Perhaps it’s only fitting that ballerina Regina Willoughby’s farewell performance will be playing the lead in Cleopatra—a ballet that pays homage to a woman who embodies both beauty and strength, two traits for which Willoughby herself is known. Columbia’s most well-known ballet dancer is retiring.
Columbia City Ballet Company will bid goodbye to its famed ballerina, who has been performing with the company for more than 20 years, this Saturday at the Koger Center as she completes two final performances of Cleopatra, a ballet which was actually written for her by ballet director William Starrett.
“I feel very excited about this weekend, because it’s the culmination of what’s been a really great career, but it’s also so bittersweet,” said Willoughby. “There are so many things I’m going to miss, but the rest for my body and my schedule will be a much needed repose. I think there will be a lot of tears—not necessarily sad. It’s just very overwhelming.”
A Colorado native, Willoughby has been a ballet dancer for 32 years. Before joining Columbia City Ballet Company, her career began in Texas at Ballet Austin. A mother of two, she quickly grew to love the Columbia area and knew she wanted to raise her family here in South Carolina.
What most South Carolina dance fans may not realize about Willoughby is that she almost did not pursue ballet. She actually quit ballet at the young age of 4, but years later, she went on a school trip to see The Nutcracker. “I was so enamored! I was hooked, and I left saying, ‘I have to dance.’ And since then, I haven’t stopped,” she recalled.
The executive director and artistic director of Columbia City Ballet, William Starrett, has nothing but adoration for his soon-to-retire ballerina. “She’s been dancing for me over 20 years. I’ve created ballets for her! I’m going to be missing her art,” Starrett shared. “She’s an amazing combination of everything you want in a dancer, and that’s why I made her a ballerina.”
Starrett praised Willoughby’s determination, physique, performing ability, confidence, and skills. “A lot of dancers in the twilight part of their career can often lose confidence,” he explained. “As you get more of a reputation, your audience has more expectations, and you can get worried about disappointing an audience. But Regina is so confident. I never worry when she’s on stage that she’s going to slip up, but she is so strong and consistent.”
Willoughby’s portrayal of the Egyptian queen is actually her third time performing in this ballet, which Starrett created in 2008. “It’s really a big honor as a ballerina to have a ballet created on you,” she said. “The score is really beautiful and really carries the story. Each of the steps were specifically catered toward me and what my strengths are, so I feel very comfortable in the role. I also love that it is something that is based on history. She’s an actual historical figure and a really phenomenal woman.”
It has been eight years since the last time Columbia City Ballet produced Cleopatra, and Willoughby said to prepare for the role this final time, she researched the famous ruler’s life, including the variations on what historians believe happened to “see what she went through, everything she was…to tell the story and hopefully move the audience.” Her desire to bring authentic emotion and historical accuracy to her performance in the ballet is why Starrett praised her as “very dramatic and a great actress” in addition to being a talented dancer.
Willoughby has also been relentlessly rehearsing in the studio. “Every day I’m working, trying to get better and improve and get stronger, even in the last week of my career,” she admitted. “I’ll never be to that point of perfection I’m striving for.”
Columbia City Ballet Company’s production of Cleopatra strays far from what most people would think of as a typical ballet. Willoughby and Starrett both promise an unforgettable production in which live animals like camels and snakes join the dancers on stage. “It’s really a spectacle, outside the talent of the dancers, with beautiful sets and scenery. It’s an exquisite score and a feast for the eyes,” said Willoughby.
Starrett said there are other ballet companies who have depicted Cleopatra’s life, but he wanted to take a different approach and create a more epic production than anyone had ever seen before. Since many ballets are based on fairy tales, he wanted to create a new experience for the audience that would send them to an incredible time in world history. In addition to the live animals, the ballet also features elaborate costumes and an impressive set. “We have several truck loads of scenery, which is why we cannot tour with it,” he said.
Working with live animals in a ballet has been challenging but very enjoyable, Starrett explained. “Yes, we’ve had to have special camel rehearsals,” he said with a laugh. “We had to build ramps for the camel.”
Regina Willoughby’s final shows with Columbia City Ballet Company take place Saturday, March 23. Cleopatra will be performed at both 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Koger Center. Tickets are still available; interested persons should call the box office at (803) 251-2222 or purchase online.
The evening performance will be followed by an Egyptian-themed gala for adults. However, prior to the matinee performance, young ballet fans are encouraged to attend a princess tea at the venue, where food and refreshments will be served. Children who attend the tea can also meet seven princesses and Cleopatra herself. To reserve a spot in the princess tea, call (803) 799-7605.
The performance will surely be emotional for Willoughby, whose youngest daughter recently graduated high school and also now dances for Columbia City Ballet. “It’s been surreal, having her dancing with me in the final season of my career,” she said. “It’s been an awesome experience, watching her grow as a dancer.”
Starrett said they have been planning Willoughby’s retirement for about three years. During that time, the company has been working hard to develop younger dancers. “We have some fantastic dancers coming up who have been training hard,” he said. Although he admires Willoughby, he acknowledges that her retirement may open the door for new stars in the company. “There will be new opportunities for them now,” he said.
As Willoughby’s final performance nears, she cannot help but to be reflective about her career.
“I have not taken (my career) for granted, because an injury could have made any one of those performances my last,” said Willoughby. “I really relished in each performance and each moment of my career. I don’t have any regrets. I appreciated every ounce of every rewarding moment I have had.”