Artistic director of Charleston Ballet Theatre dies after battle with cancer

Longtime artistic director of Charleston Ballet Theatre dies following battle with cancer

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The artistic director of the Charleston Ballet died on Thursday after a two year battle with cancer, according to officials with the Charleston Ballet Theatre.

George Donald Cantwell died at the age of 85 years old. Theatre officials said Cantwell devoted his life to classical ballet and was convinced that professional ballet could flourish at the grass-roots level in Charleston.

Cantwell was from Charleston and graduated from Bishop England High School.

“Cantwell began his dance training in Charleston finally dancing at Atlanta Ballet and Theatre Under the Stars in Atlanta before moving to New York,” ballet theatre officials said.” Mr. Cantwell returned to his native Charleston in 1966 after passionately pursuing his dance career training with the Atlanta Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, and The Ballet Russe School.”

Cantwell’s goal was to deliver South Carolinians a chance to enjoy quality dance.

In the ensuing 45 years, he fulfilled and surpassed that goal. and ultimately returned to his beloved Lowcountry, theatre officials said.

You could read the full release from the Charleston Ballet Theatre on Cantwell’s passing below.

George Donald Cantwell (Don), the long-time Artistic Director of the Charleston Ballet died November 19, 2020 at the Roper Hospice Cottage after a lengthy 2-year battle with cancer. He devoted his life to classical ballet and was convinced that professional ballet could flourish at the grass-roots level in Charleston. He was 85 years old.

A native of Charleston, graduated from Bishop England High School, Cantwell began his dance training in Charleston finally dancing at Atlanta Ballet and Theatre Under the Stars in Atlanta before moving to New York. Mr. Cantwell returned to his native Charleston in 1966 after passionately pursuing his dance career training with the Atlanta Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, and The Ballet Russe School. His goal was to deliver South Carolinians a chance to enjoy quality dance. In the ensuing 45 years, he fulfilled and surpassed that goal. and ultimately returned to his beloved Lowcountry.

Throughout his successful career, Don has served in a variety of capacities from dancer, to partner, to director, to scenic designer, to costumer. During his first years back in Charleston, Mr. Cantwell worked at the Civic Ballet with former soloist with the New York City Ballet, Stanley Zompakos. He expanded his creative talents from the stage to behind the curtain preparing sets and distinctive costumes for most of the productions.

Cantwell choreographed, designed, and produced Charleston’s First Nutcracker which premiered at the Memminger Auditorium. He later married Patricia Downs, a ballerina who was discovered at age 13 by the legendary George Balanchine. Patricia taught in the school, danced all the principal ballerina roles, and conceived the idea of a full-time professional ballet company for Charleston.

The couple joined Regional Dance America, SE, building the company from Intern Member to Performing to Finally Honor Company. Cantwell’s introduced to Charleston dance giant Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as many outstanding ballet dancers including Heather Watts and Ib Anderson of New York City Ballet, and Cynthia Gregory, and Fernando Bujones. of America Ballet Theatre. The school has hosted to many dance greats including Alicia Alonso, Helgi Thomasson, Bela Lewitsky, Bruce Marks and the Boston Ballet, during the initial years of Spoleto USA Festival. The Civic Company hosted two Regional Dance Festivals to Charleston, bringing 21 companies and over 1200 dancers to perform in Charleston each time. It was here they met nationally Awarded Choreographer/Master Teacher Jill Eathorne Bahr.

Under his outstanding leadership, along with his wife Patricia Cantwell and Resident Choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr, Charleston Ballet Theatre was created. There was a perfect division of labor. As the company’s choreographer, Jill Eathorne Bahr was the Resident Choreographer. Patricia Cantwell was lead ballerina, visionary and Director of the school and Cantwell designed sets and costumes. The company grew from a local dance school and civic company exploding into a strong professional ballet company in 1987 that employed 18 dancers on a 30-week contract. During his tenure with the CBT, he carved a unique reputation for performing the classics as well as encouraging established and emerging choreographers in the creation of new works.

