BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's CARMINA BURANA and LAYLA & THE MAJNUN

Nashville Ballet's Layla & The Majnun - photo by Heather Thorne

Nashville Ballet brings its 30th anniversary season to a close with two works choreographed by artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling: a dazzlingly intricate and grand revival of Carmina Burana, set to the timeless music of Carl Orff, and the world premiere of Layla & The Majnun, which features the music of composer Richard Danielpour, which recreates one of the world's oldest love stories from Persian culture.

The world premiere of Layla & The Majnun opens the evening's program with a lyrical, yet commanding, performance that explores the ballet's thematic structure of unrequited love, unyielding devotion and romantic intrigue amid a search for spiritual enlightenment. Danielpour's score for the ballet - commissioned by Nashville Ballet - exquisitely captures the duality of the ballet's libretto, which with its cultural underpinnings helps to create a sense of the familiar among the foreign aspects of a story that's largely unknown to its audience.

Judson Veach, Jon Upleger, Kayla Rowser
and Brett Sjoblom in Layla & The Majnun
- photo by Heather Thorne

The themes of Layla & The Majnun are universal in scope and yet intimate in Vasterling's interpretation. Thus, audiences are immediately transported to another time and place, all the while deeply invested in the characters portrayed in Vasterling's beautifully crafted ballet. The ethereal and thoroughly committed Kayla Rower is stunning as Layla, "the beloved one," a young woman of royal birth who first meets Quays (danced with elan and vigor by Brett Sjoblom) as a devil-may-care young man who becomes so enraptured by Layla that he ultimately goes mad with his desire for her so that he becomes known as The Majnun (the mad man). Layla and Quays never touch, instead they perform an almost ritualistic dance of their unrequited love that is heartbreaking in its realism, and inspiring in its artistic aspirations.

When Layla is presented to her Groom (the graceful and elegant Judson Veach) via the prearranged marriage planned by her father (Jon Upleger performs the role with a sense of seamless dexterity that is evident in his every performance), Quays descends fully into madness - or perhaps he is transfigured by the experience, transported to a higher plane.

Brett Sjoblom and Kayla Rowser - photo by Heather Thorne

Engaging the audience with his expected aplomb, Vasterling's new work features Nashville Ballet's company of dancers at the zenith of their capabilities and the ballet moves quickly as the tale of Layla and her mad man unfolds onstage. Clad in Holly Hynes' beautifully designed costumes - white, flowing and diaphanous creations that add to the otherworldly effect of the piece - and lighted evocatively by Scott Leathers, the dancers' effortless movements belie the months of hard work and perseverance that have led them to this bright, shining moment.

Soprano Julie Cox's lustrous performance adds to the depth of the ballet's storytelling and her crystalline voice adds to the drama of the piece with an almost unexpected ease.

Nashville Ballet's company of dancers - which includes Sarah Cordia, Julia Eisen, Keenan McLaren Hartman, Alexandra Meister, Julia Mitchell, Mollie Sansone, Kate Vasiloupolos, Daniella Zlaterev Augusto Cezar, Damian Drake, Nicolas Scheuer, Kevin Michael Terry, Gerald Watson and Nathan Young - have never appeared more transcendent than they do in Layla & The Majnun, telling a heartrending story of love, devotion and enlightenment.

"O, Fortuna" from Nashville Ballet's
Carmina Burana - photo by Tim Broekema

Carmina Burana, first performed by Nashville Ballet in 2010, is perhaps Vasterling's choreographic piece de resistance, for in it he is able to show off his company of dancers to the very best of their abilities. Carmina Burana is a remarkable piece of theater: amazingly complex and intricate, it's a demanding work of art that elicits vociferous responses from the audience and leaves them emotionally spent just as certainly as it pushes the dancers to leave everything on the stage at its conclusion.

Carl Orff's resoundingly direct score - based upon a collection of poems written between the 11th and 13th centuries that were discovered in Bavaria in the early 19th century - has been controversial since its 1936 debut (its subsequent success during the Nazi era has rendered it the object of much discussion and scholarship about both Orff's role in the national socialist movement, as well as his claims of helping to fund and promote the White Rose resistance movement in Germany). But no one can discount the tremendous impact of his composition and Orff's contention that Carmina Burana exemplifies the nature of the work to create the sense that the importance of music, movement and libretto are interchangeable and co-equals in the creative process.

