WILLIAM STARRETT says don’t let the name fool you. Despite being based in South Carolina’s capital city, his Columbia City Ballet is “esconced” in Savannah.
In fact, the troupe has been performing the holiday classic The Nutcracker here for over 20 years, always on Thanksgiving weekend at the Civic Center.
“We feel Savannah is a family destination. My feeling is if you’re going to go somewhere for Thanksgiving you need someplace to go to after you finish the turkey,” explains Starrett. “You’ve got relatives there, you’ve got shopping on Friday, you get in the holiday mood on Saturday, and people still have all day Sunday to get back home.”
Starrett says the event is always planned for 5:30 p.m. — “so there’s still time for shopping, and it’s not too late for grandparents and children.”
While The Nutcracker has always been about kids, Starrett stresses that the Columbia City production is a professional performance, not — in his words — “a recital.”
Still, like any Nutcracker, there are plenty of kids involved. “I have more than 40 local dancers from all different dancing schools participating — it’s not just walk-on little kid parts. We’ve found an extraordinary amount of talent in Savannah.”
Starrett says it’s important for the challenging roles to be danced by pros, or at minimum by senior members of local dance schools. “If you don’t have that contrast of energy between them and the little ones, it’s not a full journey for Clara.”
Unlike with many productions of the ballet, Starrett thinks that young dancers should work into the major roles.
“With us, children are doing children-appropriate roles. Our principal dancers are professionals, in their mid-20s and early 30s, with children, husbands and families,” he says. “One day when the kids are in their mid-20s, then they can become the Snow Queen.”
Starrett says local dancers have been rehearsing since August, after two large audition sessions in late summer. Columbia City ballet masters and assistants make the road trip to Savannah to rehearse with the local talent.
“This is not just a road show coming in,” he says. “This is a full production that helps economic development in Savannah. The first thing CEOs ask when a city is trying to get a company to move to a city is, ‘Do you have any arts?’”
Savannah isn’t the only out-of-town stop Columbia City makes. They’re taking The Nutcracker to several other cities.
“To be able to afford this, once you mount a production and the more you can perform it, the more return you have on your product,” Starrett says. “We have a higher caliber dancer, and a professional wants two things: Wonderful training, and they want to be able to perform a lot.”
Of course, the lead child’s role in The Nutcracker is the part of Clara, the little girl who takes the dreamy flight of fancy to the Land of Sweets. Playing Clara in Savannah this year, as last year, will be an Oglethorpe Academy seventh-grader, 11-year-old Alston MacGill.
“We’ve been rehearsing for about a month,” MacGill says. While much of her choreography remains the same as last year’s production, she says she’ll be taking on an expanded role.
“Last year I didn’t do the second and third parts,” she says. “This year I’ll be doing those parts, which have a lot of partnering and lifts.”
Interestingly, MacGill —who also dances in the STUDIO’s upcoming Swingin’ at Club Sweets — isn’t only dancing Clara in Savannah. She’ll also be dancing the role in Columbia City’s Nutcracker in Vidalia, Beaufort, and Walterboro, S.C.
In all, Starrett says, “what I’m really trying to do is bring professional dance to Savannah.”
In a perfect world he’d like to expand to two Nutcrackers locally, and begin bringing more ambitious, non-holiday ballets to Savannah on a regular basis, such as Dracula and Cleopatra.
“Then Savannah can enjoy a full ballet company. That will prepare young dancers here so that when they’re in their mid-20s, then they can become part of the professional Columbia City Ballet.” cs
Columbia City Ballet’s The Nutcracker
When: Saturday, Nov. 29 at 5:30 p.m. In addition there will be a Sugar Plum Sweets party at the Civic Center from 4-5 p.m. featuring holiday refreshments and Nutcracker characters.
Where: Savannah Civic Center
Cost: $20-42; Sugar Plum Sweets Party is $10