Stacey Calvert – Columbia’s Dance Connection?

By Bonnie Boiter-Jolley

When Stacey Calvert was 15-years-old, she was one of a very few young dancers selected from literally thousands to attend the prestigious year-round program at the School of American Ballet in New York City.  When her mother, Naomi Calvert, one half of the famed Calvert Brodie School of Dance in Columbia, South Carolina, told her she could not go, she quit.  For nine months, the stubborn young Calvert was a cheerleader instead of a dancer. Needless to say, by the next summer, Calvert’s boredom got the best of her and she returned to her pursuit of a career in ballet.  One year later, she was bound for the metropolis she would call home for the next 20 years: New York City.

A talented and determined dancer, Calvert studied for three years at the School of American Ballet, the school that feeds directly to the corps of the New York City Ballet.  In her second year at the school, Calvert was promised a contract by the company’s director, legendary choreographer and “Father of American Ballet,” George Balanchine.  When asked about her experience with the legend, Calvert’s intense blue eyes shine brighter as she describes the feeling of awe that comes with being in the presence of such artistic and historical greatness. Calvert also mentions this feeling in connection with other ballet legends she has had the good fortune to work with, including “Jerry,” Jerome Robbins, five time Tony Award winner and recipient of the Academy Award for Best Director for the 1961 film version of West Side Story, and Stanley Williams, SAB instructor and renowned teacher to the likes of ballet stars Rudolf Nureyev, Gelsey Kirkland, and Peter Martins. Shortly after he tapped Calvert for the position, however, the great Balanchine passed away, on the day of her graduation performance, no less.  Despite this speed bump, Calvert was again asked to join the company by the new director, Peter Martins, the following season.

Nine years into her career in New York, a dancer in the corps de ballet, and concerned that she was “not moving forward,” Calvert took a leap and travelled to Frankfurt, Germany with choreographer and dancer Kevin O’Day, to work with another famed choreographic and improvisation innovator, William Forsythe. Unsure of what to expect from her new surroundings, Calvert was thrown into a strange world of improvisation and deconstructed movement.  Only a few months into her tenure in Frankfurt, Calvert suffered a broken arm during a rehearsal which resulted in a chipped bone that became lodged in a tendon and required surgery. When Calvert returned to NYC for the operation in December, she opted to stay put, and return from her leave of absence to rejoin the New York City Ballet.  Calvert reflects while sipping coffee in Columbia’s Vista that her short German adventure made all the difference. “Everything changed for me,” she remembers.  That season, an edgy new Calvert with cropped red hair was cast in five new works for NYCB’s Diamond Project, a program of all new choreography for the company, and was promoted to soloist soon after.

Five years after rejoining NYCB, Calvert and then husband, Kevin O’Day, gave birth to a daughter, Ayla.  In June of 2000, Calvert again left the New York City Ballet.  Over the next two years, a newly single Calvert bounced between South Carolina and New York City with her young daughter, spending some time at home to be near her close knit family.  By May of 2002, Calvert had done what for her was unthinkable, and settled back in her hometown of Columbia.  Calvert turned down the opportunity to join the cast of Twyla Tharp’s hit musical Movin’ Out, and spent a year selling grills in South Carolina’s capitol city.  Now the Director of Curriculum at the University of South Carolina Dance Conservatory, and an Instructor of Ballet in the University’s Dance program, it is hard to believe Calvert was once “scared of teaching.” Teaching full time now and able to take a more intellectual approach to the art form, Calvert says she is “still discovering things,”  and often muses that she wishes she knew when she was dancing, all of the things she knows now.

Drawing from her own experiences and advice from teachers past, Calvert is able to hand down valuable knowledge from famed educators. She credits legendary NYC teacher, Maggie Black with teaching her to “stand up and turn out” and Stanley Williams with understanding the “genesis of movement.” She recognizes Gyrotonic Expansion System creator Juliu Horvath, SAB instructor Suki Schorer, and teacher and mentor since 1981, Willy Burmann, along with Jerry Robbins, Peter Martins, and all of the choreographers and ballet masters and mistresses she has worked with, for teaching her “what dancing is all about.”  Calvert asserts that there are many aspects of dance to explore, from working in a corps de ballet and being able to follow, to learning the nuance of a solo and improving technique. “You’re always learning something,” she reflects.

In her time at USC, Calvert has made invaluable contributions to the program, not the least of which being the Ballet Stars of NY Gala.  Now in its seventh iteration, the fundraiser gives high level university students the opportunity to perform alongside principle dancers from the New York City Ballet in works from The George Balanchine Trust.  Key to Calvert is giving her students plenty of time on the stage. In many companies, expensive theatre rentals give dancers little to no time for exploration. There is hardly room to change, grow, or “let the material shape you.”  In regards to dance in Columbia in general, Calvert encourages the existing diversity, “there should be many voices,” she urges, but acknowledges a dearth of funding.

While the University’s program continues to grow, experiencing the growing pains any organization does, 48-year-old Calvert isn’t slowing down any time soon either.  On any given day, the reader might find the impossibly young looking Calvert rushing from studio to theater, to pick her daughter up from school, grabbing a bite at an organic market or an espresso from Starbucks to keep that spritely spring in her step. Wiry and fit with closely cut blonde hair and an  energy similar to that of her strikingly similar 13-year-old daughter, Calvert knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to demand it. “We need a theater,” she says confidently. She elaborates that she wishes for the city a 500-750 seat theater where dance companies could sell packed houses for multiple evenings of performances, instead of the one or two evenings of partially filled houses that most companies are fighting to afford now.  Calvert dreams of her own school and company on Main Street and the room, funding, and audience for all of the artistic voices that want to be heard.

Let’s hope her dreams come true, and rest assured, Stacey Calvert, the hardest working woman in Columbia ballet, won’t be satisfied until they do.


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