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Nashville Ballet’s Macbeth: Something wicked good this way comes

macbethNashville Ballet has been lavishing attention on William Shakespeare of late. Last month, the company presented a radiant rendition of Romeo and Juliet. Now it’s Macbeth’s turn.

This weekend, Shakespeare’s murderous Scot is the focus of a new ballet featuring the choreography of Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling and the music of contemporary American composer Kenji Bunch. The Alias Chamber Ensemble is performing the music live within the cozy confines of the Martin Center for Nashville Ballet.

The performance is part of the ballet’s excellent Emergence series, a sort of choreographic laboratory that allows the company to try out new (and often unfinished) works in an informal black-box theater setting. Judging from Thursday’s final dress rehearsal, one would have to conclude that Macbeth is a worthy experiment.

Indeed, it’s an intriguing concoction, one that freely mixes elements of modern dance and experimental theater with the beauty and elegance of classical ballet. The production’s overall look is stark and shadowy, a fitting approach given the gloominess of the subject.  The overall feel is one of anguished emotion.

Vasterling understands implicitly that Macbeth is no mere morality play. Rather, it’s an intense psychological study of the impact of evil on Macbeth and his wife. Much of the production, therefore, underscores the principal characters’ feelings of torment and guilt.

Macbeth, played with feverish intensity by Christopher Stuart, looks on in horror at the ghosts of his bloodied victims, Duncan (Brendon LaPier) and Banquo (Jon Upleger). Lady Macbeth (Mollie Sansone), meanwhile, struggles frantically after the crime to remove the invisible stain of guilt from her hands.

Vasterling’s strikingly original choreography ingeniously blurs the line between modern and classical dance. The angular and geometric poses of the full ensemble during the prologue seem remarkably contemporary. Sadie Bo Harris’ (Lady Macduff) and Sansone’s graceful en pointe movements, on the other hand, are solidly traditional.

The choreography was at its level best when it most precisely mirrored the music. I was taken with the witches (Alexandra Meister, Katie Vasilpoulos and Andrea Vierra) as they strutted spider-like in perfect synchronization with the pizzicato strings. Later, Sansone slid effortlessly across the stage en pointe, a movement that readily called to mind one of Kenji Bunch’s appealing string glissandos.

Bunch’s score, arranged for piano, violin, viola and cello, was intimate, expressive and rhythmically vital. Bunch seldom called on all four instruments to play at the same time. Instead, individual string instruments would usually solo with piano accompaniment. It was as if each instrument was a character engaged in reflective Shakespearean soliloquy. Alias’ musicians – pianist Melissa Rose, violinist Zeneba Bowers, violist Chris Farrell and cellist Matt Walker – played every note with color and deep feeling.

This weekend’s production is performed on a bare stage, with the men dancing bare-chested in black tights and the women in black leotards (Billy Ditty designed the elegantly simple costumes). The visual sparseness captured the essence of this production as an internal, psychological journey. Scott Leathers’ effective lighting always focused the eye where it needed to be.

Ballets presented in the Emergence series are often works in progress, so Vasterling is leading question-and-answer sessions after the performances to get audience feedback. There seemed to be little to complain about in the first act, which was emotionally riveting from beginning to end. The all-too-brief second act, on the other hand, seemed underdeveloped. One sensed that the narrative had been rushed to reach the dénouement. But that’s a small quibble, just so much sound and fury signifying not much fault at all.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Ballet presents Macbeth, featuring the choreography of Paul Vasterling and music of Kenji Bunch. Performances are Friday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 18 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Martin Center for Nashville Ballet, 3630 Redmon St. Tickets are $28 are available 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.

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