As a result, the music provides the perfect score for a balletic interpretation of the piece, the very movements helping any choreographer to set the steps perfectly to the music, its rhythms practically demanding the movement that bring the score to life. Vasterling's expressive choreography, which has been notably and critically acclaimed in the various works he has created for Nashville Ballet during his illustrious career at the head of the company, is ideally suited to Orff's music. His choreography for Carmina Burana is startling in its intensity, even while it may seem deceptively easy when performed by the equally accomplished dancers of Nashville Ballet.

Accompanied by the musicians of the acclaimed Nashville Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Nathan Fifield, the dancers notably are given ample musical support, and with the combined voices of the Nashville Symphony Chorus and the Nashville Children's Choir, along with the glorious voices of soloists Julie Cox (soprano), Tim Waurick (tenor) and Mark Whatley (baritone), the performance is one of near-epic proportions, the various collaborations of the assembled artists exemplifying the aims of Orff to create a theatricality unmatched in the intervening years since its debut.

Eric Harris' design aesthetic for Carmina Burana provides a tremendously imaginative visual element to the production, that is given the ideal illumination by Scott Leathers' lighting design. Together, the two men create a setting for the ballet that helps to immerse the audience in the experience.

Particularly compelling in this revival is Julia Eisen's eye-poppingly gorgeous performance as Lady Fortune in the ballet's first movement, set to the widely known "O, Fortuna," which with its driving rhythms and almost martial flavor has been used for decades to accompany pageantry amid much pomp and circumstance.

Despite some noticeable errors during Thursday night's final dress rehearsal that we reviewed - and which we have no doubt will be excised in time for tonight's gala opening performance (there's something magical about opening night, to be sure) - Vasterling's choreography is performed with zealous attention to detail, affording the dancers an opportunity to put all their many talents on display. Sarah Cordia (as Flora) and Nicolas Scheuer (as The Sun) dance with confident theatricality, while Judson Veach is impressively athletic and forceful as the Medieval Soloist and Christopher Stuart shows off his superb command of the stage as the Tavern Soloist.

As the Swan, Katie Vasilopoulos has never appeared more beautiful onstage, acting with an impish wit that is underscored by her gorgeous dancing in what seems to be an imaginative take on Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, transported back Medieval times to tease and taunt a bevy of handsome admirers. Mollie Sansone - her expressive face showing off her passion for the dance - is exquisitely cast as Cupid, performing a presumably lighter-than-air movement with an easy and unforced grace.

Kayla Rowser and Jon Upleger perform the ballet's final pas de deux with expected charm and beauty, exuding confidence in their pairing with an extraordinarily uplifting and inspiring performance.

Yet it is Eisen's startling turn as Lady Fortune - and the entire company's performance of the "O, Fortuna" reprise - that is likely to send the audience home with a sense of majesty and artistic fulfillment in its collective heart. The power of dance to transform and transport is particularly moving in Vasterling's choreography for this familiar piece of music that truly elevates the piece and which firmly establishes Carmina Burana as his artistic masterwork.

About the show Nashville Ballet concludes its 30th anniversary season with Carmina Burana, a collaboration of epic proportions, that will be performed at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, April 22-24. In addition to Carmina Burana, the seasond finale features the world premiere of Nashville Ballet artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling's Layla & The Majnun.

Carmina Burana will feature 148 singers from The Nashville Symphony Chorus, 61 musicians from The Nashville Symphony, 25 choristers from the Nashville's Children's Choir and three guest vocalists, alongside 24 dancers from Nashville Ballet. Based on a collection of poems written by clergy and theology students in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, Carmina Burana examines love, fortune and the cycle of life.

The ballet is set to the iconic music of German composer Carl Orff written in the 1930s. The opening piece, O Fortuna, has made its mark as one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the world. Its strong percussive elements, ancient lyrics and ominous tone make it a frequent choice for movie and television placements, video games and sports games.

Fortuna is visually represented by the Wheel of Fortune in the ballet, a constant reminder of fate's fickle nature. Additionally, the original parchment material that the poems were written on inspired portions of former Nashville Ballet dancer Eric Harris' costume designs and Vasterling's choreography.

Carmina Burana will be complemented by the world premiere of Layla & The Majnun. With roots in fifth century Persia, Layla & The Majnun has become one of the most popular love stories of the Middle Eastern world (similar to Romeo and Juliet in the West). The ballet, which explores themes of unrequited love, devotion and spiritual enlightenment, is presented to original music by renowned American composer Richard Danielpour.

Tickets for Carmina Burana with Layla & The Majnun start at $28 and may be purchased in person at the TPAC box office in downtown Nashville, by phone at (615) 782-4040 or at

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis