Bonnie Boiter-Jolley, a principal dancer for Columbia City Ballet, has been dancing since she was 2 years old. This season is her ninth with the company.
Ballerina Bonnie Boiter-Jolley stands in front of a wall of mirrors as leaping dancers and classical music float through the hallways of Columbia City Ballet.
“This is what I wear when Myrtle has the affair with Tom,” the dancer said, as she was fitted in a blue-and-white polka dot dress.
The 31-year-old principal dancer plays Myrtle, the mistress in The Great Gatsby ballet inspired by the 20th century novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The ballet opens Friday at 8 p.m. at the Koger Center, with a second show set for Saturday night. The ballerina marks her ninth season under the direction of artistic and executive director William Starrett, who choreographed The Great Gatsby ballet.
“It’s a great story full of drama, intrigue, death and glamour,” Starrett said. “So it’s perfect as a ballet.”
After her fitting, Boiter-Jolley joins her fellow dancers to rehearse the scene in The Great Gatsby when Tom, portrayed by principal dancer Bo Busby, and Myrtle are fighting. She’s a star of the scene, a feeling she has only known for two years.
The Columbia native began dancing for Columbia City Ballet in 2011. She was a corps dancer for three years and a soloist for four years before being promoted to principal dancer in 2017. It is a title only four people in the company hold.
Starrett said he promoted Boiter-Jolley to principal dancer because of her dynamic acting and strong persona.
“It takes a real strong character, a strong woman, a strong person to do that role,” Starrett said. “So she was, in my mind, a perfect fit.”
As someone who has been in ballet studios since she was 2 years old, Boiter-Jolley said she knows the pressures of a principal dancer and knows there are many factors that go into choosing one. In the same year she was promoted, she lost 15 pounds.
“I was like, ‘Wow, all right. Well, congratulations,’” Boiter-Jolley said. “I’m thankful for it, but at the same time it feels a little funny.”
In ballet companies, Boiter-Jolley said, dancers at all levels experience pressure in everything from technique and competition to body image and studio etiquette. For Boiter-Jolley, this pressure is the biggest challenge.
“The hardest part of dancing is not the physical struggle. I’ve always loved the physical struggle,” the dancer said. “The part for me that’s hard is all of the stuff around it.”
Boiter-Jolley’s fellow principal dancer, Clarie Richards-Rapp, shares the same pressures and responsibilities. The two dancers joined Columbia City Ballet at the same time and became principal dancers in the same year.
“You always think the grass is greener, like once you get the promotion it’ll be better,” Richards-Rapp said. “But with every rung of the ladder comes a new set of challenges.”
Richards-Rapp portrays Daisy, the complex main character and Myrtle’s main envy in The Great Gatsby. Because Daisy is Tom’s wife and Myrtle is his mistress, Boiter-Jolley and Richards-Rapp don’t share a scene in this ballet but have shared the stage many times and developed a strong friendship.
“If I had to describe [Boiter-Jolley] in one word it’d be strong,” Richards-Rapp said. “I’m always impressed by her strength and her agility.”
Boiter-Jolley uses her experiences from a lifetime of dancing when teaching students as the director of jazz at Columbia Jazz Conservatory. She said she wants to be a tough, but constructive teacher.
“Instead of being the referee who says, ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ and punishing you,” Boiter-Jolley said, “I want to be the mediator who says, ‘This is what you could have done right.’”
Boiter-Jolley finds that both teaching and performing ballet allow her to explore emotions in ways other people can’t.
“It’s that feeling of whenever you just want to scream. You can scream with your whole body or smile with your whole body,” Boiter-Jolley said. “Ballet gives you the ability to feel and show whatever you feel with every bit of you.”
As she prepares to portray the mistress in The Great Gatsby, Boiter-Jolley is thinking about her future onstage and offstage.
“I want to get to a point where I feel satisfied, like I feel like I’ve done what I need to do. I don’t know what that’s going to be,” Boiter-Jolley said. “I guess I’ll know when I’m getting there.”
Boiter-Jolley stretches before joining the other dancers in rehearsal for The Great Gatsby ballet this weekend. She portrays Myrtle, the mistress in the 20th century novel set in the 1920s.
Artistic and executive director of Columbia City Ballet, William Starrett, right, talks to Boiter-Jolley and prinicpal dancer Bo Busby during rehearsal for The Great Gatsby. Starrett has been the company’s artistic director for more than 30 years.
Dancers use mirrored walls to judge their technique while rehearsing. Boiter-Jolley spends hours each day preparing for her role in The Great Gatsby.