BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's Modern Masters
Sunday, April 27th at 2 pm in Tennessee Performing Art Center's Jackson Hall, Nashville Ballet presented Modern Masters. The program included choreography by Artistic Director Paul Vasterling set to Ben Folds' commissioned score and works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, George Balanchine, and Val Caniparoli. The Nashville Symphony accompanied the program. Partnerships were a central theme from composer to choreographer, dancer to dancer, and movement to melody.
In a video introduction for The Ben Folds Project: Concerto, Vasterling stated that he choreographed each of the three sections with a narrative in mind but left that story to audience interpretation. Folds played piano on stage, which acknowledged the collaboration but unfortunately blocked view of dancers at times. The first movement featured Owen Thorne, often lit by a spotlight, with the corps moving in the shadows around him. Dressed in black, dancers appeared in leotards and unitards, with skirts and pants added as the movement progressed. Folds played a solo, including the absence of sound at times. Vasterling created striking sequences; one in which male dancers leaped across the stage one by one before making an about-face, weaving around the incoming line of men. Later, two lines of dancers moved in complementary geometric patterns, slowly advancing from upstage. It finished in tableau, Thorne's face lit by a spotlight as he looked up, the corps folded around him.
The trio of Kayla Rowser, Scheuer, Upleger in the second movement included stunning lifts. Upleger and Scheuer's dynamic as they lifted and turned Rowser appeared fluid and gentle. The energy in this movement was softer and lighter than in the previous section. The trio moved at high speed but maintained a sustained movement quality that defied the momentum of challenging lifts. This section also used tableaus to frame partnering. It ended with dancers still in motion.
The third movement picked up pace with a sensual quality of movement. Hip and torso articulation transitioned between the sharpness of fouettés and battements. Brett Sjoblom and Gerald Watson partnered Mollie Sansone; running downstage holding her in the air as she swung her legs forward in a split. Folds stood as he played, reaching inside the piano to manipulate the strings.
Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa introduced her pas de deux from Bloom, via video, stating that a vacation in Bali inspired the movement vocabulary, particularly the Hindu tradition, puja (which means gratitude in Sanskrit), involving leaving flowers on one's door. Rowser represented the flowers, while Benjamin Wetzel represented the caretaker nurturing the flower to life. Ochoa utilized undulating arms and head isolations seen in Balinese dance, representing Hindu deities. Rowser and Wetzel rarely made eye contact, with Rowser often looking away as they moved together. Rowser's transformation as a flower manifested in bourrées away from Wetzel, bowing before she exited. Red petals fell to the stage.
I last saw Duo Concertant in 2017, for former New York City Ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild's retirement. Seeing Balanchine's work away from his home excitingly challenged this company. Nashville Ballet dancers are grounded, pliable, almost earthy at times in their approach. Here, they embraced the speed, lightness, and attack required by Balanchine, tag-teamed with the complexity of Stravinsky's score. Port de bras significantly comprise the movement; Scheuer and Julia Eisen were playful but precise, as their arms mirrored each other and moved in opposition. Their first set of walks away from the piano was incredibly dynamic. Walking is often a missed opportunity and/or reveals dancers' nerves. Eisen and Scheuer neither rushed nor belabored their strolls, but relished in the articulating and pointing of feet as they moved. Adding Balanchine works to a company's repertoire is no small feat, as ballet master Denise Eason noted in the work's introduction.
Val Caniparoli's The Lottery combined the formal structure of ballet with a post-modern experiment. Based on author Shirley Jackson's story about ritualized violence, it ends with a member of the community being killed based on drawing from a lottery. The lottery is "live" so each dancer must be prepared to perform a dramatic solo depending on their draw. Caniparoli's movement is beautiful and fluid; further contrasting the heartbreaking experience of institutionalized aggression. Dancers swept across the stage, constantly shifting direction, using arcing port de bras to reverse course. Attitude turns drove dancers around each other, extending into arabesque at the last possible second. Upleger received the task of initiating the lottery; continually returning the box of "tickets" center stage as dancers delayed the inevitable. Micro-aggressions occurred, mostly domestic in nature, slightly forceful, such as a male dancer tugging his female partner in a direction she clearly resisted. The suspense built for both dancers and audience; Logan Hillman drew the lottery. The loser's solo is short and chaotic; he or she collapses to the ground and rocks fall to the stage for graphic effect. Caniparoli dwelled in the emotional turmoil of the story, rather than depicting every action of the narrative. Brutal but startlingly prescient, particularly in light of the events in the house of Balanchine where women (and some men), his precious stars, have found themselves physically assaulted, emotionally tormented, and publicly bullied. Caniparoli showed that systemic oppression isn't the luck of the draw - it is a game of rigged roulette. There were/are no winners.
Nicolas Scheuer, Kayla Rowser, and Jon Upleger in The Ben Folds Project: Concerto courtesy of company.