The local dance scene is going through a rough patch. The two companies that have carried the community for decades are in flux. Robert Ivey Ballet is adjusting to new management after Ivey, a major figure in the local arts world, passed away late last summer. And the Charleston Ballet Theatre rang in its 25th anniversary season with a slew of board resignations, talk of financial mismanagement, and accusations of plagiarism — and some are wondering if the company can even recover.
While the big two are working to bounce back, many younger companies in town are poised to fill in the gaps, giving a fresh face to Charleston's dance scene. Ranging from contemporary to aerial to hip-hop styles of performance, these companies are an important part of Charleston's diverse and growing dance community.
Stephanie Bussell, a former dancer with CBT who now works for DanceFX, says the scene is definitely evolving. "The transition is a tough time for some organizations, but I think it's a positive impetus for some changes to be made in the dance community. Charleston needs, wants, supports dance," she says. "And I think one of the biggest problems over the years is fighting for the audience, because there are a lot of dance companies in town ... We're all going after the same market. In terms of the transition, I think that people will become more aware of what's going on in terms of dance and hopefully some more collaboration will come out of the transition."
Collaboration is a word we heard from almost everyone we interviewed, and it's the idea behind the Charleston Dance Alliance, a new group focused on uniting local dancers and dance organizations to help promote, support, and develop the local dance community. Current members include DanceFX and the Charleston Dance Project, Annex Dance Company, Robert Ivey Ballet, and Revolve Aerial Dance.
Annex Dance Company founder Kristin Fieseler is excited about the Alliance. "I'm hoping this is going to provide more opportunities for us to work together," she says. Fieseler founded the company in Pennsylvania in 2007 and settled in Charleston in 2010. "I specifically chose Charleston because I felt like there was a thriving arts community and I felt like the dance community had the potential to grow," she says. "There's a need for another kind of company."
She hopes to work with companies outside of the dance world as well to create a stronger artistic community in general. "Part of my mission is to be collaborating with artists of other mediums, and since I've moved here, I've gotten to work with a couple of musicians with projects, and I feel like that's the direction that a lot of these companies are seeing a potential for," she says. "If you reach out to artists either within the dance community or outside of the dance community, the collaborative efforts are really going to help push all of the arts in Charleston into a new direction."
She adds, "I hope that everyone's really ready to embrace the fact that there's maybe some new faces or new people that are really invested in seeing dance succeed in Charleston."
Michael Wise, co-director of the classical company Robert Ivey Ballet, has similar goals. The company recently collaborated with the Youth Orchestra of the Lowcountry and the chART Outdoor Initiative for Fascinations, a "multisensory art experience" featuring various performances. He says such collaborations are a fairly recent trend. "The mentalities of the past have got to change or you're not going to be able to be a relevant group," he says. "It's not my way or the highway anymore. You work with your peers, you discuss things, you talk things over, you compromise. You work in a direction that benefits the community as a whole, not just one particular group or because that's the way I think it should be done."
While the CBT has traditionally been the dominant dance group in town, they've recently caught flack for a number of questionable choices, including using copyrighted material without permission, which City Paper reported on last fall. More recently, several board members resigned, citing financial mismanagement and the mistreatment of dancers, leaving the company's status as a nonprofit — and thus their funding — in flux. The Post and Courier also reported that as of Jan. 17, the ballet was more than 90 days late in paying $20,491.98 to the S.C. Employment Security Commission and $25,964.81 in arrears to the IRS.
Wise fears that the negativity surrounding the CBT will affect the entire dance community. "If CBT truly does go under, it's going to be a catastrophe for everyone," he says, "because when something like that happens, it puts a bad taste in everyone's mouth. You don't want to be giving money to arts organizations if you have already been involved or see things like this happening, because immediately you're wondering, 'How is this being managed? How do I know that my money's being used properly?'"
He adds, "Either it's going to pull everyone down, or there are going to be those organizations who really kill themselves to start to develop a new atmosphere and world for the arts in Charleston. I would hope that we're going to be in that camp of individuals who are going to improve upon mistakes that have been made in the past, develop things that are going to be very transparent and open so people can see that there arts organizations out there that are doing the right thing, that are managing their money, that are open to working with individuals and groups as partners."
CBT CEO Jill Bahr says the company is currently working with a revitalized board of directors, the City of Charleston, the Office of Cultural Affairs in both North Charleston and Charleston, the Coastal Community Foundation, and outside consultants in the dance field to formulate a plan for the future — though she wasn't ready to announce what those plans would be. "CBT will continue to be the dance flagship of the community," Bahr says. "I hope that Charleston will be a role model community for dance. I envision all dance organizations will be working together to present the best dance for all types of people in all areas of the Lowcountry."
Whatever happens, Bussell hopes to improve the local dance community with a wider range of high-quality, more current options. "I do think something is going to happen, whether it's another ballet company or something happens as a result of these smaller organizations or the Charleston Dance Alliance," she says. "I would like to see more diversity in general.
"There doesn't need to be so much desperation among audience members," she adds. "There are other things happening in town. There is more than just one option. And I think Charleston can support those other organizations. I'm hoping to see a positive change."
Annex Dance Company
Annex Dance Company is a classical modern dance company with an edge, under the artistic direction of Kristin Fieseler.
This company is focused on traditional Afro-Latino music and dance.
Charleston Ballet Theatre
CBT was founded by Don and Patricia Cantwell and Jill Eathorne Bahr in 1987. The professional company blends contemporary and classical ballet and also houses a ballet school.
Originally based in Athens, Ga., DanceFX is a school and performance group working in a range of dance styles, from ballet to burlesque.
Djole Dance Company
A West African dance and drumming company formed in 1999 through a project conducted by MUSC, the City of North Charleston, and the Union Heights neighborhood, just north of Charleston.
Revolve Aerial Dance
Revolve Aerial Dance is a school and performing company specializing in circus apparatuses like aerial silks, slings, and trapeze. S.C. native Julianna Gaillard Hane moved the company from Salt Lake City to Charleston in 2010.
Robert Ivey Ballet Robert Ivey Ballet is a classical ballet company founded by dancer and choreographer Robert Ivey in 1977. Following the death of Ivey in 2011, the all-volunteer company is now headed up by Michael and Olga Wise.