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BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's 2016 ATTITUDE Series

Without doubt, excessive exaggeration or hyperbole, Nashville is a veritable "city of dreams," a place where creativity thrives and collaboration is a way of life. Perhaps in no other way is this synergy expressed more artfully than in Nashville Ballet's Attitude series - playing through Valentine's Day at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre - which captures the very essence of Music City, encapsulating it in the music of local songwriters and then translating it for an audience via the ephemeral nature of dance.

City of Dreams, conceived by Nashville Ballet artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling (and set to the song of the same name by Victoria Banks) is the highlight of the 2016 Attitude Series: a sometimes bold and brash interpretation of Banks' beautifully written anthem to her chosen home town that somehow retains the very feeling of life in Nashville, and which is remarkably brought to life through the expressive choreography of principal dancer Christopher Stuart, whose burgeoning choreographic career bodes just as well for audiences as it does for his future.

The staging of City of Dreams is awe-inspiring and creative, as audiences have come to expect from Vasterling. Thanks to Vasterling's ever-evolving creative spirit, in collaboration with Erika Wollam Nichols and the Bluebird Café - where the heart of country music's mecca beats with resonance, hope and honesty - the stage of the Polk Theatre is transformed into the Bluebird, the performance venue's intimacy translated onto the stage replete with a cadre of hit song-makers performing some of their finest works, surrounded by an audience as well as the dancers of Nashville Ballet.

It's stunning in its simplicity, yet completely impressive in the complexity of the efforts. Stuart is joined by Brian Enos, Banning Bouldin and Gina Patterson to choreograph the nine movements of City of Dreams, each movement set to a different song written by Banks, J.T. Harding or Georgia Middleman. The songs - which may or may not be familiar to ballet audiences - nonetheless show the range of musical composition in Nashville, yet each one is certain to touch the heart of soul of the audience in a myriad of ways.

It is as if Vasterling and his quartet of choreographers, the three songwriters (who are joined onstage by guitarist Gary Burr), and the company of dancers - along with Nichols and her Bluebird cohorts - have chosen to give audiences a balletic insight into what makes Nashville the cultural and creative hub that it has been for decades, from an altogether historical and original perspective that somehow remains fresh, vital and completely unexpected.

Their result is an amazing night of dance and music that is transportive and transformative, at times beautifully ethereal and confidently down-to-earth. To take on a project of this nature and scope is daunting, requiring a fearlessness from all involved to ensure the overall success.

Brian Enos' choreography for "The Wheel," another Banks tune, features the entire company bidding their audience entre into the wondrous world of The Bluebird and the smaller-than-you-might-think community of musicmakers in Music City, while the penultimate number (performed to Middleman's "I'm In") is a rousing, joyful creation that some spotlights the Nashville Ballet company to deliver a showstopping impact.

Patterson's dance to "I'll Have What She's Having" gives Molly Sansone and Brett Sjoblom the opportunity to show off their splendid talents and to highlight their ideal pairing for the piece. Meanwhile, Judson Veach, Julia Eisen, Keenan McLaren Hartman and Alexandra Meister provide support and some perhaps unexpected comic relief that adds to Middleman's song (which, she tells us, was inspired by a certain scene in a certain movie starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal).

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Patterson's choreography for Banks' "Saints and Angels," which debuted on country radio shortly before 9/11, that dramatizes the struggle to find grace amid a turbulent world and which is danced with the right amount of emotional heft and artful integrity by Eisen, Hartman, Meister, Sjoblom, Veach and Katie Vasilopoulos (who really comes into her own as a company member with this series).

The movement created by Bouldin for two different pieces - Middleman's "Dare to Dance Alone," featuring Sarah Cordia, Augusto Cezar, Jon Upleger and Gerald Watson, is beautifully performed, showcasing Cordia to perfection with superb support by the three men; and Harding's "Somewhere With You" is brought to life with heartrending and effective dancing by Julia Mitchell, Upleger and Nathan Young.

Stuart's growth as a choreographer is noteworthy for his continued evolution as an artist who clearly understands and appreciates the strengths of the dancers, allowing them to show off their consummate skilla in a manner that exudes confidence and commitment. His choreography for "City of Dreams" is exquisite, evocative and powerful - clearly, city leaders should seize the opportunity to trumpet the continued upward trajectory of Music City with this exemplary work that shows off Nashville's multiple creative communities at their zenith.

