Courtesy of Columbia City Ballet

Artist's vision of South Carolina Lowcountry culture brought to life in 'Off the Wall and onto the Stage'

A world-renowned artist will have his work come to life in Columbia City Ballet's “Off the Wall and onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green” at the Township Auditorium on Friday.

Jonathan Green received professional art training at the Art Institute of Chicago. Drawing inspiration from his experiences in South Carolina’s Gullah culture, Green uses vibrant colors to depict life in the Lowcountry. 

William Starrett, the executive and artistic director for Columbia City Ballet, carefully selected 22 paintings for this production — from the hundreds that Green has created. Choosing which works to incorporate into the ballet was difficult, and Starrett had no clear criteria for how to choose. 

“I was looking more about what stories fascinated me, or what paintings just popped out at me,” Starrett said.

He conferred with Green during the selection process, but the artist gave Starrett the creative space to portray the paintings how he felt best. 

“He really shared with me about the story behind the paintings,” Starrett said. “But then he completely let me go ... He was very lenient with artistic freedom.”

For Starrett one of the most important, but difficult, parts of the production was finding the perfect music for the movement onstage. He wanted the accompaniment to reflect what the people of the Gullah culture would have been listening to at the time. 

“The challenge was when you start with the image, then finding the music that comes up to the intensity of the painting and helps the story to unfold,” he said.

Starrett reached out to Marlena Smalls, an actress and gospel singer from South Carolina, who will be playing the namesake role in the portrayal of Green’s painting, "Bessie Mae." Smalls is the founder of the Hallelujah Singers and played a small role in the 1994 film "Forrest Gump." The show will also feature a diverse choir ensemble, including the voices of Claflin University Gospel, University of South Carolina, A Touch of Faith, Benedict College and Elliott Hannah. 

Another challenge in creating “Off the Wall” was finding a way to display the vibrant artwork on stage that did not skew or misrepresent the painting. The powerful stage lights often wash out the color of the costumes, and Starrett wanted to capture the artwork’s beauty in each moment of the performance. 

“We developed a curtain process that would kind of refocus like a camera lens,” said Starrett. “We didn’t want to distort the painting.”

Like most art, Green’s pieces are up for interpretation. “Off the Wall” allows for the ambiguity of the paintings, while the dance component will add to the audience’s personal experience. Starrett said he hopes the dancing will inspire the audience to discuss whether they believe their original impressions were correct or if the dance component changes their interpretations in any way.

Viewers can expect the stereotypical idea of ballet to be shattered with this production. 

“A lot of people just generally think ballet is high school girls in fluffy white costumes running around,” Starrett said. “I’m steadfast in not wanting to just call it dance or modern or contemporary movement … Ballet today really encompasses a huge scope of genres.”

"Off the Wall" was first performed in 2005, but it has taken Starrett about three years to prepare for this year’s production. The long and complex process has given him the satisfaction of self-expression.

“This is my life’s work,” he said. “The whole reason I’m on the planet is ... to try to inspire people to discover the art and love ballet as much as I do.”

“Off the Wall and onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green” will have a single performance in Columbia on Feb. 9 at the historical Township Auditorium. There will also be a performance in Charleston on March 3.

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