You may not know this, but the Charleston Ballet Theatre is acknowledged as a world-class company. In fact, it’s the only one in the state with the license to perform the works of George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Its resident choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr has her ballets in many regional repertoires, and her version of Dracula is in the repertoire of four national dance companies. Meanwhile, her dancers are well-honed, amazing to watch, and flexible in form and style.
So how do you improve on that? How do you polish a troupe that’s already close to flawless? The answer comes in the charismatic form of Bruce Marks, an extraordinary coach with over 50 years’ experience in dance.
“He’s in constant demand,” says Bahr. “Everyone’s clamoring to get him around dancers. At first, the aura of being around him is so monumental that his instructions go in one ear and out the next. But he says things that you reflect on years later.”
Marks is extravagant in his speech and movement, even at the age of 74. He’s in great shape, and an entertaining guy to watch, hear, and talk to. “If you’re meant for this profession, you can’t stop,” Bahr believes. “He’s the essence of that. He’s a very innovative thinker in the development of dancers — not just understanding the technical aspects, but seeing which dancers can deal with the stress of being on stage.”
Marks is also adept at putting across the idea that dancers have to show the “story” behind their movement — the emotional depth you might find when a character comes to life. “He has the ability of a good storyteller or artist of making people see past what’s there,” says Bahr. “He has a beautiful use of metaphor.”
In a series of master classes, Marks schooled the CBT for their upcoming Masterpieces of Dance — specifically a piece of his own in the show called “The Lark Ascending.” It was inspired by George Meredith’s poem and set to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music, which used the verse as inspiration. “It isn’t that the piece itself is so remarkable,” says Bahr. “It’s the way he transcended simple postures into the effectiveness of a lark ascending. It really has a Zen, yoga base to its movement.”
Although they’re Balanchine certified, CBT isn’t allowed to slack off. The George Balanchine Trust sends a répétiteur to make sure his pieces are being performed correctly. Jerri Kumery, a Richmond Ballet master, helped to coach the dancers for “Serenade” and “Rubies,” two revered works from Balanchine’s oeuvre that will make up the rest of the Masterpieces. Bahr describes her as “very giving … known for her uncanny ability to offer honest praise or a positive gesture that has special meaning only to that person.”
“Serenade” was Balanchine’s first American ballet, evolving from the classes he taught at the School of American Ballet in New York. The iconic choreographer used the rehearsals to inform the choreography; if a student fell or turned up late, these occurrences became part of the ballet. The Trust calls “Serenade” “a milestone in the history of dance”; it’s traditionally performed by 28 dancers in blue costumes in front of a blue background, moving to the music of Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky.
“Rubies” is a mesmeric facet of Jewels, a three-act ballet with no storyline. It’s a brisk, light-hearted piece set to Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.
According to Bahr, the worst fear of a lot of famous dancers is that the next generation will lose touch with the intangible aspects of dance — not the technique, but what she describes as its “mythical side.” By working with veterans like Marks and Kumery, the CBT is helping to keep a century-spanning legacy alive and performing ballet that can’t be found anywhere else in the state.
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