Large-scale professional ballet has been absent from the local scene since the Charleston Ballet Theatre shut down operations in early 2013, ending a 26-year run. That episode startled and embittered parts of the local arts community and discouraged ballet patrons and donors, say observers and arts advocates, including managers of the new Gaillard Center that will open later this year.
Since it will almost certainly take time, perhaps a few years, both to build substantive professional dance options in town and to woo back donors, the Gaillard Center has entered into an arrangement with the Charlotte Ballet to fill the gap and help the healing, said Rick Jerue, the center’s director of education, outreach and strategic initiatives and Kevin Carlon, its director of external affairs.
“The ballet community is divided here in Charleston,” noted Jerue. “We needed to do something to provide ballet, and to offer educational opportunities.”
The Charlotte Ballet is a well-established professional company with a $5 million annual budget and net assets of about $16 million. It has 25 full-time dancers and robust scholarship and education programming.
The Gaillard plan will bring the Charlotte Ballet to Charleston three times a year to present major productions in the hall, including its version of “The Nutcracker,” and hold teacher development and dance workshops around town, Jerue and Carlon said. The company will conduct a three-week dance residency in the summer of 2016, engaging local institutions and dancers. Charlotte Ballet will pay a standard performance fee to the Gaillard Center, like any other company using the hall, and it will fund its education outreach on its own, according to Carlon.
It will kick off the partnership with a teacher workshop next month for public and private school dance instructors in the tri-county area. The teacher workshop is set for March 27 at the Charleston County School of the Arts.
It is not a long-term arrangement, but Gaillard Center programmers hope the Charlotte Ballet can help strengthen interest in dance and set the stage for sustainable local ballet.
“The Charlotte Ballet is one of the region’s premiere ballet companies,” said Gaillard Center Executive Director Tom Tomlinson in a statement. “Forging this relationship will enable us to bring world-class ballet to the Lowcountry on a regular basis, thus helping to develop a sustainable ballet audience. In the long run, it is our hope that such an audience will support a local ballet company and that the need to bring a regular ballet presence from outside the region to Charleston will be unnecessary in the future.”
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Charlotte Ballet’s president and artistic director, said the arrangement with the Gaillard Center will help his organization pursue two goals while simultaneously providing support to colleagues in the Lowcountry.
“What was important for us to start with was that we wanted to develop a sister city to give more opportunity to our dancers,” Bonnefoux said. “Charleston was sort of a dream. When eventually things fell into place, it couldn’t be a better place for us.”
In just the past year and a half, three nascent classical dance companies have emerged in Charleston. Charleston City Ballet is an offshoot of the Robert Ivey Ballet Academy. Michael Wise is artistic director of the Charleston City Ballet, a stand-alone nonprofit; his wife Olga Wise is assistant director and choreographer.
Ballet Evolution is a new company that’s a result of a unique collaboration between The Charleston Dance Institute (a school in Mount Pleasant), Chamber Music Charleston and UNED!TED (a creative music initiative led by Laura Ball).
And Coastal Ballet USA is the small phoenix attempting to take flight from the ashes of the Charleston Ballet Theatre. It’s run by Jill Eathorne-Bahr and Patricia and Don Cantwell.
Last November, the Gaillard team convened a meeting to discuss dance in Charleston generally and the new partnership with Charlotte Ballet specifically. Several local dance instructors and company managers attended.
“I think it’s wonderful that outside companies are interested in visiting our city,” said Jonathan Tabbert, Ballet Evolution choreographer and co-founder. “That’s kind of been a staple of the Gaillard and the Concert Association, to bring groups into the city. I think they’ll continue to do so; it’s part of their mission. My passion is to make sure we maintain a focus on incubating art here in Charleston. We want to make sure the community doesn’t lose sight of that.”
Tabbert said bringing the Charlotte Ballet is “an option.”
“Whether or not it’s the best option remains to be seen,” he said. “There are arguments on both sides of that solution. Some would say it would stifle what’s happening in the city, and some would say it would bolster what’s happening in the city. If the Gaillard has a mission to help grow and incubate what’s happening in the city of Charleston, then this will succeed.”
Jerue said helping local artists is a big part of the Gaillard’s mission.
“If we’re going to be a civic arts center, we have a responsibility to assist with marketing for others,” he said.
Carlon said the Gaillard will be used as a tool for concentrating interest in the performing arts. The Charlotte Ballet will perform just a few times a year, he noted.
“If audiences like it, they’re more likely to go see local productions,” he said.
What’s more, the outdoor greenspace on the Calhoun Street side of the building likely will be used to feature local groups and help them develop their audiences, Carlon said.
“There are lots of ways I think we can become a catalyst in helping local arts groups to grow and prosper,” he said.
Charleston City Ballet’s Wise, who did not attend the November meeting but was informed about its content, said he liked the idea of trying to create a stable atmosphere for professional dance in Charleston, and appreciated the interim status of the Charlotte Ballet, which could be used as a kind of consultant.
He noted that Charleston audiences can be a bit territorial, preferring local performers over outsiders.
“It’s kind of a risk they’re taking because Charleston doesn’t really favor outside groups coming in,” Wise said. It might be unrealistic to expect the Charlotte Ballet to fill the dance void, “because it doesn’t have the same feel.”
On the other hand, he said, it’s clear that the essential funding base for ballet in town is not what it once was.
“Many were burned,” he said. “It takes time to change that belief. Many donors are taking a wait-and-see attitude. They realize that there is so much that needs to be done, and we’ve got to start changing the way people think about (local ballet)” so they know that “it’s OK to get involved again.”
Hopefully, the new Gaillard Center-Charlotte Ballet initiative will work, Wise said.
“My No. 1 hope is that it will change the perspective of a lot of people who in the past were funding the ballet, they will come back.”
Scott Watson, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, said he was not surprised by the partnership and glad that is was not a long-term co-location arrangement.
“It’s not a bus-and-truck operation,” he said of the Charlotte Ballet, referring to a typical touring company that swings through a city only for a night or a short run. And the arrangement encourages the local dance community “to pursue the aspiration to have a locally constituted standing ballet company,” Watson said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.