If you think of pastel-colored pointe shoes and fairy tales from faraway lands when you think of ballet, you probably haven’t experienced Columbia City Ballet’s upcoming production.
Inspired by the paintings of Jonathan Green, who has created more than 1,700 works capturing South Carolina’s Gullah culture, City Ballet’s executive and artistic director William Starrett in 2005 created a vibrantly colorful ballet of vignettes exploring Green’s themes of family, faith, hope and love.
Columbia City Ballet will perform “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green” on Friday, Feb. 9, at the Township Auditorium. The production will feature the return of South Carolina actress and gospel singer Marlena Smalls, who will reprise the role of Bessie Mae, personifying the character from the Jonathan Green painting of the same name. Smalls is best known for her role as Bubba’s mama in “Forrest Gump.”
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Starrett recently talked with GoColumbia about how Green’s work inspired him and how he makes the paintings come alive.
Q. Where did you get the initial inspiration to create this ballet?
A. In 2002, I was the recipient of the Elizabeth O’Neil Verner Award from the South Carolina Arts Commission, and Jonathan Green was a speaker at that event. At some point during that occasion, Jonathan very graciously offered to donate a painting to the ballet as a fundraising tool. Hearing this, I immediately replied that I’d like to make a ballet about his paintings. That rather short conversation began a two-year collaborative effort between Jonathan and me, which culminated in the ballet “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage.”
Q. What kind of influence do the paintings have in the choreography?
A. The paintings really inform all the movements in the choreography. As I studied the paintings, I was able to begin to see the movements in my mind.
From the subject matter, to the paint colors, to the brush strokes, all these things became an intrinsic part of creating the choreography. It’s sometimes difficult to convey just how the (creative) process evolves, but all these things I’ve mentioned are components of that process.
Jonathan also personally told me the stories behind the paintings and his childhood memories that inspired him as he created his art.
Q. What message were you trying to convey through your choreography?
A. Through my studying of Jonathan Green’s body of work, I began to see a story emerging. I began to notice distinct themes of joy, diversity, faith, humanity and racial harmony. The choreography is used to convey the same exuberance and joy as contained in many of the paintings.
There are also scenes in which the movement conveys sorrow, determination and perseverance, all concepts which I saw in Green’s works. I also began to fully understand the enormous contributions made to our modern-day life by the people of the South Carolina Sea Islands.
It is my sincere hope that the choreography will leave the viewer with the same exhilaration, joy and renewed faith in humanity that I found in creating the ballet. My desire is that you’ll come away with an appreciation for the rich cultural fabric of South Carolina and a greater understanding of how all our lives, past and present, are intertwined to create our modern society.
Q. What kind of music did you choose for the performance and why?
A. The music is varied and includes original works, such as Marlena Small’s “Carry Me Home,” rousing gospel, as in “It’s a Highway to Heaven,” and longtime favorites like “At Last.” In each instance, the music was selected because in my artistic vision, it fit both the movement and the painting in that scene.
Overall, specific music was selected because it either complemented or furthered the story contained in the paintings. There is a lot of spiritual music in this ballet because I found so many of the paintings to be spiritually inspirational and, in fact, considered the entire creative process of this ballet to be a personal spiritual journey.
I also looked at the time period in which the paintings were painted or the subject matter of the painting. I tried to image what music Johnathan might have listened to as he painted; what kind of song did I image the person in the painting singing. From work songs to folk songs to Motown classics, the music was selected because I thought it resonated with the dance, with the painting, and with the message.
Q. How can the audience expect to see features of African-American history throughout the ballet?
A. The ballet is quite overt in presenting African-American history, starting immediately with the narrated opening. Obviously, many of the most compelling features are the paintings themselves, but what I find to be so interesting is that like the paintings, the ballet pays homage to our African-American history while highlighting racial harmony.
Another way in which African-American history is presented is through the movement itself. The ballet uses many movements which are rooted in African and Caribbean dance styles, it was impossible to tell this story through dance without including those movements.
In the beginning, I was intrigued that many of Green’s works don’t actually reveal the race of figures depicted, instead focusing on the universality of the scene. That’s what the ballet does as well – it pays tribute to the African-American heritage, it points out the ways in which our culture has been enriched by that heritage, while it also draws us into the greater awareness that we all benefit from one another and that our modern cultural fabric is a shared thing.
If you go
Columbia City Ballet presents “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9.
WHERE: Township Auditorium, 1703 Taylor St.
TICKETS: $26 to $36 at www.thetownship.org. Military, seniors and students receive $5 off each ticket at the box office.