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SC Philharmonic, Columbia City Ballet unite for epic Swan Lake weekend

This weekend, the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra will join forces with the Columbia City Ballet for the first time in 24 years—and for the first time ever to perform Swan Lake at the Koger Center.

The performance falls on the 122 year anniversary of the first time Swan Lake, in the form we know it today, was performed, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia—but it will only be the seventh time in Columbia City Ballet’s 56-year history that the company will take on one of the most classical pieces of ballet created.

Most live dance performances, in particular ballets, are performed to prerecorded music, not a live orchestra. “This will be a rare experience,” acknowledged William Starrett, executive director of the Columbia City Ballet. “The musicians are artists, too, so they’re bringing the music to life from their instruments at the moment. The dancers become conduits of the music, living at the very moment the music is played to tell a story, and interpreting the sound through their body to the audience.”

While many ballets were derived from fairy tales and famous stories that long preceded their interpretation into dance performances, Swan Lake has the distinction of being a story written specifically to create a ballet. Morihiko Nakahara, the esteemed conductor of the South Carolina Philharmonic, said that is what makes both the performers and the public enjoy the music of Swan Lake so much.

“Obviously when you have a composer who is such a natural born storyteller like Tchaikovsky, he has this innate sense for writing beautiful melodies with a lot of dramatic effects,” explained Nakahara. “It’s written for a pretty large orchestra, with powerful brass and percussion and soaring string lines. When that all comes together…it is this very tragic and romantic tale of Swan Lake that people have loved for over 100 years.”

This year’s production of Swan Lake will be unlike any other in Columbia that has preceded it. The company will feature two different casts for their Friday and Saturday night performances. On Friday night, the company will proudly showcase special guest Joseph Phillips as the premier danseur. Phillips is an internationally recognized dancer who Starrett adoringly refers to as the “Tom Brady of ballet.”

“He has the most gold medals of any American dancer in the world, and is the only American principal to have been invited to dance in Russia,” explained Starrett. “And he is actually from Columbia, SC. You can imagine how spectacular he must be to perform with a Russian ballet company—and now we’ve got him in the role of Prince Siegfried on Friday.”

Opposite Phillips will be another guest dancer, Cuban ballerina Annie Ruiz.

A unique interpretation of a classic ballet

Columbia City Ballet has been widely recognized for its stylishness and modernity; the company is famous for its annual production of Dracula: Ballet with a Bite. This year, the company has taken precautions to keep a very classic and well-known ballet like Swan Lake still fresh and attention-grabbing for modern audiences.

While the original production was over four hours long, Starrett has decided to “keep the art form fresh. Instead of four acts, it’s in two acts with one intermission. I’ve got the most fast-paced steps that tell the story most clearly.”

The inclusion of a live orchestra ensures that “every performance is completely different. Even though the steps are similar, you have different artists playing, dancing, interpreting the music and the story,” explained Starrett.

“It’s a once in a life time experience. Nothing you will ever see will be the same,” said Nakahara. “The music might come out slightly different, not just in terms of tempo but also the accents might change very time its done. The dancers react to that differently on stage, and I react differently, watching them from the pit while I am conducing. That of course affects the way the orchestra plays. That kind of interaction, the flow of energies going back and forth between the music from the pit and the movement on stage, is a level of bond that cannot be replicated with recorded music.”

Ballerina Regina Willoughby and principal Christopher Muroz, who both have performed with the Columbia City Ballet for several years, will dance the lead roles for the Saturday night performance. “Preparation [for Saturday night’s performance] really started for me last summer,” said Willoughby, who spent months studying different performances of Swan Lake. “I’ve watched a lot of film over the several months as I was getting into the rehearsal process, getting into all the steps, and working with my partner. So many great ballerinas have danced this role, and I have been watching many interpretations of the choreography to learn from what others have done with it.”

“There’s such a history of the emotions and characterizations that have been interpreted through the years,” Starrett concurred. “The goal is to be true to the original but make it your own…She has her own ideas of what she wants to bring. She wants to be herself and as good as the history of the performance. It’s a lot of pressure—very demanding and very fulfilling at the same time…Her life’s dream is to play the Swan Queen in the capital city of South Carolina with a full, live orchestra, so it’s very, very exciting.”

For Starrett, Willoughby, and others in the company, the most unique and inspiring part of preparing for the performance has been the inclusion of the SC Philharmonic. Conductor Nakahara noted that “even for the people who are used to going to see the City Ballet’s other productions, they’ll feel the difference by having live accompaniment.”

The arduous journey toward performing

According to Starrett and Willoughby, Swan Lake is “the epitome of ballet,” and the dancers in the company have been putting in grueling physical work to perfect their staging of the classic choreography. “Even though it was created 122 years ago, the steps are still so physically demanding. It really sets the standards for ballet and is technically demanding,” said Starrett.

Refining the precision of the steps is complex and time-consuming for the dancers. Willoughby believes many people would be stunned if they were offered a glimpse into one of the company’s ballet rehearsals. “It’s really amazing just to see all the work that goes into the ballet, the intricacy of every detail—every head, shoulder, foot, and step. The dancers are always so in sync that it almost seems as if they’re breathing together.”

However, according to Willoughby, the technical precision of the Columbia City Ballet dancers is admirable, but it is not the best feature the company will showcase this weekend. “I’ve worked almost 30 years on ballet technique, but it’s just a vehicle to the art form. If you don’t tell a story to the audience, and you don’t bring the feeling of the story to the audience, then what have you done all this work for?”

Nakahara said the orchestra has been working diligently in rehearsals as well for the production. “This is very exciting for us as well. Any time when you get to to bring the marriage between these two mediums of live music and dance, when you get to make that happen, it’s a special experiences for the performers…this is incredibly beautiful music. It’s fun to perform, and to put it back to the context of its original intent of being danced to.”

The public will finally be allowed to see the work of the dancers’ and musicians’ months of labor with this weekend’s two productions of Swan Lake. The first performance, featuring special guest dancers Phillips and Ruiz in the lead role, will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Koger Center. The second performance will take place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Koger Center.

Following Saturday’s performance, the public is invited to join the company at their first ever Black and White Ball at the Embassy Suites. A $100 donation to the ballet company grants any individual a ticket to Swan Lake and admission to the ball, which will feature a full bar and dinner service, guest speakers, and an excerpt from the Emanuel Ballet that will premiere in April. Nakahara labelled this weekend’s collaboration a “total immersive experience for the audience.”

“The music literally tells you a story, and it evokes such vivid images, feelings, and emotions to the both the performers and the audience,” explained Nakahara. “We’re thrilled to be part of this collaboration.”

“It’s a wonderful thing to experience dance, music, and art at this level,” said Starrett. “The South Carolina Philharmonic is the largest orchestra in our state, and the Columbia City Ballet is the largest performing arts association in South Carolina. This isn’t something you see often, and you don’t have to go to New York City or Russia. You have some of the greatest dancers in your own back yard, performing an amazing work of art.”

For more information about Swan Lake and the Black and White Ball, visit www.columbiacityballet.com.

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