When William Starrett, artistic director of the Columbia City Ballet, received in 2002 an Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, artist Jonathan Green delivered the remarks at the ceremony. Green was impressed enough by Starrett’s accomplishments to offer the ballet director a painting to auction as a fundraiser.
Starrett was speechless and grateful. Once he gathered himself, he said he wanted to make a ballet based on Green’s art.
Three years and $1.2 million later, the ballet company presented "Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green." At the end of each vignette, dancers formed a tableau mimicking one of Green’s paintings, then a huge screen dropped to the stage revealing an enlarged reproduction of the original piece of art.
Arguably, the show is to Columbia City Ballet what “Revelations” is to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: a beloved cornerstone of its repertoire that helps define the company.
Now the dance troupe is working again with Green and several others to produce a new work that honors the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting, their families and the broader community, whose members continue to grapple with the significance and aftermath of a terrible crime.
“Emanuel: Love is the Answer” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. April 1 at the Sottile Theatre, 44 George St., with support from the Patrick Family Foundation and the South Carolina Arts Commission.
The ballet will include a series of danced vignettes involving 22 of the company’s 32 dancers, Starrett said.
“This is my effort to make sense of all this, and to heal from it,” he said.
The multimedia production is by the South Carolina Ballet, an enterprise of Columbia City Ballet. It will include projected videos and images: Green’s colorful Gullah-inspired paintings, Jenny Horne’s now-famous General Assembly speech calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds, comments from great spiritual and political leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa, and more.
The 90-minute ballet will be organized into three parts, beginning with an exploration of “how we are here and why,” continuing with a survey of the social progress we’ve made in South Carolina and concluding with a rumination on love, fraternity, forgiveness and acceptance, Starrett said.
“Dance is a great art form to help unify and bring us together,” he said.
Starrett grew up in California, danced professionally with the Royal Winnepeg Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theater, then settled in South Carolina 30 years ago to run the Columbia-based ballet company.
He said “Emanuel: Love is the Answer” surely has a spiritual dimension, thanks in part to its use of paintings.
“All art, especially visual art, is a form of prayer,” he said.
Charles “Bud” Ferillo, coordinator of the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation, a project of the University of South Carolina, said his organization endorses the ballet project. Ferillo is helping to promote it.
“This ballet is poetry in motion and will be the basis for further healing,” the Charleston native said. "Every citizen, of every race, will benefit from this performance.”
Horne said she was driven to deliver her heartfelt speech, credited with pushing reluctant lawmakers to agree to the flag’s removal, because the banner was an offense to her friends. “It was personal.”
She had known the Rev. Clementa Pinckney first as a young page at the Statehouse and later as a senator, and his death at the hands of a white supremacist on June 17, 2015, was devastating. When she witnessed many thousands of people enduring the summer heat and hoping to gain access to Pinckney’s funeral, she was especially moved, she said.
“The image of young and old, black and white, American and people here to tour the city from other countries” — this array of grieving people gave her hope. So in a last-minute, Hail-Mary attempt to convince her colleagues to take down the flag, she delivered her fiery, from-the-heart speech.
Though she is no longer serving in the Legislature, her speech continues to reverberate. And now it is part of a work of art.
“I’m so grateful to be part of this beautiful tribute to the families, the victims, this church and this city and all of South Carolina,” Horne said.
Tickets for the ballet are $25-$45 and available at http://columbiacityballet.com/production/emanuel9/. The company will perform "Emanuel" at the Camden Fine Arts Center on April 4 and at Columbia's Koger Arts Center on April 7 and 8.