Dance review: Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s ‘Muses’ is a stairway to paradise

2museWhat inspires a choreographer to create great dance?

That’s the focus of “Muses,” Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s terrific new winter show. The program, which opened Saturday night at Nashville’s Father Ryan High School Auditorium and repeats Sunday afternoon, features the work of three highly individualistic choreographers — George Balanchine, Ma Cong and Darrell Grand Moultrie. It’s perhaps not surprising that such singular talents all had different motivations.

balanchineFor the legendary Balanchine, the most classical of the three choreographers, the creative spark came from the most classical of sources – beautiful women. His Helen of Troy, of course, was the prima ballerina. He hired many of them for his New York City Ballet and married a few of them – he had five wives in all, including the famed Tanaquil Le Clercq, who was tragically stricken with polio while on tour with the ballet in 1956.

Ballerina Stacey Calvert, who is restaging one of the great choreographer’s dances this weekend for DTT, joined New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet in 1983 – the year of Balanchine’s death. Despite her late entry into his company, she knew enough of Balanchine and his methods to be on familiar terms with him. In a pre-performance video, we learn that Calvert and her fellow dancers always referred to the old man as “Mr. B.”

Calvert went on to perform as a soloist in many of Balanchine’s most popular dances, including “Who Cares?,” set to the timeless music of George Gershwin. She’s restaging that dance for DTT on behalf of the George Balanchine Trust and Foundation. On Saturday night, DTT’s dancers shimmied their way up a veritable heavenly staircase.

First performed in 1970, “Who Cares?” fuses the elegance of classical ballet with the popular dance of Gershwin’s era, when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ruled the dance floor. Naturally, Balanchine’s signature style – movements that are linear and slightly off-kilter – becomes the glue that binds everything together.

The dance opens with one of Gershwin’s most unapologetically romantic songs, “The Man I Love.” The choreography is Balanchine at his neo-classical best. Jennifer Drake enters the stage en pointe and, after a few fluttering moments, backs gracefully into the arms of Brian Williamson. The dance soon blossoms into a series of animated spins and arabesques.

Amanda Whites gets a workout in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” dancing a sort of stylized Charleston. Drake is similarly put through her paces in “Fascinating Rhythm.” Whites and Williamson danced their way through “Who Cares?” in perfect tandem. Drake, Whites, Williamson and Lena Parker all moved beautifully in and out of sync during the virtuosic finale, “I Got Rhythm.”

3museMa Cong, the Chinese-born principal dancer and choreographer with Tulsa Ballet, created the second dance on the program, “Passion, There.” Cong said in a video that he found his inspiration in both Chinese folk dance and Western classical movement. That probably explains why there were no discernible “Dancing with the Stars” clichés in the tango-infused “Passion, There.”

Tulsa Ballet HeadshotsMa CongDivided into three sections and set to music from Tango Libre and Mujer Sola, “Passion, There” comes across as ballroom dance almost completely stripped of the ballroom. In the first part, the dancers often pump their arms and stoop in deep, angular knee bends. Movements are similarly modern and spiky in the second section, with dancers forming various geometric shapes.

The familiar, flowing movements of tango finally appear in the third section, which was performed with a welcome degree of sensuousness. The dancers –  Gabrielle Gambino, Marisa Montany, Heather Gorres, Angelito Anacan, Dillon Davis and Christopher Durham – all gave delightful performances.

1museDarrell Grand Moultrie said in his pre-performance video that he found his inspiration for “Points of Interest” in the fearlessness of DTT’s dancers. One suspects he also found stimulation in the propulsive and hyper-stimulated music of Kenji Bunch. A New York City contemporary composer, Bunch is already familiar to Nashville classical fans. His music was the focus of the Nashville-based Alias Chamber Ensemble’s latest CD, “Boiling Point.”

Style: "Silver_Default"Bunch’s music seems more kinetic than ever – if such a thing is possible – in “Points of Interest.” The dance is divided into eight short sections that all seem to be a joyous celebration of motion. In the opening section, dancers move in fleet counterpoint to music that sounds neo-baroque, like an outtake from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” In the fourth section, dancers race across the stage to music that is sparkling and minimalistic.

Drake dances a frenetic solo in the second section, which is set to a wildly virtuosic piano etude. Williamson is equally impressive in his solo, set to an expressive viola melody. The other dancers in “Points of Interest” — Marisa Montany, Gabrielle Gambino, Heather Gorres, Angelito Anacan, Dillon Davis, Christopher Durham, Lena Parker, Hilary Busick, Ike Hawkersmith and Amanda Whites – all gave worthy performances.

The only glitch on Saturday night was a technical one – the pre-performance video of Ma Cong was inadvertently shown after the performance. That mishap will surely not be repeated. The rest of the program was, as the title suggested, a glorious inspiration, so dance lovers should make every effort to catch the repeat performance.

Here’s a clip of Jennifer Drake and Brian Williamson rehearsing “Muses.”

IF YOU GO Dance Theatre of Tennessee presents its winter concert, “Muses,” at Father Ryan High School Auditorium, 700 Norwood Dr., Nashville. The performance is 2 p.m. Sunday, March 3. Tickets are $22.50 adults and $17.50 children in advance, $25 and $20 at the door. For more information call 615-391-5500 or go to

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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.


  1. Damian says:

    What a fantastic evening! How lucky we are in Nashville to get to see such diverse and quality programs of dance. Bravo Dance Theatre of Tennessee! Looking forward to seeing more of your continued growth and performances.