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Dance Preview: Nashville Ballet dances with “Attitude” to the music of Johnny Cash

attitude3It seems only fitting that Nashville Ballet dancers will perform to the music of Johnny Cash next weekend at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The company refers to its annual winter program – an adventurous mix of live music and cutting-edge dance – as “Attitude.” Johnny Cash knew a thing or two about attitude.

Nashville Ballet dancer and choreographer Christopher Stuart found inspiration to create this new dance a decade ago after watching Cash’s deeply affecting video performance of “Hurt.”  “I grew up in Connecticut, where I didn’t hear much country music,” says Stuart. “But ‘Hurt’ really struck a chord with me, and I soon went out and bought all of his albums.”

Although Stuart is best known in Nashville for his dancing – his performance of the title role in the company’s Macbeth was wicked good – he has also proved to be a gifted choreographer. His “American Dreams,” a collaboration with the Alias Chamber Ensemble and Watkins College of Art, Design and Film, was one of the highlights of the company’s 2012 Emergence series program.  After that success, ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling urged Stuart to create another dance. “I told Paul I wanted to choreograph a piece based on Johnny Cash’s music, and he immediately agreed.”

Stuart’s new dance, called “Under the Lights,” features many of Cash’s best-known songs, including “Ring of Fire,” “Walk the Line” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” The 40-minute piece is a series of vignettes that does not attempt to tell a specific story. “Dancers Jon Upleger and Sadie Bo Harris basically represent Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in this piece,” says Stuart. “But in the end the dance is not really about Johnny and June but is rather a homage to the music.”

That stands to reason. Cash, after all, performed and recorded some of the most powerful and iconic songs of the 20th century. Sugar and Hi Lows vocalists Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup will perform the songs live during the performances Feb. 14-16 at TPAC’s Polk Theatre. The duo, both songwriters, found working with Cash’s songs to be revelatory.

“I was amazed to realize how short many of Johnny Cash’s songs are, yet they are all so incredibly powerful,” says Dabbs. “These songs are painfully honest and to the point, and that’s what makes them so great.”

sugarNext week’s Attitude program will include two other important works. The company will perform choreographer Brian Enos’ “And Legions Will Rise,” featuring the music of Kevin Puts performed live by the Alias Chamber Ensemble. The dancers will also present Vasterling’s Time/Return/Memory, set to the solo piano music of Philip Glass.

Ballet fans who attend one of the upcoming Attitude concerts will be eligible to preorder tickets for the ballet’s newly announced 2014-15 season. Those performances start next October with Swan Lake (Oct. 17-19). The season will continue with the immensely popular Nashville Nutcracker (Dec. 6-21); a revival of Gina Patterson’s terrific …but the flowers have yet to come, performed live by Matthew Perryman Jones (Feb. 13-15, 2015); Peter and the Wolf (Feb. 14, 2015); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (April 24-26, 2015); Clowns and Others (May 10-17, 2015); and Emergence (May 14-16, 2015). For more information about Nashville Ballet’s 2014-15 season, click here.

IF YOU GO

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. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 14-15, 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.

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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.