BWW Reviews: Sansone and Stuart Lay Claim to Ownership of Nashville Ballet's RITE OF SPRING

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Mollie Sansone and Christopher Stuart on Friday night may have laid claim-both literally and figuratively-to "ownership" (however that may be perceived) of Nashville Ballet with their absolutely stunning and completely confident performances in the company's staging of Salvatore Aiello's exquisitely primal Rite of Spring.

Inspired by the original work choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and performed to the glorious music composed by Igor Stravinsky for the original Ballets Russes production, Nashville Ballet's rendition of Rite of Spring further underscores the company's artistic range and the depth of artistic director Paul Vasterling's bench, which is exemplified by Kayla Rowser and Jon Upleger in his thrilling, stirring Firebird that opens the evening's twin-bill of ballets.

With this weekend's performances marking the "retirement" of Christine Rennie and Eddie Mikrut (the married couple move on to other career challenges hereafter, including their new roles as parents of one particularly adorable newborn), who over the years have been lauded by both audiences and critics for their superb artistry and devotion to their craft-add to this the news that ballerina Caylan Cheadle will leave performance behind to become the children's program coordinator for the School of Nashville Ballet-this seems to be a time of transition for Nashville Ballet, lending further gravitas to the proceedings taking place on the expansive stage of TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall.

Stravinsky's dual scores are performed with their expected and customary skill by the award-winning musicians of the Nashville Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Nathan Fifield (known throughout the country for his work with numerous ballet companies), imbuing that time-honored music with a palpable freshness and exhilaration.

Vasterling continues to impress with his bold, perhaps even audacious, choices for the company. Equally adept at staging classical ballets-and creating contemporary works that rival those of the old masters-and the creation of new and somehow alarming (for lack of a better word) works that consistently force his dancers to newer and greater heights, Vasterling pushes the envelope beautifully at every turn, challenging his audiences in the process. As a result, every performance by Nashville Ballet is something new, giving both the dancers and their rapt audiences more to consider, more to grasp and more to experience.

This weekend's performances-"All Stravinsky/All The Time"-of Rite of Spring and Vasterling's own Firebird (which, since its original staging some years ago justifiably has dominated my list of favorite works by the choreographer) dovetail exquisitely into each other, the primal sensuality and blatant humanity expressed in both ensuring the perfect pairing of the two.

Stravinsky's score for Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913, is considered the seminal ballet score of the 20th century (legend tells us that its initial performance prompted a near riot, so scandalously different and innovative was it) with its use of new and unexpected rhythms and dissonance that provide the musical accompaniment for Aiello's startling movements (staged here by ballet Master Timothy Rinehart Yeager, who was part of Aiello's original company for the ballet) which are, at once, angular and precise yet daringly erotic and unexpected.

Sansone and Stuart, who have established themselves as essential members of Vasterling's troupe of dancers, are paired in Part Two of Rite of Spring to spectacular effect, their obvious trust of each other adding energy and vitality to their performance.

Sansone's completely raw portrayal of "The Chosen One" in Aiello's ballet allows her to show her amazing skills to perfection. As beautiful and expressive as she has been in previous appearances, in Rite of Spring she zealously lays bare her artistic soul, thus elevating her performance to a starmaking turn, the likes of which only a chosen few are lucky enough to witness.

We first see Sansone during Part Two's "Dance of the Maidens" (exquisitely performed by Sarah Cordia, KrisSy Johnson Dodge, Julia Eisen, Katie Eliason, Alexandra Meister, Kayla Rowser, Andrea Vierra and Katie Vasilopoulos), during which she emerges as the central focus of the movement in her thoroughly committed performance.

Stuart, as the piece's Young Warrior-just as in Nijinsky's original, Aiello's Rite of Spring focuses on ancient pagan rituals that celebrate the cycles of life and death in a wondrous, awe-inspiring world that is only vaguely comprehended and understood-represents the cyclical renewal brought about by  constant change and the evolution of humankind's existence. With the birth of the Young Warrior (vividly portrayed onstage, with the alluringly exotic Vasilopoulos as the earth mother figure), the stage is set for his struggle for dominance of the tribe, which is exemplified in his extraordinary battle with the Chieftain, danced with athletic skill and artistic bravado by the handsome Eddie Mikrut.

