Dance Review: Nashville Ballet takes flight in ‘Swan Lake’

swan2Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake may well be the quintessential classical ballet. This sumptuous spectacle seemingly has everything a balletic bird watcher could want: beautiful ballerinas in snow white tutus; a fairy tale prince and heartless villain; and, of course, the famed Russian composer’s hyperemotional score.

But what most recommends Nashville Ballet’s current production is its sheer humanity. Artistic director Paul Vasterling understands implicitly that Swan Lake is a serious emotional drama, and so he calls on his principal dancers to perform with a compelling mix of tragic intensity and poetic poignancy.

During Thursday night’s final dress rehearsal, Nashville Ballet’s beautiful ballerinas danced as if their collective lives depended on it. The production opens Friday, Oct. 17 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall and repeats Saturday afternoon and evening and Sunday afternoon.

Swam Lake’s story is familiar enough: The beautiful princess Odette is transformed into a swan by the foul (or is that fowl?) sorcerer Baron von Rothbart. Only true love, in the form of an ultimate sacrifice from heroic Prince Siegfried, can save her. Nashville Ballet’s production incorporates some of Marius Petipa’s and Lev Ivanov’s best-known choreography, with Vasterling supplying some of his own choreography (in Petipa’s and Ivanov’s style) in Acts 1 and 3.

swan3Naturally, the success of any Swan Lake depends on its prima ballerina. On Thursday night, Kayla Rowser danced the role of Odette with grace, vulnerability and unmannered lyricism. Moreover, she tossed off her dual role of Odile (the ballet repertory’s notorious “Black Swan”) with just the right amount of saucy attitude.

The lithe, petite Rowser was a perfect physical match for Christopher Stuart, her muscular, handsome Prince Siegfried, so their partnering was stylish and, at its best, magical. Above all, these two artists shared chemistry, which revealed itself in dancing that was always deeply felt and sensitive.

Stuart, an accomplished choreographer and director in his own right, was especially impressive, conveying the emotional urgency of his character without resorting to moodiness or melodrama. (Rowser and Stuart will alternate the principal roles this weekend with Sadie Bo Sommer and Jon Upleger).

The gorgeous ballerinas in the corps de ballet were magnificent. In both of this ballet’s famous white scenes (Acts 2 and 4), they beautifully framed the principal dancers with their subtly shifting geometric shapes and patterns. Their every movement was filled with linear elegance and rhythmic vitality.

swan4Mark Allyn Nimmo brought a certain bat-like darkness to his portrayal of Rothbart.  What I liked best about his performance was his larger-than-life presence, his ability to convey villainy without mustache-twisting cartoonishness.

Alexandra Meister and Katie Vasilopoulos were standouts in the pas de trois, dancing with effortless sparkle and joy. Brett Sjoblom (Jester) and Jordan Wooten (Tutor) both performed with lighthearted humor.

David Heuvel’s costumes suggested plush, Renaissance pageantry. Holly Highfill’s scenery, meanwhile, created an idyllic fairy tale world. Conductor Emil de Cou led the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with sweep and color.

PHOTOS: Karyn Kipley

IF YOU GO

Nashville Ballet presents Swan Lake. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17 and Saturday Oct. 18; and 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18 and Sunday, Oct. 19 at TPAC, 505 Deaderick St. For tickets, click 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.