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‘Dying on stage is a lot of fun’: Updated Dracula ballet renews energy for Columbia’s fine arts scene

Last week, the Columbia City Ballet delivered three powerful, action-packed performances of Dracula: Ballet with a Bite at the Koger Center and hosted the company’s first-ever “Dracula: Gala with a Bite.”

Setting the stage with spooky music, shrill bat sounds, and an eerily howling wolf noise, the talented cast of dancers frightened and delighted audiences with the ballet, which was composed by the company’s artistic director, William Starrett, over two decades ago.

“The audience loves the blood and the real physical, sensual movements—in fact, the whole cast does,” remarked Starrett. “But my favorite parts are silly—they probably aren’t what someone else would love.”

Starrett explains his favorite moment in the ballet occurred when the main character, Lucy, portrayed this year by ballerina Regina Willoughby, was brought into the world of the undead. “When Dr. Van Helsing and her fiancé Arthur find her, the way he picks her up and runs of the stage, carrying the lantern—it’s really beautiful, and it’s very romantic,” he said.

dracula-1For Willoughby, the most thrilling part of each performance was actually the scene in which her character passed away. “All the characters on stage with me are trying to figure out what is wrong with me because I’m just going crazy, and they realize that they have to kill me. That scene is just completely polar opposite from the beginning. I’m just going mad,” she said with a laugh. “And dying on stage is a lot of fun.”

This year’s Dracula saw several changes from years past, including the addition of new cast members, the development of Renfield as a primary character, and more contemporary, updated music. The dancers leapt and gyrated across the stage to haunting, energetic, and modern tunes such as Muse’s “Follow Me” and “Uprising.” Even older songs, such as Depeche Mode’s “Wrong,” were remixed to create a starkly original and seductive atmosphere.

The unique blend of choreography, costumes, and scenery also featured some updates, showcasing the talented ballet dancers in a creative new light. In spite of being a tale about the undead, and a long-rooted staple of Columbia’s fine arts scene, this year’s Dracula was full of life, breathing a renewed energy to a classic tale.

For the first time, Columbia City Ballet followed one of their performances with a spooky themed ball. Hosted at the Darla Moore School of Business on Friday evening, “Dracula: Gala with a Bite” was a fundraiser for the nonprofit ballet company, masked in an elegant cloak of a Halloween party. Proceeds from the gala’s ticket sales and massive silent auction were actually donations to Columbia City Ballet, helping fund their productions and rehearsals and purchase pointe shoes for the dancers.

The Reggie Sullivan Band, in full costume, rocked the gala for hours with soulful, high energy live music, while the fully costumed wait-staff attended to the guests. Some gala attendees danced in elegant ball gowns and black-tie tuxedos, while other came dressed in their Halloween garb. To commemorate the evening, the gala featured a photo booth with a spiderweb background and handed attendees props such as fangs and masquerade masks.

Starrett hoped the eerily enjoyable gala would not only increase interest and participation in Columbia City Ballet, but also provide a new annual tradition: “Dracula has stayed a classic Halloween ritual in this city, but some people have forgotten how incredible it is. We want people to rediscover it and come back to see it.” Starrett compared watching the ballet to “reading a great book you love. You go back and say, ‘I don’t remember that part,’ or ‘I forgot how great that was.’ You’re going to see more into it every time.”

With a packed audience at the Koger Center three consecutive nights and a positive turnout for their first ever gala, Columbia City Ballet generated a level of interest in a classical fine art. “This is a great way to bring people to a ballet who might not normally come,” Willoughby acknowledged.

“You don’t have to be a ballet aficiando to enjoy Dracula,” said Starrett. “It’s a great ballet for people who haven’t really discovered ‘art’ yet or haven’t been to a ballet. My job is to make the action so clear so they can follow the story easily—it’s hip and contemporary.”

For dancers like Willoughby, the company’s creative take on long-loved and well-known stories is an excellent method for Columbia residents to gain an appreciation for dance and fine arts. “[We present] a good introduction to classical dance for people who are new to ballet,” she said, noting that the ballet revitalizes very familiar storylines with a level of excitement, skill, and artistry that audiences probably would not expect from a ballet. “It’s a way for people to get exposed to the wonderful world that ballet is.”

Starrett and his company will utilize that same passionate, creative energy to revitalize another classic tale—The Nutcracker. They will perform The Nutcracker in four matinee and two evening performances in December, and will also host two Nutcracker-themed tea parties.

For a full schedule and tickets, visit www.kogercenterforthearts.com.

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