Quite frankly, Stuart has never been better. He exudes confidence and displays the power of his stage presence throughout his performance, showing his strengths as a dancer in the process. His impressive flexibility, coupled with his no-holds-barred exuberance, makes that battle with the Chieftain one of the most breathlessly compelling examples of the power of dance that you're likely to see any time soon.

When he and Sansone are finally given the opportunity to challenge one another, they do so with precision and skill, that inspired pairing allowing each to soar. Sansone's Chosen One-so named because she will be sacrificed to the gods to ensure continued earthly prosperity-is no passive virgin, rather she exemplifies the Alpha Female just as certainly as Stuart has proven himself to be the Alpha Male. Thus, they are brought to their cataclysmic onstage climax in a blend of fiery sexuality and unequaled physical power.

Monica Kane Cunningham and Linda Lindsay's costumes (recreated by Linda Coulter) for Rite of Spring help to create the onstage world of pagan rituals, while spotlighting the physical attributes of the company's members, who are lit so evocatively and atmospherically by Daniel Murray and Scott Leathers' lighting design. Georgia Williams' artistic scenic design is recreated stylishly by Grave Anzelmo.

Vasterling's Firebird, staged by Sharyn Mahoney and Allison Zamorski, which was premiered by Nashville Ballet in 1997, remains just as awe-inspiring  (if not more so) 15 years later as it did in that first performance-that is has remained so vivid in my memory since then is testament to the sheer artistry on display in Vasterling's take on what he referred to in pre-curtain remarks as one of the world's first fairy tales.

The young prince of the original Firebird is replaced in Vasterling's vision of the piece by a young "everyman," thus bringing the story closer to the hearts of his audience while making it all the more accessible. With the always impressive Jon Upleger dancing the role of the central figure, whose life is forever changed by the other-worldly Firebird (the hauntingly lovely Kayla Rowser adds yet another impressive role to her ever-growing resume), who helps him maneuver the world in which he lives, showing him the various permutations of love, temptation and redemption that exist concurrently in that world.

What makes Firebird so perfectly paired with Rite of Spring-in addition, of course, to the shared lineage of Stravinsky's music-are those same themes of love, temptation and redemption (Vasterling's way of reminding us their continued omnipresence? Perhaps.) and the ritualistic earthiness and barely contained sexuality that reverberates through both.

As the Firebird, Rowser is set apart from the realities of the earthbound lives represented throughout the work, and she remains closer in tone and personality to classical ballet, while Vasterling lends his contemporary eye-the very evocation of his own artistic sensibilities-to those earthly figures encountered by Upleger in his sometimes tortured journey through life. It's an extraordinarily imaginative approach that brings the original story headlong into the 21st century, even with its late 20th century pedigree.

Together, Rowser and Upleger show off their superb line and flexibility with elan, each performing their roles with immense style and passion. Both Rowser and Upleger possess the almost indefinable stage presence that is best described as "it."

Rowser and Upleger are surrounded by the company's other dancers in a display of talent that would be considered alarming if we didn't see it so consistently from Nashville Ballet. Congratulations-and more than a little gratitude-is due Christopher Butler, Augusto Cezar, Caylan Cheadle, Sarah Cordia, Damian Drake, KrisSy Johnson Dodge, Julia Eisen, Brendon LaPier, Alexandra Meister, Mark Allyn Nimmo, Mollie Sansone, Christopher Stuart, Kevin Terry, Katie Vasilopoulos, Judson Veach, Andrea Vierra and Cassia Wilson for their impeccable articulation of Vasterling's creativity.

Vasterling's scenic concept is brought to life through the efforts of Grace Anzelmo and Drops Everythng, while the gifTEd Scott Leathers lights the stage expressively, and David Heuvel and Aubrey Hyde's designs perfectly costume the dancers.

Rite of Spring and Firebird.  Presented by Nashville Ballet at Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through April 29. For details, go to www.nashvilleballet.com.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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