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Ballet Spartanburg: Celebrating 50 years of excellence and the power of women

Ballet Spartanburg in 'Celebrating the power of Women'. Photo by Stephen Stinson
Ballet Spartanburg in 'Celebrating the power of Women'. Photo by Stephen Stinson.

It certainly is the season to celebrate South Carolina’s Ballet Spartanburg as the company commemorates its 50th anniversary. What started out as a vision fueled by 85 ballet enthusiasts led by the late Majorie Riggs was just the stepping stone for what would evolve over time into a company dedicated to outreach and other educational dance programs.

Carlos Agudelo, artistic director of Ballet Spartanburg, shares his excitement as the company celebrates such an amazing milestone.

“Looking back on our 50-year history, I realize we have come a long way from primarily being an organization with an annual Nutcracker performance to having a company of professional dancers and a five-program season,” he says. “We are a very small company, and that means every dancer has to contribute a lot, technically and artistically.”

Ballet Spartanburg in 'Fire and Passion'. Photo by Stephen Stinson

Ballet Spartanburg in ‘Fire and Passion’. Photo by Stephen Stinson.

Agudelo also credits Ballet Spartanburg’s continuous success to having a very supportive faculty. Lona Gomez, a former soloist with Pittsburgh Ballet, serves as the ballet mistress, as well as a choreographer for the company. And Executive Director Teresa Hough is the support system for all of the programming within Ballet Spartanburg. With such a strong backbone across the board, the performance opportunities and community outreach has become even more prevalent for Ballet Spartanburg aside from the performance roster it has set for each season.

Agudelo explains, “Apart from our five programs, we are working to expand our outreach and educational programs for minorities and underserved school children on site at their schools, as well as providing free school performances in the theater. We also have dance programs for individuals in nursing homes. To be able to share the gift of dance with all segments of the population is a constant source of celebration for us.”

Ballet Spartanburg’s five-event season is especially important to the dancers and staff alike. With a lot more work under the company’s belt, this 50th anniversary will be one to remember. By collaborating with other artists and a newfound creativity with its marketing, Agudelo explains how this season somewhat differs from others for Ballet Spartanburg.

“It is a cross-pollination of art disciplines that pushes the envelope, in order to create totally new and eclectic works that will appeal to individuals who are not dance aficionados,” says Agudelo.

One of the programs that will live up to this promise is Celebrating the Power of Women: DanSynergy 9, to be presented this March, and it is just one of the offerings on Ballet Spartanburg’s roster that Agudelo is energized about. The works involved will explore the lives of women and their relationships. One ballet that will be performed is based on the Greek myth of Pandora. New York City-based choreographer Michelle Thompson Ulerich seeks to portray the story of Pandora, which was of great significance to her.

“This is a story of life,” Ulerich describes. “Pandora was initially created as a trick by Zeus. She was given a gift and told not to open it. Of course, curiosity, which is a natural human element, comes into play, and once the box is opened all of these evil things come out.”

The significance of this story that drew Ulerich’s attention is that through all of the blame and negativity that Pandora endured, she had to pick herself up again and power through. This idea of having the strength to persevere and dig deep, even when the odds seem to be against you, is the foundation with which Ulerich built her work on Ballet Spartanburg’s company members.

“The experience was wonderful,” Ulerich recalls. “I love the dancers at Ballet Spartanburg. The dancers were really open to my ideas and quick learners.”

Ballet Spartanburg in 'American in Paris'. Photo by Stephen Stinson

Ballet Spartanburg in ‘American in Paris’. Photo by Stephen Stinson.

Because of Ulerich’s “sculptural” style of movement, she focused on bringing those movements from the right place and matching the building of anxiety within the Pandora story.

“I want the audience to ride the wave of the story,” she says. “There may be feelings of anxiety as they watch certain parts, and that’s okay. Some parts may be jarring, but I want the audience to experience the contrast from when Pandora opens the box to when she overcomes the evil that came from the box. This is a story of hope, strength and moving on. I hope that glimmer of the transition that Pandora has can be integrated into their own lives.”

Lona Gomez, ballet mistress for Ballet Spartanburg, is also a featured choreographer for the Celebrating the Power of Women program. Gomez’s work is inspired by Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. With this opportunity to create, along with the freedom in the power of choreography, Gomez explains her reasoning for choosing this particular story.

“The concept behind this was for the dancers to find their voices,” she says. “Under the bell jar, women are often trapped and stifled, but eventually they become self-sufficient and learn to be oneself. It’s a very powerful piece.”

Keeping true to the story of The Bell Jar, Gomez sought to challenge the dancers involved but also keep the door open for collaborating. This balance between pushing and collaborating proved to make the choreographing process a joy for Gomez.

“Because the dancers in this company are so mature, they push themselves, and they are not afraid but open to taking things to the limit,” Gomez shares. “It’s important for me to listen to them. They’re a great joy to work with. They are artists.”

Throughout this story of being stifled and trapped as a woman, Gomez seeks to also show that in the end, women come out strong and triumphant. From the experience of watching her piece, Gomez hopes that it will reach the audience but mainly women on a different level.

“Everyone will take away something very emotional and different from this piece,” says Gomez. “I hope that it helps the younger generation of women to take the chance.”

For more information on Ballet Spartanburg, visit www.balletspartanburg.org. For tickets to DanSynergy: Celebrating the Power of Womenpresented March 24-25, at the Chapman Cultural Center, click here.

By Monique George of Dance Informa.

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