‘People need some comedy in their lives’ 

Ten years ago, Savannah’s own Ballet South presented the world premiere of an unusual ballet to rave reviews.
Based on the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, it was a joint project of Ballet South and Septime Webre, currently the artistic director of the Washington Ballet. On Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m., the ballet will return to Savannah with a performance by the Columbia City Ballet.
Columbia City Ballet Executive and Artistic Director William Starrett has added two original ballets to the performance: A Tribute to Fred Astaire and a world premiere ballet, Men’s Class.
“When I was putting the program together, I wanted to balance it and keep it lighthearted and family-oriented,” Starrett says. “‘Fred Astaire’ was a good fit, and I wanted to create a comedy ballet to round out the evening.”
A Tribute to Fred Astaire is set to Astaire’s recordings and pays homage to the dancing he did in films in the 1930s. Starrett himself will perform in the tribute with ballerina Mariclare Miranda.
Men’s Class parodies a men’s advanced ballet technique class. “When male dancers reach an advanced level in dance, they take a separate class from the women,” Starrett says. “This ballet is a little comedic approach to the men’s class.”
The Columbia City Ballet’s own male dancers will play the roles. “They inspired me to create Men’s Class,” Starrett says. “Not only do they have stellar technique, they’re also great performers with dynamic characters and personalities.
“People are going to see something very nontraditional, not what a person thinks of when they think of ballet,” he says. “People don’t think of ballet as comedic.
“I think this is a great time for it,” Starrett says. “After paying the Christmas bills and dealing with Iraq, people need some comedy in their lives.”
The two ballets will take up the first half of the program, with Where the Wild Things Are presented in the second half. Starrett says the idea for Where the Wild Things Are came from Penny Stephenson of Savannah, who raised the money to produce it and got in touch with Maurice Sendak to convince him his story would be good theater.
“She assisted him in finding a choreographer,” Starrett says. “It was a national search.”
At the time, Webre was the artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey. Webre and Sendak worked together to add some new characters to the story and turn it into a full-scale theatrical production.
The 45-minute, one-act ballet features giant puppets and animated scenery. “The book unfolds right before your eyes,” Starrett says.
The book tells the story of Max, a little boy who encounters monsters who ultimately become lovable. Principal Dancer Jose Serrano will portray Max, and other dancers who will appear are ballerina Victoria Cholkas, Premier Danseur Peter Kozak, Principal Dancer Regina Willoughby and soloist Kathryn Smoak.
All three ballets are suitable for the entire family, and even Where the Wild Things Are will appeal to adults.
“This is something adults won’t be bored with,” Starrett says. “It isn’t cartoonish. There’s sophisticated humor that adults can see deeper than the children can see. This is a wonderful evening out for the entire family.”
For families involved in extracurricular dance, Starrett offers a discount -- dance students will be admitted free with a paying adult. “We know that dancers have to make a lot of sacrifices,” he says. “This is an opportunity to reward their discipline and dedication.”
This may be the last opportunity to see Where the Wild Things Are for a while. “There is a huge motion picture coming out,” Starrett says. “One of the stipulations is that the ballet cannot be touring while the movie is circulating. There may be a three to four year window that the ballet cannot be performed.”
The Columbia City Ballet presented The Nutcracker in Savannah last Thanksgiving, and Starrett says plans already are under way to bring it back to Savannah again in November. It would be followed in the spring by a production of Beauty and the Beast.
Starrett is hopeful that the audiences for these productions will grow so that more than one performance can be presented in Savannah. Productions such as Where the Wild Things Are aren’t common here, he says.
“We need support,” Starrett says. “I’ve been involved in dance in Savannah for more than 12 years. We’ve been able to bring some world-class performances to Savannah but people are going to have to come across. We need the corporate community to step forward to keep the ticket prices reasonable.
“Savannah is such a tremendous community and it has so much to offer,” he says. “But there’s been a missing link in terms of art and I’d like to fill the gap.”
Starrett thinks no one should miss seeing Where the Wild Things Are.  
“It has a huge national presence,” he says. “To get it to the South and Savannah is very expensive. A lot of people work hard to make it happen.
“The book totally comes to life on the stage,” Starrett says. “It just pops open. The monsters are bigger than life. To see them dance with Max is like a dream come true.”
The Columbia City Ballet will present one performance of Where the Wild Things Are, along with the original ballets A Tribute to Fred Astaire and Men’s Class, on Friday, Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Savannah Civic Center. Tickets range from $12 to $42 and are available at the Civic Center Ticket Office by calling 651-6556 or visiting www.savannahcivic.com.

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Linda Sickler

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