Classical Style: Dance Theatre of Tennessee brings ballet to the people at Centennial Park

carmenThere’s something incongruous about the location of Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s headquarters. This uptown classical ballet company is situated in a decidedly downtown Donelson strip mall, nestled alongside a thrift store, a bowling alley and a bartending school. It seems like an odd place to find a high-arts organization.

Yet it’s arguably the perfect spot for a ballet company that boasts a pronounced populist mission. “The goal of Dance Theatre of Tennessee is to bring ballet to the people,” says Christopher Mohnani, the company’s founder and artistic director. “We want to break down the barriers between ballet and the public.”

With luck, DTT will be toppling the proverbial walls of Jericho this weekend, when it stages its first annual Ballet in the Park. The company will present a choreographed realization of Bizet’s ever-popular opera Carmen. Performances, this Friday through Monday, will take place at the Centennial Park band shell. Assuming the weather cooperates, the new series could well introduce ballet to thousands of new fans.

christopherStaging a free outdoor ballet series is something Mohnani has been thinking about for at least a dozen years. “When I first moved here to dance with Nashville Ballet, I thought it was strange that the city didn’t have an outdoor ballet series,” says Mohnani. “Ballet in the park is one of the best ways to introduce people to dance.”

Mohnani attended his first ballet – a production of Don Quixote – at a park in his native Philippines when he was just a boy. The experience made a lasting impression. From that moment on, he was hooked on ballet. “I was in awe of both the beauty and athleticism of the dancers,” he says.

Last year, Mohnani worked on some choreography for the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, and his troupe served as the warm-up act for the festival’s Shakespeare in the Park. Those performances convinced the choreographer that his dance company could stage its own successful series at Centennial Park.

After receiving advice and encouragement from Nashville Shakespeare Festival artistic director Denice Hicks and operations manager Robert Marigza, Mohnani approached the Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation and Metro Arts Commission. His idea was immediately accepted.

For this weekend’s performance, DTT will present a double feature, two works that will both serve as excellent ballet primers. Ecole de Ballet explores the journey of a young dancer from novice to mature artist. Carmen, set to the familiar score of Georges Bizet, recounts the tragic love affair between the Spanish soldier Don Jose and the gypsy temptress Carmen.

DTT dancers rehearsed Carmen in its entirety at their Donelson studio on Monday morning, and their performance was stylish, athletic, positively exhilarating. There was definitely a feline quality to prima ballerina Jennifer Drake’s portrayal of the title character. Her Carmen is no party girl, but rather a sleekly graceful, cunning seducer.

And just as cats will often rub against people who are ignoring them, Drake’s Carmen goes for Brian Williamson’s Don Jose, a spit-and-polish soldier who at first seems disinterested in the gypsy’s charms. Of course, Don Jose eventually succumbs. And Drake and Williamson’s scene two pas de deux is about as sensuous and steamy as ballet gets. For that reason alone, this show is worth attending.

DTT’s inaugural Ballet in the Park will help launch this year’s Artober, a month-long celebration of the arts in Nashville. After Carmen, the dancers will have no time to rest. On Friday, Oct. 5, the dancers will join the Nashville Jazz Orchestra for a performance of Latin jazz at the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall. Then, they start preparing for their annual tour of The Nutcracker through Middle Tennessee.

“There’s absolutely no let up,” says Mohnani, “and that’s how we like it.”

If you go

Dance Theatre of Tennessee presents its first annual Ballet in the Park, a double feature that includes Ecole de Ballet and Carmen. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28 through Monday, Oct. 1 at the Centennial Park band shell, 2600 West End Ave. The pre-show entertainment starts at 6:30 p.m. The Oct. 1 performance will be part of this year’s Artober – Nashville’s month-long celebration of the arts. The performances are free but a $10 donation is suggested. For more information, call (615) 391-5500 or go to www.dancetheatretn.org.

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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), ArtNowNashville.com 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.