Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The 'genius" of the City Ballet doesn't seem all that smart financially or artisically

Late last week, I started working on a story about the Columbia City Ballet for Free Times, Columbia’s alt-weekly newspaper. I had been getting tips from various sources about allegedly-nefarious doings at the ballet company and so had Free Times, so we joined forces on the story. (It is in Free Times today.

While the ballet isn’t exactly in top financial fitness form, it is doing OK. Y
es, it has been lugging around some debts for years and is adding more, but it is also paying some down. The City Ballet certainly isn’t the only arts group that has had money troubles.

The more disturbing part of the story is that artistic and executive director William Starrett hired an attorney to send a “cease and desist” letter to a former board member he accused of saying bad things about him. That’s pretty yucky – especially since no one on the board knew about it, although it would be worse if they did.

I can’t decide if Starrett is monumentally egotistical or monumentally dumb. And I like him. He’s always been helpful to me as a reporter even when I ask hard questions.

Although many ballet board members state unequivocally that Starrett isn’t running roughshod over them, they do give him a lot of leeway even when things have been going so wrong for so long. Why is t
hat? Because, they say, Starrett is a brilliant artist. At least one used the word “genius.”

This is the board’s big blind spot out of which all other problems seem to mysteriously appear.

I have not attended everything Starrett and the ballet company have done. I am not a dance expert. But I have seen dance performances by big and small companies from around the world (including a number from Columbia.) When I have seen the City Ballet I don’t recall choreography, storytelling or technique that brought the word “genius” to mind. I usually saw average dance, mediocre choreography and often-silly ideas poorly executed.

The great work of the City Ballet was to be “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green,” inspired by the paintings of Lowcountry native Jonathan Green which premiered in 2005. The first half was twice as good as I imagined it would be – the second half 10 times worse than I feared. Disjointed, tacky and just plain wrong.

Over the years, I’ve attended other City Ballet productions, such as “Dracula” as well as performances of the traditional repertoire.

I did not see early the Hootie and the Blowfish ballet done early this year. Many people I’ve talked to liked it, but the main reason they went is that they were big fans of Hootie and the Blowfish back in the day and the band played at the performances. (Those who came with a more critical eye thought it was bad.)

Pop-oriented dance productions, such as "Hootie" and the City Ballet’s “The Little Mermaid” and “Cleopatra,” are what an organization does to make money and broaden the dance audience. The money these more low-brow offerings bring in fund more serious productions and maybe a few people who come to the Hootie ballet will return for “Giselle” or “The Sleeping Beauty.”

But there’s a problem: the Hootie dance played to half-empty houses and basically broke even. So it won’t be funding anything.

And another: audience members who got bit by the dance bug will not be able to take in much serious dance at the City Ballet. The only traditional work it is doing this season is “The Nutcracker.”

The City Ballet has managed to dumb down dance and lose money. That doesn't immediately bring to mind the word "genius."


  1. I too, find William Starrett a pleasant enough fellow, but I am glad to see someone else reiterate my thoughts on the absurd subjects that he chooses to create a "Ballet". How does anyone choreograph the story of a Pop-Rock band into dance? This has to be the silliest creation of Starrett's, yet.
    "Dance Theatre" is the best way to describe Columbia City Ballet, and for that, he may as well include singing and just call it a musical

  2. Didn't Twyla Tharp do Billy Joel's Movin' Out? I guess that's modern dance, and it wasn't all that well received.

    Hootie and the Toe Shoes seemed like such a gimmick that people I told about it thought i was joking.

  3. that's just a bitchy one-sided review with no emotional detachment at all, no objectivity purely subjectiveness


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