Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green
For me, writing a review of a one-night-only performance is difficult, especially since my viewpoint is as an expert audience member. No matter what I say, there’s no chance for others to attend the show to agree with me or not. So, I’m approaching this review from another angle. I’m comparing last Friday, February 9th performance of Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green to earlier productions of the same show. I’m hoping that this article will explain why the public should see any ballet more than once. Ballets, even the classical ones, change over the years, from season to season, from cast to cast, through new costuming and staging and even through new choreography.
Columbia City Ballet’s Off the Wall has undergone plenty of changes since it’s 2005 premier. I attended that lavish February 4th opening at the Koger Center and largely agreed with the New York Times review which stated, “The evening seems short on specifics of Gullah life, let alone the evocation of actual characters” and went on to note a lack of coherence in the choreography and a disconnect between the two acts. That was thirteen years ago.
Since that time, Artistic Director William Starrett has been polishing the show. In fact, this signature production is occasionally presented in a scale-down version as it was during the summer of 2014 for the 39th annual national assembly of The Links Foundation, an international nonprofit. That forty-two minute performance outside Washington, DC for an audience of 4,000 earned the company $50,000. The first act vignette, “Love of the Harvest” to Marlena Smalls’ “Carry Me Home,” is frequently performed alone. I saw Amanda Summey and prima ballerina Regina Willoughby dance this remarkably touching piece last month in remembrance of Coralee Harris, a long-time arts supporter and former chairman of the board for the ballet company. Basically, Off the Wall has been an active part of Columbia City Ballet’s repertoire since it debuted and is constantly being refined.
The second time I saw the production was in 2011. Changes, especially in the second act, improved the experience. Individual personalities better emerged in the Silver Slipper Dance Hall and an interior church scene was added as a final number. Jonathan Green’s paintings, dance, and choral music brought the audience to a standing ovation then and again last Friday night.
I generally complain about Columbia’s audience rising to their feet when the curtain falls as if a requirement, but it was impossible to stay seated in the crescendo of energy brought about by dancers popping up and down in their pews to high-spirited vocals by Elliott Hannah and singers from the Claflin University Gospel Choir, the University of South Carolina, ATOF, and Benedict College. The show ends very, very well, especially in a space as open as the Township Auditorium. Audience and performers melded into a singular celebration. It was terrific.
Other highlights include billowing fabric from which Regina Willoughby magically appears, Maurice Johnson striking a pose so perfectly that it suggests he modeled for Jonathan Green’s Fishing Break, and Amanda Summey’s feisty character in “He Treats Your Daughter Mean”. It was also a pleasure to see guest principal dancer Paunika Jones return to Columbia.
Most important to the success of this ballet is the way large-scale scrims of Jonathan Green’s painting really do come to life. Even from the 2005 debut, this difficult task worked. Translucent backdrops give way to specific places and characters. Yet, the spacious Township Auditorium seems to dwarf these backdrops when compared to their impact at the Koger Center. Fortunately, a multi-media projection off-set this spatial concern and actually showed even more of Jonathan Green’s low country images. Overall, the change in venue made the performance new and fresh.
The next time I see Off the Wall and Onto the Stage, there will be other changes. How do I know this? Well, in 2005 I had the pleasure of watching former prima ballerina Mariclare Miranda. The New York Times liked her too, describing her as “an elegant classical dancer (who) proves that some exalted titles are not merely honorific.” Later this season Regina Willoughby will retire, too. Therefore, the future will bring another dancer to sizzle in Little Esther Phillips 1962 R&B hit “Please Release Me”. I will look forward to that show.