Dance Review: Intimacy, humor and beauty converge in Nashville Ballet’s Emergence

KIPLEY_Emergence-4This weekend, the Nashville Ballet presents Emergence: three new works for dance, accompanied by chamber music composed by Paul Moravec.  This series is one of the best things that has come out of the ballet since it moved into the Martin Center.  By owning a studio space that has room for an audience, artistic director Paul Vasterling seized the opportunity to present adventurous works that don’t have to fill TPAC’s Jackson Hall.  It’s my favorite dance event of the season.

The program, which received its final dress rehearsal on Thursday afternoon, consists of three works, each composed by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec, including his Amorisms, a new work co-commissioned by the Nashville Ballet, Alias Chamber Ensemble and Portara Ensemble.

This spirit of collaboration extended to the opening moments of the performance, as the ballet showed a video performance by New Dialect Ensemble, a new(er) contemporary dance ensemble in Nashville, and a proud representative of the growing Wedgewood/Houston art scene.  Hand shot videos like this  are a great vehicle for preserving and sharing challenging dance works, but I’m most impressed that the Nashville Ballet was willing to share the spotlight with an alternative local ensemble like New Dialect.  It probably helps that the choreographer for New Dialect, Banning Bouldin, is also a teacher and guest choreographer with the ballet.

KIPLEY_Emergence-2This is precisely the kind of collaboration Nashville needs for our next phase of artistic growth: our grassroots arts groups need the credibility and awareness that the enterprise-class organizations can offer. In return, the enterprise-class groups can keep their audiences more fully engaged during the year.  I hope the Nashville Symphony, Nashville Opera, Tennnessee Rep and OZ Nashville are reading this.

Conductor Shreyas Patel led the Alias Chamber Ensemble and Portara Ensemble in James Gregg’s choreography for “In Waiting,” set to Moravec’s “Sacred Love Songs.”

Portara made quite an impression reading choir music off iPads.  The acoustics were so dry, with barely any of the natural reverb that’s a common component of chamber choir.  The dance costumes were hipster/newsies meets Moulin Rouge.  The religious text was quite a contrast to the seemingly secular movement which featured body throws, head tosses, dramatic, athletic movements (floor to standing on one foot, floor to standing on one hand, floor to standing on bench,) and severe angles.

Alias followed with a performance of Bouldin’s “Agora,” set to Moravec’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy. I can see why this won the Pulitzer.  The music is straightforward, neo-romantic, with some ingenious pairings of sub-tone clarinet with strings.

The dance language is adventurous, and opens with a dramatic “trust fall” – a gesture that returns several times in the piece. The costumes were mostly normal clothes; it helps that skinny pants are in right now.

Among the unconventional dance gestures present in Bouldin’s choreography are heads nuzzling hands (it reminded me of my cat), falls to the floor, and at least one bite, alongside tons of small movements of the hands, shoulders and knuckles.  All these small movements were so effective in the small studio setting. The small space also afforded the choreographers and lighting designer Scott Leathers the opportunity to dance in lower light settings, another element of the performance that would not be possible in Jackson Hall.

Portara joined Alias again at the end to perform Gina Patterson’s “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,” set to Moravec’s Amorisms.

This work opens with performance art with dirt.  I immediately thought of Matt Marcum’s and J.P. Shuffman’s pieces at the Sideshow Fringe Festival.  There were mimes, and dirt, and flowers, singing, acting and jokes.  This is not a tutu-ballet piece, and it is great fun.

So, meanwhile, back at the ranch, the performing arts are slowly converging.  Operas want singers who can also act (and maybe dance).  Ballets want dancers who can also act, and there are even choreographed chamber music pieces making their way around the country. The future is incredibly inter-disciplinary and the comedic acting and singing in Amorisms is a very wonderful way to introduce Nashville to what’s coming.

KIPLEY_Emergence-1The intimacy portrayed in the choreography (the piece is clearly about spring love) is more intimate than what can be conveyed in a large performance hall. The dance language is more traditional in its expression (not counting the humor or the choir).

Portara clearly loves singing this piece, and their enthusiasm significantly adds to the performance.

Should art affirm what we know? Should it defy our expectations?

In conclusion: this weekend the Nashville Ballet presents fresh and contemporary works that explore timeless ideas in new ways.

No tutus.  Some pointe.  Lots of fun.

PHOTO CREDIT: Karyn Kipley Photography


Nashville Ballet joins Alias Chamber Ensemble and Portara Ensemble to perform three new dances set to the music of Paul Moravec. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 29 and Friday, May 30 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday May 31 at the Martin Center for Nashville Ballet, 3630 Redmon St. For tickets, click here

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About Kyle J. Baker

Kyle J. Baker is a Nashville-based composer and impresario most known for directing Nashville's Soundcrawl Festival. He composes for acoustic and digital forces with a recurring emphasis on rhythmic post-minimal structures. Classical in heritage, but vernacular in vocabulary, his music has garnered such attention as 2008 Belmont University Composition Prize, Honorable Mention in the 2008 Pathways Young Band Composition Contest as well as distribution by, His notable teachers include Ken Read, John LaBarbara, Delfeayo Marsalis and William Pursell. Born in Scotland and raised in St. Louis, Baker holds an M.Mus from Belmont University and makes his home in Cane Ridge, Tenn. with his wife Joy and cat Lili.


  1. Gary Stewart says:

    Thanks, Kyle, for your review. I attended the opening night performance on Thursday and was very impressed. Attendance at that performance by the composer, Paul Moravec, was an added bonus, and it was great to hear his comments. I was especially interested in his thoughts about the humor in the Amorisms piece. I wish I had his exact words, but they included “delighted”. I was really struck by the beginning humor and the use of iPads by Portara, also mentioned i your review. I had to think for a while about how I felt about the humor, but I really liked it. I also think we are going to see more use of technology by choral groups in the future. I agree with so many of the comments you made, especially those about the intimate touches made possible in this studio setting. The music is deserving of another Pulitzer, and it is to be hoped we will see this ballet again in the not too distant future, this time on the Polk stage.


  1. […] a moment to read Kyle’s review for the Moravec Project co-commisioned by the Nashville Ballet, ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, and Portara […]