Dance Review: Love burns like a ‘Ring of Fire’ in Nashville Ballet’s tribute to Johnny Cash

attitutdex2You knew the Nashville Ballet’s tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash was going to be a love story almost from the outset.

As the lights dimmed, a giant screen lowered to the stage, and suddenly we saw photos of the couple as they appeared throughout the years. There were pictures of the two on their wedding day, and photos of them in their middle years taking a leisurely stroll. Whether they were depicted in the ruddy good health of youth or later in old age, one thing remained constant: their obvious passion for each other.

Crossing the threshold“Under the Lights,” choreographer Christopher Stuart’s terrific new tribute to the Cashes and their music, clearly conveyed the famed country music couple’s deep affection during its premiere performance on Friday night. The 45-minute dance also captured the rollicking good fun of such songs as “Jackson,” the pathos of “Hurt” and the sincere emotion of “Ring of Fire.” The performance, part of the ballet’s annual “Attitude” series, repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16 at TPAC’s Polk Theater.

Stuart’s choreography proved to be a seamless blend of classical, modern and popular dance styles. Jon Upleger and Sadie Bo Harris (who portrayed the Cashes) gave the evening’s most classically refined performances, with Harris often moving gracefully across the stage en pointe, and Upleger sweeping her off her feet in high lifts.

Mollie Sansone gave the evening’s standout performance in “Hurt” as she slinked and slid across the stage with agility and anguished emotion.  In one breathtaking moment, a corps male dancers lift Sansone up and toss her to another group. Amazingly, this hair-raising throw transpired with a sort of grace that was effortless.

Some of the most enjoyable performances took place when multiple dancers were onstage. In songs such as “I Walk the Line,” “Jackson” and “Flesh and Blood,” the dancers moved with the sort of vibrancy and joy that you might expect in a Jerome Robbins piece. Certainly, the dancing readily captured the youthful energy and sincerity of the songs.

dabbsstroupThe success of Friday’s performance was also due in no small part to the terrific vocalists Amy Stroup and Trent Dabbs of the duo the Sugar and the Hi-Lows, who performed Cash’s music (as well as some of their own songs) live on Friday. Stroup and Dabbs bill themselves as a “neo-rockabilly” group, meaning that there is perhaps a little more contemporary rock than country in their sound. Their performances worked because they made no attempt to imitate Cash’s inimitable style.

Rather, they made the songs their own. They sang “Ring of Fire” with restraint and intimacy, as if June Carter were singing the tune to Cash for the first time. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” was sung with raw rock energy, while “Hurt” came across as a heart-rending lament. Stroup and Dabbs made the most of Cash’s songs, but I liked them best in two of their own numbers – “Two Day High” and “I’ve Got You Covered” – which best showcased their rockabilly style and sense of swing.

attitudex3Choreographer Brian Enos’ “And Legions Will Rise,” which opened the program, was a sophisticated piece with a wide expressive range. The six dancers – Sansone, Alexandra Meister, Katie Vasilopoulos, Damian Drake and Judson Veach – performed with the graceful flow of classical dance one moment, and struck angular, decidedly modern poses the next.

Enos choreographed this piece to composer Kevin Puts’ “And Legions Will Rise,” which found its inspiration in images of an army preparing to do battle. Not surprisingly, the dancers always moved with polish and precision. A trio of musicians from the Alias Chamber Ensemble – violinist Zeneba Bowers, clarinetist Lee Levine and percussionist Christopher Norton – provided colorful and nuanced accompaniment.

attitudex1One other piece on this weekend’s program is artistic director Paul Vasterling’s “Time/Return/Memory.” This remarkable piece, choreographed to the solo piano music of minimalist composer Philip Glass, recounts the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Upleger (Orpheus) and Harris (Eurydice) performed an elegant and deeply felt duet in the foreground as Mark Allyn Nimmo (Time/Death) lurked in the background. Orpheus’ ultimate loss of his love, with the pounding unisons of Glass’ music sounding like a funeral toll, is utterly heartbreaking.

Friday’s performance was delayed due to weather and to the large number of latecomers who had no doubt arrived to hear the iconic songs of Johnny Cash. Dance fans would do well to arrive early to the repeat performances in order to beat the rush.

Photos courtesy of Karyn Kipley


Nashville Ballet presents its annual winter program, called Attitude. Performances include Christopher Stuart’s Under the Lights, featuring the Sugar and Hi Lows performing the music of Johnny Cash; Brian Enos’ “And Legions Will Rise;” and Paul Vasterling’s Time/Return/Memory. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday Feb. 16 at TPAC’s Polk Theatre. Single tickets are $28 to $65 and are available at the TPAC box office, 505 Deaderick St., by calling 782-4040 or by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.


  1. Gary Stewart says:

    Thanks for the excellent review. Our tickets are for Sunday, so we surely have a lot to look forward to (sorry about ending the sentence with a preposition!).