REVIEW: 'American Originals' from Nashville Ballet

REVIEW: 'American Originals' from Nashville Ballet

There is a moment during "Who Cares?" - the third offering in Nashville Ballet's chill-chasing winter series American Originals - that perfectly captures the joy that is possible only through dance: the radiant and irrepressible Kimberly Ratcliffe is so thoroughly enjoying herself while she trips the George Balanchine-choreographed light fantastic to George Gershwin's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" that you cannot help but be transported.

And is there any better way (save for a trip to the tropics) to escape winter's chill than by witnessing yet another artistic triumph from Nashville Ballet? Artistic director Paul Vasterling and his talented company transport their audience to the 1930s (and one contemporary side-trip - Vasterling's "Awaiting Redemption" - the program's second stanza) with American Originals, the winter series now onstage at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre. There are, in fact, so many heartwarming moments to be found in the joyful, musical program that you cannot help but leave the theatre with a lighter heart and, most defintely, more Spring in your step.

With each passing year and with each new offering, Vasterling and the other powers-that-be at Nashville Ballet gain new admirers for their troupe, whose skills are confidently and expertly highlighted by the choices made in regard to the company's repertoire. Clearly, Nashville Ballet has gained stature with its beautiful and much-lauded treatment of the classics, but it may well be contemporary offerings, such as those included in American Originals, that more assuredly showcase the company's extraordinary depth. Quite honestly, the panache with which each performance is delivered is awe-inspiring - and certain to lift the collective spirit and ward off even the most frigid temperatures.

While any Balanchine ballet is enough to excite the audience, and Nashville Ballet has earned its justifiable reputation with its flawless interpretations of the master's works, performing his tribute to the music of George Gershwin is like gilding the lily. "Who Cares?" - featuring a veritable "greatest hits" of songs from the Gershwin canon - is expressively performed by the company's dancers, who interpret Balanchine's movements beautifully, bringing the timeless tunes to glorious life onstage.

Created by Balanchine in 1970, "Who Cares?" also showcases the dual natures of his work; it was he who first bridged the divide between classical ballet and musical theatre, which here is presented at its zenith. It makes one long for a future collaboration between Nashville Ballet and Tennessee Repertory Theatre (are you listening, Rene Copeland and Paul Vasterling?) who could truly bring a work like "On Your Toes" to rich and vibrant life for Nashville audiences. Perhaps it's a pipe dream, but a compelling one nonetheless.

The aforementioned Ratcliffe (whom I fear I may heap too much praise upon, but I just cannot help myself, so in love am I with her exquisite artistry) dances sublimely in her solo moments and in her duet with the handsome and versatile Jon Upleger to "Who Cares?"; they are a perfect pair whose artistry and commitment elevates anything they do onstage as individuals, but as a team they are amazing.

If any performance can match Ratcliffe's, clearly it's Sadie Bo Harris' peripatetic "Fascinating Rhythm" that features her impeccable technique to perfection. Mollie Sansone and Brendon Lapier's duet to "Embraceable You" is a romantic romp, perfect for the Valentine's Weekend slate of performances.

The ensemble's performance of "Strike Up the Band" is a lovely opening to the piece and the subsequent performances of the ladies' ensemble and the men's ensemble, to "Somebody Loves Me" and "Bidin' My Time," are theatrically presented and energetically danced, despite some obvious (though forgivable) missteps. The entire cast's "I Got Rhythm" is a valentine to the theatricality of Gershwin's music and the perfect accompaniment to Balanchine's choreography, which truly blends the dual and competing worlds of show business and ballet - to complete artistic success.

"Filling Station," the 1938 work choreographed by Lew Christensen and set to the evocative music of Virgirl Thomson (with a wonderfully comic libretto by Lincoln Kirstein that takes the action straight from a comic book) gives Christopher Stuart one of his best opportunities to show his athleticism, grace and sprightly sense of humor as Mac, the filling station attendant whose filling station becomes the setting for an entertaining evening of expressively clever dance. He is given able support by Brendon LaPier and Robert Poe, as his truck driver friends; the three men give typically broad-shouldered, yet somehow tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly on-target performances.

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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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