He introduced some of the nation’s most exciting dancers to Charleston Ballet Theatre and established the Charleston Ballet Theatre Centre for Dance Education which currently reaches out to hundreds of students each year.

Charleston Ballet Theatre developed a national reputation for innovation and creativity. With a repertory of ballets from the greatest master choreographer George Balanchine (5 ballets “Allegro Brilliante” “Concerto Barocco” “Tarantella” Serenade and “Who Cares?”)Jose Limon’s)”The Moors Pavane”) , Salvatore Aiello, (“Clowns and Others” and “Notturno”), David Parsons (“The Envelope”). Twyla Tharp’s (“Bakers Dozen”) , Bruce Marks (“The Lark Ascending”) Daniel Pelzig (“Nine Lives” and _________ ) Alan Hineline (and Ron Cunningham (“Reflected Shadows” and Caesura”) and as well as full length classics such as Swan Lake”, “Romeo & Juliet”, “Don Quixote”, “Nutcracker”, “Coppelia “and “Cinderella.”

The company presented a five-part season and was represented by a national booking agent touring the Eastern, United States. The company remained a mainstay in Piccolo Spoleto Festival from 1987-2011 when it presented the immensely popular “Brown Bag and Ballet Series”, “High Tea Musicales” with prominent members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and “”Late Late Night at Ballet.” The company co-produced the grand scale production of Carmina Burana with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Cantwell stayed active with the company until 2012. Memorable special event collaborations with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra during Piccolo Spoleto including Rite of Spring “at the Angel Oak and “Firebird”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Angel Oak. Another highlight included the presence of American Composer Philip Glass.at the Piccolo Spoleto Premiere of “Poetry with A Splash of Red Blood.”

A prolific costume and set designer Cantwell remained an acknowledged master of distinct styles as well as brilliant colors. His sets for “Nutcracker” “” Little Mermaid” “Cinderella” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “Snow White”, were always able to fuse the visons of choreographers into magnificent sets providing the atmosphere in which they could ignite. His costumes recreated for many of the Balanchine works following Karinska designs carried a deep knowledge that grasped the needs of a body in motion without relinquishing style. His personal design were unique and prolific as he created and designed ninety percent of the professional ballet companies costumes.

A towering, man with closely cropped grey hair and striking green eyes, Cantwell was always impeccably groomed. Even in his impoverished youthful days here in Charleston, he managed to give the impression of a man of the world who lived in a sophisticated style. Deeply Religious, Cantwell was well-read and artistically knowledgeable, and a classic movie buff. He was a gentle, thoughtful “Big Buddha” who conveyed a profound sense of languid elegance with a sprinkle of whimsical humor. He cherished his children and grandchildren. He was dearly loved by the hundreds of baby ballerinas affectionally known as “Big D.”

Cantwell is predeceased by his beloved mother and father, brothers Former Charleston Police Officer James Cantwell and Allen Cantwell of Charleston. Cantwell is survived by his wife Patricia; a son Joshua Paul Cantwell, his daughter in law Eliza Hutto Cantwell, grandsons, Bowers and Ellis Cantwell, a daughter Kimberly Cantwell Brantingham, his son in law Todd Brantingham(deceased), grandson Jason Brantingham, and granddaughter Caitlyn Brantingham.

The family expresses deep gratitude to Roper St Francis Hospice, , his Hospice nurse Theresa Ponessa and Home Care Nurse Rebecca Mellagui of Amedisys Home Health Care. The family respectfully suggests that expressions of sympathy go to Roper St Francis Hospice 1483 Tobias Gadson Blvd, Ste 209b, Charleston, South Carolina 29407, and Coastal Ballet, USA. 1703 Ventura Place, Mount Pleasant, SC, A Memorial Service will be planned in the future after the Covid 19 Pandemic.

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