by Susan Lenz
Last night, Ballerina Regina Willoughby couldn’t hold all the flowers presented at the conclusion of her farewell performance of Columbia City Ballet’s Cleopatra. She carefully laid those in her arms atop the mound of roses company dancers had placed at her feet. She gracefully stepped around the pile for one last bow. Artistic Director William Starrett addressed the standing ovation with words of praise for her long career and sparkling personality, and Mayor Stephen Benjamin presented the Key to the City. Many in the audience wiped away tears as the curtain was lowered.
I hadn’t seen such an emotionally charged scene since Prima Ballerina Mariclare Miranda’s 2006 retirement performance of Giselle. Here in Columbia, the audience seems to know how to respond to the last show in a principal dancer’s life and to the talent they just witnessed. Regina Willoughby was certainly the star in the production. The title role was set on her in 2008 and reprised in 2010. I remember these evenings rather well.
Regina Willoughby was brilliant as Cleopatra in all three seasons, dancing as if she’d already found the Egyptian secrets of an ageless afterlife. Her blunt cropped coiffure by Brittany Mocase Luskin of Studio B at the Old Mill was again perfect. It is little wonder that Regina selected this production for her final appearance. Unfortunately, her Act I partner was not as convincing as past years when Robert Michalski (2008) and Peter Kozak (2010) danced the role of Julius Caesar. Also missing was the excitement and technical abilities seen when William Moore, Jr. danced the part of Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s scheming younger brother. Frankly, the male roles were lack luster until principal Bo Busby stepped onto the stage as Marc Antony. Then, the partnering seamlessly sizzled. Their pas de deux was the highlight of the evening and lived up to a performance worthy of the retirement hype.
Otherwise, much of the choreography was to be in unison or to feature corp de ballet dancers racing across the stage, one-after-the-other in a strong diagonal line. In these instances, it is too easy to see lack of synchronization. Much of the ballet appeared to need additional rehearsal time. The canned music was also problematic. It seemed to need a bit of professional mixing for smoother transitions from melody to melody.
Problems aside, the evening was a lovely way to celebrate a ballerina’s retirement. Columbia City Ballet and local audiences will undoubtedly miss Regina Willoughby but will happily welcome principal Claire Richards and newly appointed principal Bonnie Boiter-Jolley into leading ladies. As Cleopatra’s handmaidens, they complimented one another perfectly. I look forward to seeing them during the 2018-19 season’s productions of Dracula: Ballet with a Bite; The Nutcracker; Sleeping Beauty; and the world premier of Beatles: The Ballet.
My recent interview with Regina Willoughby included well wishes and fond memories from dancers who have moved away or retired. Since then, I’ve received a few more quotes.
Pat Miller Baker wrote: Only once in a blue moon does a ballerina like Regina come along. She made her mark in every role she danced and the memories of her portrayals along with her physicality and artistry shall remain in all of our minds and hearts forever. I have loved being her teacher, coach and friend. (Pat Miller elegantly appeared in last night’s production as Calpurnia, Wife of Caesar, a character role demanding exquisite dramatic acting.)
Journy Wilkes-Davis wrote: Some of the first big roles in my career I danced with Regina and it was her confident experience that allowed me to grow as a partner. She is a daredevil in the studio and onstage and the intensity she brings to every role pushed me to take risks as a partner where I had previously would have played it safer. I have great memories of dancing Arthur opposite her Lucy in Dracula or Romeo to her Juliet where it was inspiring to match the commitment she brought to her character and build a believable story for the audience. She taught by example how to throw caution to the wind and live in the moment onstage, a gift I will carry with me the rest of my career.
William Moore, Jr. wrote: I will start off by saying that it was a pleasure sharing the stage with Regina for several years! Notably our performance of Cleopatra was an unforgettable process and I am honored that I had that awesome opportunity early in my career. Love Regina dearly and I wish her the best in her retirement!
Love, William Moore Jr, former dancer, current music producer