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Greenville Business Magazine

Despite pandemic, other challenges, Columbia City Ballet keeps soaring after 60 years

By Donna Isbell Walker

Sixty years ago, when South Carolina’s performing arts landscape was a mere shadow of what it is today, Columbia City Ballet leapt onto the stage for the first time.

In the early days, Columbia City Ballet staged two productions a year, but after six decades, the ballet company remains a Palmetto State stalwart, with a large cast of full-time dancers, a ballet school, and an educational outreach program that serves thousands of schoolchildren each year.

Columbia City Ballet celebrates its 60th anniversary season this year, and while the Covid-19 pandemic has brought new challenges, it’s been a celebratory season filled with CCB’s greatest hits.

“We’ve consistently performed every year for 60 years,” said William Starrett, executive and artistic director. “We’ve never not been in business. It’s pretty amazing for an arts group in the Deep South.”

Among this season’s productions were “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green” and Tchaikovsky’s “Cinderella.” The season ends in mid-April with an anniversary gala following the performance of “Beatles The Ballet.”

As with every aspect of life over the past year, the pandemic brought challenges to the ballet company, but Starrett is proud that they were able to present the Christmas classic ballet “The Nutcracker” during the 2020 holiday season.

The CCB put on 13 performances in three cities, with a pared-down cast, regular Covid tests for the dancers, and socially distanced seating.

“We took temperatures, we had them all social-distanced, two by two, and a row of seats between everybody,” Starrett said.

The CCB has grown immensely since its 1961 founding.

Founder Ann Brodie, who died in 1999, started CCB because she loved ballet. According to her obituary, Brodie was invited by the Soviet Minister of Culture to visit and observe classes at dance conservatories in Russia in 1968. She also served on dance advisory panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and the South Carolina Governors School for the Arts and Humanities.

“Ann Brodie loved ballet,” said Starrett, who first performed with CCB as a guest artist in 1977. “She wanted to form a wonderful training ground for dancers … and she loved the students. She looked to me to take the company in a professional direction.”

Starrett took over the reins in 1986. His vision when he came to CCB was to attract and retain top-notch dancers.

“In the early days, my goal was to have a professional company here in the state of South Carolina  so that wonderful artists who wanted to have a professional career in South Carolina didn’t have to leave the state,” he said.

He also wanted to promote South Carolina’s artistic community.

“Dance and the arts is one of the best tools as an ambassador of showing positive parts of what you have to offer,” he said. “I thought it was really important to show the incredible artists and high level of art that does come out of South Carolina.”

Principal dancer Claire Richards Rapp has been connected with Columbia City Ballet since she was a toddler, learning her first dance steps in the CCB conservatory at the age of 3. In high school, she began stepping in for dancers who were injured or when the company needed to fill out the line of background dancers in a performance.

She joined the company full-time in 2011.

“That was really neat to be part of the inside track with the company while still being in training,” Richards Rapp said. “So once I graduated, I entertained thoughts of going to other companies, but it was kind of a natural next step to want to join the company and continue on with that.”

She worked her way up to being a principal dancer, and during the 2019-2020 season, she danced the role of Daisy in “The Great Gatsby,” with the ballet’s choreography built around her performance.

Jordan Hawkins also began studying ballet at CCB’s conservatory at age 3, and Starrett was her first teacher. She now teaches at the conservatory as well as being a dancer with the company.

“I love that where I grew up is where I continue to work. It’s very full-circle in a way,” Hawkins said.

Columbia City Ballet has made great strides in recent decades.

The organization received the South Carolina Governor’s Award for the Arts, formerly known as the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, in 1988, and Starrett received the honor in 2002.

CCB contracts with 23 to 44 dancers each year, depending on the repertoire, ranking it among the top employers of artists in South Carolina.

In 1986, the annual budget was $125,000. This year, it’s $1.6 million, funded by the city and county, as well as individual gifts, membership drives, corporate sponsorship, and grants from the South Carolina Arts Commission.

Finding funding every year can be “incredibly daunting,” Starrett said. The pandemic brought added challenges in that area as well. The company is working with a skeleton staff, many of whom juggle multiple duties, he said.

It helps that CCB has no debt, rare for a performing arts organization, Starrett said.

He credits “determination, hard work, perseverance” with keeping things on track this season.

And he’s especially happy about CCB’s successful run of “The Nutcracker.”

“We sold $138,000 worth of tickets to ballet in Columbia, South Carolina. Who can say that? It’s unbelievable. In the sports-centric South, who can ever imagine, during a pandemic, that you would sell $138,000 worth of tickets to ballet in Columbia, South Carolina?” he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made this an unusual year for CCB dancers.

Richards Rapp, who recently gave birth to her first child, was unable to perform this past year, and the pandemic largely kept her away from the studio.

But she has kept an eye on what the company has been up to over the past several months.

“I’ve been impressed by everything that William has done and the company has done to keep them dancing,” Richards Rapp said. “I really feel for them with having to go with the flow and go with what changes are made as time goes on. It’s hard for any organization to plan right now.”

Hawkins said it’s been challenging to have to take a wait-and-see position for so much of the season.

“It’s been difficult (because) it’s not our normal, what we’re used to,” Hawkins said. “I’m personally very grateful that we’re one of the companies that has been given some options of performing because I know there are plenty that haven’t had any.”

The 60th year of CCB has been tough, but Starrett has already begun looking to the ballet’s 61st season, booking tours and planning the 2022 lineup.

There will be a world premiere of a ballet about Motown next spring, and the ballet company is also partnering with the South Carolina Philharmonic next year for a production of “Swan Lake.”

“This will be a huge thing for the community. We just feel that it’s important that you don’t have to go out of South Carolina to see one of these remarkable masterpieces. And then to experience it with a full, huge, live South Carolina Philharmonic, it’s an amazing artistic experience for our community that we’re really proud to put on.”