Everything about the program, which opens Friday at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater and runs through Sunday, is strong. The choreography is strikingly original and the music is tuneful and vital. Moreover, the sets and costumes – including one visual art work created live during the performance – are simple and appealing.
Artistic director Paul Vasterling has said in interviews that he wants to expand the public’s perception of ballet. He does that with “Attitude” by essentially transforming his ballet company into a modern dance troupe. These dances, for the most part, are performed with bare feet planted firmly on the stage: balletic toe-work is largely unseen in this show. Perhaps while he’s changing the program’s title, Vasterling could also change his name – to Garth Fagan.
There were certainly hints of the great Jamaican-born choreographer’s style in “The Whistling,” the ensemble piece that opened Thursday night’s terrific final dress rehearsal. Choreographer Dominic Walsh used the music from 1940s and ‘50s Cuba as the starting point for his dances. As you might expect, the soundtrack’s mambos and rumbas elicit a few torso-centered, Caribbean-style movements from the dancers. Mostly, though, Walsh goes out his way to avoid any obvious, overt references to Latin dance.
Indeed, there isn’t a single “So You Think You Can Dance” cliché in the entire 20-minute piece. Contrast and contradiction, however, abound. The work opens with La Sonora Matancera’s “Descargo Sonora,” a bold, brassy and vivacious song. The dancers, in contrast, enter the stage beneath an arc of lights, moving in slow motion.
Dancer Augusto Cezar’s angular motions in the second song – Lucho Gatica’s “Encadenados” – have more to do with modern dance than salsa. Some of dancer Andrea Vierra’s movements in the third song, Trio Los Panchos’ “Lo Dudo,” called to mind hip hop. In that respect, “The Whistling” is, like the Caribbean itself, a giant melting pot of culture. The work receives its official Nashville premiere Friday, Feb. 15.
Choreographer Sarah Slipper’s “Ploughing the Dark,” which came next, was more straightforward. It was no less emotionally affecting. Slipper found the inspiration for this dance in the hyper-emotional music of Blair School of Music professor Michael Kurek and in the lives of Anton Chekhov and his lover, Olga Knipper.
Chekhov suffered from tuberculosis, which forced the playwright to move to Yalta near the end of his life. Knipper remained in Moscow, where she was an actress. They maintained their relationship through an enduring exchange of letters. Not surprisingly, Slipper’s dance comes across as a kind of choreographed love letter to the Russian couple.
The dancers, Sadie Bo Harris and Jon Upleger, often appear alone on stage. At other times they are separated by a giant strip of white paper, which extends from the ceiling to the lip of the stage. Eventually, Harris tears through this paper to reach Upleger, and the two engage in an impassioned duet.
There are moments when Slipper gets a little too literal for my taste – I didn’t need to hear Upleger cough at the end to know he was supposed to be the dying playwright. Nevertheless, her choreography was a perfect match for Kurek’s music, which could have easily been mistaken for some long lost Rachmaninoff piano trio. Kurek’s music, by the way, was expertly played by pianist Kenneth Boulton, cellist Ovidiu Marinescu and violinist Silvia Ahramijian.
Choreographer Gina Patterson’s “But the Flowers Have Yet to Come,” which closes the program, is by far the evening’s most substantial and ambitious work. The 45-minute work features songs taken mostly from Nashville-based singer-songwriter Matthew Perryman Jones’ 2012 album “Land of the Living.” Jones and his band perform the music live on an extension of the stage.
During the performance, visual artist Emily Leonard can be seen diligently painting part of the set. The end result of her work was striking and appealing. Sorry, no spoiler here, since you’ll have to come to one of this weekend’s performances to find out what she does.
Jones writes a kind of music that willfully skirts the boundaries between Americana-folk and pop-rock. There were times during Thursday’s dress rehearsal when his from-the-gut performances called to mind U2 at its folksiest.
The choreography for the opening song, “Stones from the Riverbed,” was arresting. As Jones sang his heartfelt tune, the large dance ensemble moved en masse in slow motion from the back to the front of the stage. Several dancers soon broke out of formation and began to spin, creating layers of dance that seemed to match the rich textures of the song.
There were many other highlights in this dance. “Waking Up the Dead” featured Upleger and Christopher Stuart, who danced with an all-male ensemble in a display of elegant athleticism. Dancer Mollie Sansone, for her part, lit up the stage with her ardent dancing in “Save You.”
Patterson’s “But the Flowers Have Yet to Come” is receiving its world-premiere performances this weekend. Anyone with a passion for world-class music and dance would be well advised to attend.
IF YOU GO
Nashville Ballet presents it winter program “Attitude.” Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15 and Saturday, Feb. 16 and 2 p.m. Sunday Feb. 17 at TPAC’s Polk Theater, 505 Deaderick St. For tickets, click here.