October 2010

25 Years Of The Hilton Head Dance Theatre

Author: Lorie Finger | Photographer: Kristian Lonyai

“Spring 1985 may someday be celebrated by social historians as the season in which Hilton Head grew up. Established as a sleepy sunbelt resort dedicated to golf, tennis and retirement living, over the years Hilton Head has made significant strides toward sophistication. Art, literature, theater, music and dance flourish on the island. Now, with the establishment next month of the Hilton Head Dance Theatre, the community takes a giant step toward its inevitable recognition as a major cultural center for the Lowcountry.”

These prophetic words were written by Nancy Stephens for an article that appeared in The Island Packet on April 29, 1985. And now, 25 years later, patrons of the arts community will pause to pay tribute to the individuals that started it all and many more who have nurtured it along the way. The story of the Hilton Head Dance Theatre is inextricable from the story of the couple that has been at the helm since its inception: artistic directors Karena Brock-Carlyle and her husband John Carlyle.

Karena was named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre during the Golden Era of that prestigious company and shared the stage at Lincoln Center with such notables as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Cynthia Gregory and Carla Fracci. After spending 15 years with the ABT, Karena moved south and became artistic director of the Savannah Ballet.

John studied at the acclaimed Harkness School of Ballet and danced professionally with City Center Dance Theatre in Atlanta, the Tampa Ballet and the Savannah Ballet. With a move to Hilton Head in 1985, Karena and John recalled the advice ballet legend George Balanchine had given to his American patron, Lincoln Kirsten: “If you want a ballet company, you must first have a school.” With the support and encouragement of islanders Margaret and Wes Jones and Allyson and Joe Harden, Karena and John opened the Hilton Head Dance School in May of 1985.

Initially the enrollment was a mere 17 students, but with a reputation for excellence, the school grew steadily and today boasts an enrollment of almost 300. With the school established, Mary Coleman was instrumental in the formation of the Hilton Head Dance Theatre, and Margaret Jones served as the first president. The goal was to create a non-profit entity with the mission to foster an appreciation of dance as an art form in the Lowcountry. Through the combined efforts of the board members of the Dance Theatre and the faculty of the Dance School, Lowcountry residents and visitors have had the opportunity to enjoy dance productions of a caliber that one might otherwise have to travel to a small city to see.

Efforts by the Dance Theatre to accomplish its mission of promoting dance have always been twofold: to support the productions featuring Dance School students and to add professional dance performance to the sphere of arts enjoyed in the area. In the early years, the Dance Theatre presented performances by the American Ballet Theatre, the Stars of the Bolshoi and the Miami City Ballet among others. More recently, the Dance Theatre hosted the Orlando Ballet, providing an opportunity for Karena to be reunited with the late Fernando Bujones, then artistic director of the Orlando Ballet and a contemporary of Karena’s at American Ballet Theatre.

Hilton Head Dance Theatre productions have grown, and the company’s repertoire now includes all the beloved classics such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Don Quixote, Giselle, Snow White and Coppélia. The demanding lead female roles are filled by Dance Theatre company members, and professional male guest artists are brought in from such companies as the Joffrey Ballet, the Atlanta Ballet, the Orlando Ballet and Columbia City Ballet. The Dance Theatre has had the good fortune to have Peter Kozak in virtually every production since 1990.

Dunnagan’s Alley Theater was the venue for all Dance Theatre productions for 10 years until the construction of the Self Family Arts Center (now known as the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina) which opened its doors in 1996. At that time, the Dance Theatre took a major step by becoming the producer of The Nutcracker. Previously, the Hilton Head Playhouse had served as the producer.

As producer, the Dance Theatre greatly expanded its role and presented a first-rate production with new sets and an enhanced costume wardrobe. The Nutcracker has evolved into a highly-anticipated annual event with a cast that includes local children that grow over the years from petite snowflakes to soldiers to party children to members of the corps. A constant for many years is Bob Minnicks as Dr. Stahlbaum and the recently retired John Carlyle as the Mouse King.

However, when it comes to the two entities that they have spent 25 years guiding and nurturing, John and Karena prefer to look ahead rather than talk about the past. There is much to anticipate as the local arts community will take another giant step in March when, for the very first time, Hilton Head Dance Theatre’s spring production of Coppélia will feature the accompaniment of the musicians of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.

In addition, to mark the beginning of the 25th Anniversary Season, the Dance Theatre is planning a black tie gala at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Friday, November 5. The evening will feature hors d’oeuvres courtesy of the SERG Group, an anniversary cake courtesy of Signe’s, live and silent auction items and a unique performance with some special surprises. The Nutcracker will open the following evening and run through November 14.

For More Information, please visit hhdt.org

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