“It’s really a melding of missions.”
Sitting in the lobby of his newly formed Palmetto City Ballet, artistic director Jonathan Tabbert is beaming, not unlike the proud parents of young ballet dancers he’s trained when they watch their children take to the stage.
Late this July, Tabbert announced that the two companies formerly known as Charleston Dance Institute and Ballet Evolution would be combining into one — Palmetto City Ballet.
The new PCB will be part school and part professional company, giving Charleston ballet dancers a clear track from childhood novice to pro.
“We’re taking what we do with both of those companies and folding them into one vision,” says Tabbert, “and hopefully creating more of a sense of community too.”
In a city where the tourism industry reached $7.37 billion in 2017 and the 17-day-long Spoleto Festival USA attracts thousands of people for shows each spring, professional dance is not a full-time career. That’s something Tabbert — and likely many of his dancers — would like to change.
Creative offshoots have sprung up in the world of dance Charleston though, giving dancers more chances to perform professionally. Unbound Ballet Project for example, a contemporary collective formed by veteran Ballet Evolution dancer Crystal Wellman, has brought ballet to non-traditional spaces like a yoga studio and given Wellman’s fellow dancers an outlet in off-seasons.
In the remodeled Palmetto City Ballet space, you get a sense of hopeful new beginnings. There’s fresh paint on the walls, a new sign on the doors, and in one of PCB’s three large studio spaces, a stack of pictures is leaning against the white wall, waiting to be hung. On the day I visited, Tabbert had his new business cards delivered.
“We want to put Charleston on the scale as far as professional ballet,” says Tabbert.
PCB may be fresh-paint new, but the idea is hardly unexpected from Tabbert.
“My entire adult life has been dedicated to the Charleston arts community,” he says, explaining how he moved to Charleston to start dancing professionally right after conservatory training in Baton Rouge.
Creating dance has always been Tabbert’s target. He took to choreography early — like, before-turning-10 early — and presented his first notable work at Chautauqua Dance Institution in New York at 11 years old.
“I never looked back,” says Tabbert.
The 2019 programming at PCB hints at that same forward-thinking optimism from its artistic director.
Starting with a twist on the classic Cinderella that involves backstory, subtleties to entertain the adults, and plenty of magic for the children, the season will then take a turn from traditional ballet offerings.
If you’re looking for ballet outside the box, PCB is ready to deliver.
Piano Barre Cabaret, an unconventional mix of classical ballet with jazz standards, swaps traditional grandeur for a more speakeasy style. Then, Ballet Uncorked puts the audience in intimate proximity to ballet. Performed in Charleston’s Queen Street Playhouse, Uncorked is ballet up-close-and-personal, with the chance to sit and “gab” with Tabbert about artistic intent and interpretations after the show. “Friendly and communal” is how he describes it. Not usually the first words that come to mind when one thinks of the ballet.
At its core, the newly reimagined PCB is ballet by and for the people of Charleston. It’s even in the name, says Tabbert: “Naming it the Palmetto City Ballet gives more ownership to the Lowcountry since Charleston was known as The Palmetto City for over a hundred years and the name is still in people’s vernacular.”
“A goal of ours is to see a generation live, train, and work here in the Charleston area,” Tabbert says. “That’s something that hasn’t happened in a very long time. It’s something that this city needs and deserves.”