation each claim originality and are located in different parts of the metropolitan area. Whether they can muster sufficient financial and operational support, and attract the necessary dancers, remains an open question.
Slow and steady
Charleston City Ballet is the new name for a ballet company that's been in the works since the death of Robert Ivey in July 2011. Ivey ran a self-named company and the Charleston Dance School for decades in West Ashley. He also worked with the College of Charleston and other local institutions on dance projects over the years.
His successors, Michael and Olga Wise, are in the middle stages of setting up a ballet company, approaching the difficult task with quiet deliberation. They've been working on it for two years, Michael Wise said.
"When Mr. Ivey passed away, we quickly understood that if we were to survive and thrive, we had to work toward this," he said.
A board of directors is being assembled and already-drafted by-laws dictate how the organization functions, he said. The business side and artistic side will be totally separate, and "no employee of the ballet company can serve on the board," Wise said. "You have to have oversight."
The goal is to secure a group of regular dancers. Sixteen, most from the Upstate of South Carolina, came for the first set of auditions Saturday.
"Strong classical ballets are the things that sell in Charleston," Wise said. "You've got to have really good talent."
He said the company will mostly perform classical works, occasionally offering contemporary dance, too.
"It's important to show both sides, but the emphasis will be on classical," Wise said.
Audiences will get their first glimpse of Charleston City Ballet during Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which is hosting a mainstage production at Charleston Music Hall as well as family and outreach events.
Wise has met with the Gaillard Management Corporation, but worries about costs and plans to remain mostly in the Sottile Theatre for now, he said.
First things first: The audience must be developed, the company must strive for "the highest level possible" and its growth trajectory must be modest and realistic, Wise said.
"If something starts then quickly fails, it could inflict long-term damage on the arts community in Charleston," Wise said. "It could make ballet impossible for a while."
Meanwhile, east of the Cooper River, the Charleston Dance Institute is busy organizing Ballet Evolution.
Stephen Gabriel and Jonathan Tabbert once were employees of Charleston Ballet Theatre. They struck out on their own in 2012, in the wake of a plagiarism scandal that involved Gabriel and an increasingly shaky situation at CBT. Today, their dance school is thriving with about 180 students.
From the beginning of their enterprise, they hoped to set up a professional dance company at some point, leveraging existing relationships in the dance world and the fruits of productive local collaborations, they said.
After Gabriel and Tabbert partnered last year with composer-performer Laura Ball on an original ballet, "The Little Match Girl," they decided to formalize their relationship with Ball and shift into high gear. The success of "Match Girl," which featured Chamber Music Charleston playing Ball's score live, motivated the team to take the next steps.
A new three-way collaboration is in the works. "Ancient Tales" is slated to premier in February at the Sottile Theatre. The show consists of three original short ballets inspired by old-world stories.
On Friday, Ball, Tabbert and Gabriel will present "Piano Man and Woman" at the Charleston Music Hall. The show will feature music by male classical composers of the past and living female pop musicians, as well as storytelling, multimedia and original choreography by Tabbert.
The three artists already have developed a business plan for their new ballet company along with three-year financial projections, they said. They are assembling a board of directors and identifying advisers who can assist with the effort.
Ball, who is the force behind the chamber music initiative called UNED!TED, said she is energized by the collaborative approach and inspired by the work of her two friends. She met them years ago when she played piano in CBT's dance studio.
Gabriel said the new ballet company will enable the team to "bring the creation of new works to the forefront." He will focus on the business side of things; Tabbert will be chief choreographer; and Ball will be music director.
"This is about creating something that will last in the community," Ball said.
In recent months, both the Charleston City Ballet and Ballet Evolution have approached the city of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs for advice and support.
"These meetings have ranged from briefing sessions with the leadership of standing companies and new entities, and (have) also included roundtable discussions with representatives of these different groups and other artists engaged in contemporary dance," wrote Cultural Affairs Director Scott Watson in an email.
"Our hope is to both share ideas and ensure that these fledgling efforts not work at cross purposes."
Jill Eathorne Bahr, former choreographer for the Charleston Ballet Theatre, said she wants professional local ballet to return to Charleston's stages.
"I would love to see that happen," Bahr said. "The community loves the arts way, way, way too much not to have a professional ballet company. It's a hard row to hoe in any city right now. It would be great if there could be some (big-name) person trying to do it," with some big money behind the start-up.
Short of that, collaboration is the way to go, she added. That's what the members of the community have said they want to see, and that's a good way to get something done without taking on too much risk.
Bahr, who occasionally choreographs a ballet production and does a lot of consulting and adjudicating these days, said she questions whether Charleston, with its numerous theater and music organizations, can provide adequate financial support for a full-time company of professional dancers.
"I think it's extremely important that the dance scene receive a positive smack right now," she said. But anyone setting up a professional company ought to do some serious community study, including a wealth assessment, an analysis of potential dance patrons within a certain radius of the city, the potential for corporate support and more.
"If anything is truly going to evolve, it's going to take that kind of really thoughtful thinking, and getting the people who've been burned (in the past) to help out," Bahr said.
Wise said he was optimistic, encouraged by the efforts to reintroduce ballet to Charleston, but also worried about how multiple initiatives could garner sufficient financial support in an arts market already constrained by competition and limited funding opportunities.
"In Charleston, there's not a bunch of room to have multiple ballet companies," Wise said. And any ballet organization that does establish a stronghold here must "be part of the fabric" of the community, he said.
Wise said he wasn't aware of Ballet Evolution's status or ambitions; Gabriel and Tabbert said they did not know much about Wise and his efforts.
"We're going to have to pull the art community together, or we will not survive," Wise said. "I don't want to sink their ship and I hope they don't sink ours. People in Charleston want to see their local groups succeed."
And, ultimately, it will be members of the community at large who decide what happens, Wise added.
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