Dance Review: Nashville Ballet presents the world premiere of its Ben Folds Project

benprojectBen Folds won’t be rocking the suburbs this weekend, since he’ll be too busy waltzing with the Nashville Ballet.

The rocker-turned-classical-piano virtuoso will be at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Friday night to present the world premiere of his long-awaited “Ben Folds Project.” This remarkable collaborative venture features Folds performing his new Piano Concerto live with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Nashville Ballet. The piece received an expressive and energetic run-through during Thursday night’s final dress rehearsal. Performances repeat Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

ben3Folds’ three-movement, 21-minute-long concerto, originally performed in March with the Nashville Symphony, is a delightful pastiche. There are sections in the score that sound like Prokofiev, and others that call to mind Gershwin and Ravel. These diverse styles are seamlessly sewn together courtesy of Folds’ idiosyncratic piano style.

Paul Vasterling, Nashville Ballet’s artistic director, created choreography for the concerto that beautifully captures the mood of the piece. He gave each of the movements titles, providing himself (and he audience) with what he described as creative “jumping-off points.” In the whimsical first movement, called “Fable,” the company, led by dancer Judson Veach, perfectly mirror the music. Their movements are elegant and classically streamlined at one moment, and jazzy and athletic the next. The effect was like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bob Fosse onstage while Maurice Ravel and Art Tatum took turns at the piano.

The most palpably emotional dancing by far came in the second movement, which Vasterling called “Visitation.” Dancers Sadie Bo Harris, Christopher Stuart and Jon Upleger engaged in an expressive pas de trois, one featuring sensitive lifts and striking poses, as the rest of the company sat in a circle to bear witness. The accompaniment, I should note, included some intriguing electronic sounds that I did not hear during the premiere performance at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center last March. The sounds added a sense of mystery and wonder to the performance.

Dancers Mollie Sansone, Christopher Butler and Mark Allyn Nimmo led the full cast in a breezy rendition of the finale, called, appropriately enough, “Flight.” This movement contains some of the work’s most entertaining music and dancing. Folds, who performed onstage with the dancers, played both inside and outside the piano, muting piano strings with his left hand while his right hand banged out rock rhythms. Sansone and the rest of the company responded with dancing that was breathless and effervescent.

SerenadeNashville Ballet is presenting two other works this weekend. The first work performed on Thursday was George Balanchine’s 1935 masterpiece Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s hyperemotional Serenade for Strings in C major. The piece opened with an arresting image. An ensemble of women dancers, all dressed in long, stylishly classical white gowns, stood with their right arms elevated over their heads, their costumes glowing in Scott Leathers’ ice-blue lighting.

Most of the choreography was pure dance, with both men and women working their way through classic ballet positions. Near the end, though, a narrative was suggested when prima ballerina Sadie Bo Harris fell to the floor after dancing a waltz with her partner. She was eventually lifted onto the shoulders of a male dancer and led offstage in an elegiac cortege. Conductor Nathan Fifield’s energetic conducting lent a sense of urgency to all of the dancing.

PetiteThe company also performed choreographer Jiri Kylian’s sensuous Petite Mort, named for the French euphemism for orgasm. In this highly stylized battle of the sexes, six male dancers engage in foreplay with fencing foils while women sheathed in what appear to flowing black gowns watch in silence.

As music from the slow movements of Mozart’s Piano Concertos in A major and C major (expressively played by Fifield) reach their climaxes, the men and women come together, their limbs entwined in sensual combat. A sense of decorum is suggested when the women appear onstage in stiff black gowns. This decorum, however, is an illusion, since the gowns are mere frames from which the women can easily step out. As is often the case, carnal love has the last say.

PHOTO CREDIT: Performance photos by Karyn Kipley


Nashville Ballet presents the world premiere of the Ben Folds Project. The company also performs Balanchine’s Serenade and Kylian’s Petite Mort. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday May 2, and Saturday May 3 and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 4 at TPAC, 505 Deaderick St. Tickets are $35 to $82 and are available here.

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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.