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Dance review: Ballet in the Park launches with cool weather, steamy dancing

carmenWas all that thunder rolling through the Nashville area on Friday afternoon a foreshadowing of the tragedy that would later befall the Gypsy girl Carmen? Nah, it was probably just God trying to make Dance Theatre of Tennessee artistic director Christopher Mohnani feel as nervous as possible before the opening of his first annual Ballet in the Park.

As it turned out, Mohnani had nothing to worry about. DTT’s presentation of Ecole de Ballet and Carmen went on with barely a hitch on Friday night at the Centennial Park band shell. The weather cooperated nicely, and, with the exception of a few technical flubs here and there, the dancers all performed with grace and taste. If there was any divine intervention at all, it was only to provide the occasional cool breeze.

The highlight of the evening was, of course, Carmen. DTT is mounting a choreographed realization of Bizet’s ever-popular opera, danced to a score created in 1967 by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. His Carmen Suite, arranged in one act, is a prismatically beautiful and rhythmically driving transcription for orchestra and percussion that literally keeps the ballerinas on their toes for the better part of 45 minutes. E.V. Cruz and Mohnani provided choreography that readily captured the energy and emotional white heat of the opera.

As you might expect, prima ballerina Jennifer Drake, in the title role, dominated the proceedings. She portrayed Carmen as an alpha female who casually seduced men before discarding them with the insouciance of a child throwing away a candy wrapper. Drake seemed to relish the role, dancing with just the right mix of elegance and steamy sensuousness. Brian Williamson, as the Spanish soldier Don Jose, provided Drake’s Carmen with a suitably tragic target. His dancing was fully satisfying – expressive and athletic without ever seeming needlessly showy.

Dillon Davis, on the other hand, could have made a convincing Hemingway character with his flamboyant interpretation of the matador Escamillo. Lena Parker was equally compelling in the role of Manuela, a woman who had the misfortune of coming in second in a knife fight with Carmen. Gabrielle Gambino danced the role of Don Jose’s rejected girlfriend Micaela with hefty doses of stage melodrama.

Joy Matubis of JM Dancewear and Michael Miguel created costumes that were colorful and believable. Gregg Colson, Randy Purcell and Ken Walls designed simple and tasteful scenery, and Richard Davis provided effective lighting. The evening’s only major technical glitch was with the sound system, which momentarily cut off as the ballet was coming to its tragic conclusion. Hopefully that problem will be addressed in time for the repeat performances.

DTT’s inaugural Ballet in the Park is a double feature that includes the short warm-up piece Ecole de Ballet. The ballet traces the journey of a dancer from young student to mature artist. Carl Czerny’s score struck me as a bit overblown and pompous, and Osias Barroso’s choreography often seemed pedestrian and predictable. Nevertheless, there is enough material to allow DTT’s dancers, especially its young students, to shine. DTT’s company artists and academy students all danced with distinction.

On a personal note, I should add that I brought my two young sons to Ballet in the Park, and they came away with their own reactions. They said cheerfully that the ballerinas in Ecole de Ballet reminded them of butterflies. They found Carmen to be utterly riveting. DTT launched Ballet in the Park to expand the audience for ballet. On Friday night, the company gained at least two new fans.

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. Saturday, Sept. 29 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 performance is 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.