Joining City of Dreams on the 2016 Attitude series are two other works that differ in tone and style, to be certain, but which thematically dovetail nicely with one another to deliver a jolt of energy that is called for in midwinter (particularly this frigid midwinter which is colder and frostier than most we've experienced in 30-some years in Nashville).

James Sewell's Chopin Tributes (stayed by Chris Hannon and accompanied by pianist Robert Marler) at first, seems typically classical and coolly reserved yet as it is danced by three stunning pairs of Nashville Ballet dancers reveals a lighthearted sense of humor that engages the audiences while providing the artists with a chance to display a sense of adventurous fun in the process. Keen McLaren Hartman, Brett Sjoblom, Kayla Rowser, Nathan Young, Daniella Zlatarev and Augusto Cezar show off their tremendous abilities as dancers, to be sure, but perhaps most compelling is their shared sense of whimsy blended with athleticism. There are also some classically trained examples of the much-maligned, yet much-beloved jazz hands that ratchets up the whimsy factor exponentially.

The company's athleticism is further demonstrated by Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort - created to commemorate the second centenary of Mozart's death for the Salzburg Festival - in which six men dance with fencing foils as their partners in a cleverly staged piece that casts the ages-old battle of the sexes in a refreshing and perhaps unexpectedly contemporary way. Kevin Michael Terry, Christopher Stuart, Nicholas Scheur, Brett Sjoblom, Jon Upleger and Judson Veach impressively command the stage - with a virile elegance that has come to be expected from the men of Nashville Ballet - while remaining in complete control of their foils, if not their hearts. They are joined by Julia Mitchell, Mollie Sansone, Keenan McLaren Hartman, Kayla Rowser, Katie Vasilopoulos and Julia Eisen who are called upon to show off their own estimable stage presence and immense control, underscored by a palpable sense of elan.

  • Attitude. Presented by Nashville Ballet in creative partnership with The Bluebird Cafe, at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre, Nashville. Through February 14. For details, go to or call (615) 782-4040. Running time: 2 hours (with two 15-minute intermissions).

all photos by Karyn Photography

About Nashville Ballet's Attitude: Nashville Ballet's acclaimed Attitude series will shake up its annual performance - slated for this weekend at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre - to feature a collaboration with Music City's world-famous Bluebird Café for a unique series of dances. Due to the popularity of the series, a Valentine's Day evening performance has been added to the original schedule, with a total of four performances February 12-14.

The 2016 Attitude series marks Nashville Ballet's first collaboration with The Bluebird Cafe since 2007, and the ballet will convey the look and feel of one of the world's preeminent listening rooms. Songwriters Victoria Banks, J.T. Harding and Georgia Middleman will perform a selection of their biggest hits in typical Bluebird fashion, a writers' round featuring a stripped down sound, the stories behind their songs and spontaneous collaboration.

"As songwriters, we're always thinking about how we're making people feel and how to use words and melodies in a way that will make people connect with our music," Banks said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how the choreographers use their own interpretations of the songs to add an extra visual element to the performance to make people connect in an even deeper way."

Hit songs made famous by country superstars like Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire and Sara Evans will provide the soundtrack to new choreography by Nashville Ballet's Christopher Stuart, New Dialect's Banning Bouldin, Brian Enos and Gina Patterson. The piece, entitled City of Dreams, is named after Banks' song that was recorded by more than 40 artists to support Tennessee flood relief in 2010.

"The overarching theme is City of Dreams, because Nashville is that," says Erika Wollam Nichols, The Bluebird Cafe chief operating officer and general manager. "Nashville is the place where people come with dreams, even if you're not a songwriter or musician. The energy of chasing your dreams is here."

Attitude will also feature Petite Mort by famed Czech/Dutch choreographer Ji?í Kylián set to music by Mozart. The work for six couples imbues contemporary movement with a classical sensibility and a bold, modern elegance. James Sewell's Chopin Tributes rounds out the program with a piece that was created to honor the Polish composer's 200th birthday. The ballet, accompanied by pianist Robert Marler, juxtaposes Chopin's classical sound with playful, athletic movement in an unexpected way.

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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