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Ballet dancer who founded Charleston company arrested in shooting death of husband

Ashley Benefield, American National Ballet (copy)

Ashley Benefield founded in 2017 the short-lived American National Ballet, which was based in Charleston. (Provided)

The founder of the short-lived Charleston-based American National Ballet was arrested last week and accused of killing her estranged husband.

Ashley Benefield, 28, was charged with second-degree murder in the Sept. 27 shooting death of 58-year-old Doug Benefield.

The couple, separated and living in Florida, were embroiled in a custody battle involving their daughter, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Benefield lived at her mother’s home in the Central Park neighborhood of Bradenton, north of Sarasota. Her husband lived at a separate address. He was visiting Ashley when, during the course of a domestic argument, the shooting occurred.

An arrest warrant states that four shots were fired, two striking him while he was turned away. Ashley Benefield ran to a neighbor and told him that Doug Benefield had attacked her and that she shot him, according to the warrant.

“Detectives found no evidence that she was acting in self-defense when she fired multiple shots at her husband,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a press release. “She claimed he was attacking her, but detectives found no signs that she had been physically abused.”

Benefield turned herself in at the county jail on Nov. 3. The warrant also describes her unsuccessful efforts to deny Doug Benefield access to their daughter, first by filing domestic abuse claims, then by requesting a court injunction against him.

In 2017, the couple had settled in Charleston and assembled a first-rate team of ballet dancers and administrators in an effort to launch the American National Ballet. The enterprise, months in the making, was a dream realized for Ashley Benefield, a graduate of Maryland Youth Ballet and former professional dancer. Her husband had worked in the defense and private equity sectors but had little experience with dance organizations. He served as CEO and strived to get the ballet off the ground.

The goal was to operate a nonprofit ballet company and a for-profit school. A troupe was assembled of about 45 dancers, including veterans of the American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Complexions, Pennsylvania Ballet, Estonian National Opera, and Phoenix Ballet. The team also had recruited Michael and Olga Wise, who ran Charleston City Ballet (formerly Robert Ivey Ballet).

At the end of August that year, Ashley Benefield, took a leave of absence and retired to Florida.

About two months after announcing the ambitious project, the management team ran into trouble and reduced significantly the size of its company of dancers, sparking intense scrutiny and criticism. Dancers who had relocated to Charleston were mostly abandoned to their fates. 

Furious, Benefield announced she had quit the project and took to social media to condemn the changes and new leadership.

“The dream and vision was to see beautiful dancers of all shapes, sizes, styles and colors dancing together,” she wrote in October 2017 on Facebook, where she also posted a public disavowal of the new company, saying she was “completely devastated by what has been done and the way it was done.”

Doug Benefield tried to stabilize the company but soon chose to step away, leaving Beth Bogush in charge.

In November, dancer-choreographer Rasta Thomas sued, claiming breach of contract. By 2018, nothing was left of the ballet enterprise.

The quick implosion of what initially was a promising new dance venture in a city without a major ballet company revealed just how difficult it can be to establish a large arts organization from scratch.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

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