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Columbia ballerina, New York City Ballet come to Township Auditorium

Columbia native Sara Mearns of the New York City Ballet performs in “Western Symphony” at the 2015 Ballet Stars of New York performance.
Columbia native Sara Mearns of the New York City Ballet performs in “Western Symphony” at the 2015 Ballet Stars of New York performance. Submitted

Sara Mearns began her ballet career on Columbia stages. For nearly two decades, she has danced on stages all over the world.

And the Columbia native never forgets where her ballet roots are.

Mearns will join six other world leading dancers with the New York City Ballet at the Township Auditorium stage on March 31, as the University of South Carolina Department of Theatre and Dance presents the 14th annual Ballet Stars of New York Gala Performance.

A principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Mearns has performed many feature roles, her signature role being the swan queen in “Swan Lake.” She was described by The New York Times in 2015 as “very possibly the most talked of ballerina in America.”

Joining Mearns are NYC Ballet principal dancers Jared Angle, Ask La Cour, and Lauren Lovette, as well as NYCB soloists Harrison Coll, Emilie Gerrity, and Indiana Woodward. The concert is once again directed by UofSC Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Stacey Calvert, who for 17 years was a soloist with the NYCB.

These guest artists will perform alongside dancers from the UofSC Dance Company, with music accompaniment from a live orchestra conducted by Nyamka Odsuren.

Scheduled repertory for the concert includes two ballets by George Balanchine, founding Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet: the romantic Serenade (set to the music of Tschaikovsky), and Western Symphony, a crowd-pleasing romp through the Old West set to Hershy Kay’s spirited arrangements of well-known American folk songs.

A special highlight of the concert will be Fandango, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi Ballet and current Artist-in-Residence for American Ballet Theatre. Choreographed to Spanish-style music by Luciano Boccherini, this solo work featuring Mearns led New York Times critic Alastair Macauley to declare it the best dance performance of the year when he saw her perform it in 2016. (“Ms. Mearns blazed; her musicality electrified. If I had to choose one 2016 performance by one dancer, this would be the one.”)

Mearns began her ballet training at Columbia’s Calvert-Brodie School of Dance, under the tutelage of Ann Brodie. She first gained major recognition with the New York City Ballet in 2006 performing the lead role of Odette/Odile in Peter Martin’s “Swan Lake.” She was promoted to Principal Dancer in 2008 and has since earned high praise for her roles in, among many other ballets, “The Nutcracker,” “Serenade,” and “Walpurgisnacht.”

Mearns looks forward to returning to Columbia, and took some time to talk about coming home.

Q. How long did you live in Columbia? What was it like for you when you left and ended up in New York City?

A. I was born in Columbia and lived there until I was 14. I moved to Greenville to attend the Governors School for the Arts for a year, and the following year I moved to New York to live and attend The School of American Ballet. I had been going to New York City since I was young, and I had been attending the summer course of SAB since I was 12 so I was very familiar with the culture and the fast pace living. It was thrilling to me and very exciting.

Q. How does it feel to return to Columbia to perform?

A. I love coming back to perform in my hometown. It brings back memories of how it all started and where I got my start. I see old friends and family, and I love supporting the arts community in any way I can. Columbia is very sports dominated so anything I can do to show off the arts is huge a deal.

Q. What have been some of the highlights of your career?

A. I have been very fortunate and lucky in my career, Swan Lake at 19 is what set it all in motion! My 2008 spring season when I was promoted to principal dancer will be a moment in time I will never forget. Working with genius choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky, William Forsythe, Justin Peck, Jodi Melnick, Matthew Bourne, Kyle Abraham, Kim Brandstrup, and of course my husband Joshua Bergasse, just to name a few. The production of the Red Shoes in 2017, my performances of “Dances of Isadora” last year with the Paul Taylor company, and currently working on my first musical “I Married an Angel” for City Center Encores.

Q. When you were dancing at Calvert-Brodie I’m sure you dreamed of a career like you’ve had. Has has the reality measured up to the dreams?

A. I had huge dreams when I was Calvert Brodie, but I didn’t understand or realize the scope of it all. I knew I had to be a ballerina, that was my life, but I didn’t know how big it could be! What I have done in my career, and where I am now is not at all what I could of dreamed of. It’s so far beyond anything imaginable and I wake up everyday the most grateful human. I just try to work as hard as I can so I can keep living the dream.

Q. What are some thoughts or words of wisdom you’d like to share with the USC students you’ll be performing alongside?

A. My best advice to students in that time when they are trying to figure out the next step, that next step should be a no-brainer. Meaning if you aren’t 150 percent sure dance is for your career, and you have other interests pulling at you, explore those. A dance career for anyone, including me, will always be an up hill battle, either physically, mentally, and financially. When those tough moments come that anyone else would just walk away and do something else, an artist will never do that. You are bound to what you do, you can’t live or breathe without it. When someone asks me what would you do if you weren’t a dancer, I don’t have a fun answer to give them, because I am a ballerina. I am a dancer. Nothing else compares in my mind.

Lezlie Patterson, special to GoColumbia

If you go

14th annual Ballet Stars of New York Gala Performance

When: 6:30 p.m. March 31

Where: Township Auditorium, 1703 Taylor St.

Tickets: $35 for orchestra seating; $25-$30 for balcony seating; $15 for gallery seating. Tickets are available online at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000.

Other events: A gala fundraiser will follow the performance and include food from Loosh Culinaire and dancing to the music of Eight Track Parade. Gala tickets are $150 and include VIP seating during the concert and complimentary valet parking. To purchase gala tickets, call 803-777-0704 or email susanea@mailbox.sc.edu.