BWW Review: NASHVILLE BALLET's 'Lizzie Borden with The Raven'
Nashville Ballet dancers took to the aisles of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Polk Theater for Lizzie Borden with The Raven, Thursday, October 26th. Principal dancer Christopher Stuart's interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's seminal work led the evening, sharing an ominous closing motif with Artistic Director Paul Vasterling's rendition of Lizzie Borden's complicated life. In tandem with the Halloween season, the company uncovered "the darkness" of these characters, said Vasterling in a pre-performance video introduction.
Stuart sent dancers dressed in black descending through the audience. Hats, veils, and masks covered their faces. Poe's words dashed across the scrim, revealing the Narrator, Nathan Young, collapsed in an armchair. Accompanied by Alessandra Volpi on piano, Young promenaded in arabesque, stretching his arms in agony. His port des bras fluid, sustained. Stuart utilized demi-arabesque and attitude turns, catching his dancers in a spiraling diagonal from wrist to ankle. The Narrator petitioned Lenore (Julia Eisen); she emerged to life from her portrait. Lateral movement disrupted the intimacy of their pas de deux. They moved next to each other, not fully present with each other. Suddenly, Lenore dropped her hand and the dynamic of their duet shifted. Further disconnected, Lenore disappeared.
Kayla Rowser appeared as The Raven; her vocabulary more powerful than the others, but equally deliberate. The Raven frequently faced the Narrator, her hands brought across her masked face. The Raven led their pas de deux, he followed. Young's sorrowful arabesques nearly pulled his body apart; reaching, grasping in opposition. Rowser repeatedly lunged backwards in fourth position, her front leg striking towards Young. Lenore reemerged, danced alongside The Raven, in a continued mental torture of the Narrator. Lenore slipped behind The Raven and together they repeated The Raven's baleful gesture: hands brought in front of the face. Nathan Young's Narrator occupied an Albrecht sensibility, simultaneously in love with and at the mercy of a dead woman. Left alone, the Narrator huddled downstage. A dancer shrouded in black stood above him, his head tilting upward.
Vasterling acknowledged the complicated facts of Lizzie Borden's story. He unwound his narrative from her jumbled memory, a blitz of sadness and terror. Emily Bowland (clarinet), Sari De Leon-Reist (cello), and Alessandra Volpi (piano) accompanied the work. The corps de ballet as Ghosts and Shadows flocked around and away from Lizzie (Mollie Sansone). Functioning as Greek chorus, the Ghosts creepily mouthed along with the narration. Like split personalities, the Shadows continually interrupted Lizzie's actions. Dancers rose to releve, pulled by their pelvis, before tumbling over, their arms dangling as they ran forward. The ghost of Lizzie's mother, Julia Eisen, visited her in a tender pas de trois. Sydney Box played a young Lizzie. Lizzie's father (Jon Upleger) assaulted her; Lizzie's mother swooped into a grand plie to comfort her, Lizzie rested on her knee. Ghosts whisked between Lizzie and her mother; Lizzie's stepmother (Katie Vasilopoulos) and father dismissed her mother. The assaults from Lizzie's father continued; Vasterling left nothing for interpretation as Upleger repeatedly groped Sansone. He pushed her to the ground, wrapped himself around her, shuddering in completion. Lizzie sought solace from her stepmother, only to be pushed away. She received comfort from Bridget the maid (Sarah Cordia) but both women remained silent witnesses to Lizzie's pain.
Lupita Nyong'o wrote in her New York Times Op Ed on Harvey Weinstein, "abusers set the expectation for what is normal." Lizzie understood interaction with men as sexual and violent. When she encountered the Reverend, Judson Veach, Lizzie led with what her father taught her - mistaking sex for intimacy. Veach's Reverend rebuffed her advances. Instead, he engaged her romantically. Veach and Sansone joined with the Ghosts - masquerading as townspeople - in a game in which boys paraded around a girl standing on a chair, dropping a hat on the head of the boy she liked. On Lizzie's second turn, however, as she dropped the hat on what she thought was the Reverend's head, a Shadow took his place. Her psyche took its own turn. The men in her life confused her; they participated in similar gestures with very different outcomes. When the Reverend offered his hand to her, he took it gently before sweeping her around the room. When her father extended his hand to her, he yanked her arm through his, forcibly linking them together as he dominated her.
Mollie Sansone inhabited a Graham-like posture. Movement emanated from her pelvis, her torso coiling and uncoiling. Her character did not find the same kind of victory as Graham's protagonist in Errand into the Maze. She could not defeat the minotaur of her own psyche, winding through a maze of repressed memories. Sansone's light, swift movement balanced the heaviness of Lizzie's vocabulary. In reference to Lizzie Borden performing the murders of her parents naked to eliminate forensic materials, Sansone stripped bare. She climbed the risers, gripping the axe in confused desperation. The Ghosts clothed her in a brilliant red dress, with pearl necklaces and gloves. She stood authoritatively, tapping her parasol on the ground. A Shadow appeared behind her, as in Stuart's earlier work, shrouded in black, tilting his head. Each work ended in a question, curiosity. Both narratives opened well past the beginning of their characters' tales and surged beyond their ending. Simply a memory within which to wrestle.
Photo by Karyn Photography.