The Columbia City Ballet’s production of "Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green!" celebrates the company’s 60th anniversary along with Black History Month.
The company’s executive and artistic director, William Starrett, conceived the piece as a tribute to prolific artist Jonathan Green’s vibrant artwork of the Gullah lifestyle in South Carolina.
“William's vision was not to be inspired just by the art of Jonathan Green, but actually to take the art of Jonathan Green and truly bring his two-dimensional paintings to three-dimensional life on stage,” Alexis Doktor, the company's costume designer, said.
According to Doktor, about 300 handmade costumes and the use of scrims hanging from rafters above the stage were used to replicate Green’s detailed and colorful artwork to tell the stories of the people and landscapes from his past.
Starrett there it was challenging to match the intensity of the music and movement to that of the paintings.
The classical-based ballet explores a cultural awakening of life in the Gullah community. It features a mix of folk dance, jazz, contemporary African movement and Caribbean rhythm to emulate the intensity of color and music in what Starrett said is a spiritual process.
The ballet recreates 22 of Jonathan Green’s paintings, and Doktor said it digs deep into racial division and Black history in the United States, inspired by Green’s memories.
The beauty of the ballet is its ability to inspire discussion without forcing it, Doktor said.
“You can be really, truly moved by it, but you don't have to necessarily have a discussion of words,” Doktor said. “It also opens the doors to have a really powerful discussion because it is such a moving and hot topic.”
A representation of Starrett’s continued commitment to diversity in the company, the production has been around for 18 years, according to Doktor.
“It's a great piece of art that brings us together and promotes unity,” Starrett said. “I think people will be reminded of everything we've gained positively from our unity and from having, you know, terrific African American influence and Caribbean influence on our country.”
According to Starrett, the Columbia City Ballet tries to keep a third of its company African American to reflect the South Carolinian community, which is 30% African American.
In the '90s, Doktor said, the company was one of the first to have a Black prima ballerina play a lead role in "The Nutcracker," a reflection of Starrett’s advocacy for Black dancers.
"Off the Wall and Onto the Stage" is an open celebration of African American dancers in the company, Doktor said. It's also an effort to bring social awareness to the positive gains made and to the work that must still be done, Starrett said.
The circumstances of the ongoing pandemic are also reflected in the production.
All the dancers will be wearing masks matching their skin tone, blurring the details to mimic Green’s often faceless characters.
“I feel that we've really tried to, you know, be more literal with our arms and more literal with our bodies and our eyes and expression with our eyes so that people still see okay,” core company member Matthew Frezzell said.
Frezzell said he hopes the audience gains an understanding of the importance of the ballet artform and of respecting different cultures.
The performance will take place on March 5 and 6 at the Koger Center. Social distancing will be required, and tickets are only sold in pairs.