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BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's Stunning Performance of Stephen Mills' LIGHT

BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's Stunning Performance of Stephen Mills' LIGHT
-photo by Heather Thorne

When I was seven or eight years old, I remember my father loading our television into the trunk of the family car and driving across the Tennessee River to Savannah where his old friend Joe repaired it so that we could continue to see the world, in black and white as it were, from our living room in the small, rural town in which we lived. Somehow, my most vivid memory of that particular trip was a series of numbers that I noticed tattooed on Joe's arm, which prompted me to ask my parents about their meaning. The numbers, I was told, were written on Joe's forearm so that he could be readily identified by his Nazi captors in the Polish concentration camp where he and his family had been sent to serve - and ostensibly, to die - as slave laborers. But Joe, the lone member of his family to do so, somehow managed to survive the camps, ultimately moving to West Tennessee where he and his wife and children somehow flourished despite the inhumanity of what he had experienced.

Some 30 years later, I was sitting in a tastefully appointed and decorated living room in West Nashville, listening intently as a woman named Rosemary told me of her life - in the same concentration camp - and the events that led to her family being sent there for the same reason as Joe and his: they were Jews, considered infidels and inferiors by the Nazi regime. As Rosemary recounted her experiences for me, including her subsequent release in 1945 (in fact, I was interviewing her for a story in Query, the lesbian and gay newspaper published by my partner and me, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps by Allied soldiers at the end of World War II), I recall the sense of amazement I felt as Rosemary calmly related her horrific tale, heartfelt and reflective in every phrase and intimate in detail. She talked of her journey to America, where she met her husband, and about their subsequent move to Nashville, where their lives, too, flourished.

The stories of Joe and Rosemary have lived on in my memory - and in my heart, truth be told - in all those intervening years since and I have struggled to understand how they found the strength to overcome such adversity, how they were able to live full and productive lives, filled with love and respect for everyone around them, even after suffering from the indignities they'd suffered as young people. How, I've always questioned, were they able to come to terms with the past in order to live again, to love again, to somehow become whole again...

BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's Stunning Performance of Stephen Mills' LIGHT
Chris Stuart
- photo by Heather Thorne

The two of them were on my mind on Friday night, as Nashville Ballet unveiled its 2018 Attitude Series, featuring Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project - conceived and choreographed by Stephen Mills - easily one of the most moving, heartrending performance pieces ever witnessed, which touched on the same themes consistent with the two stories of the people whose lives so genuinely affected my own. Exploring with redemptive grace and genuine authenticity, the emotional impact of the Holocaust, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project very adroitly shows the human toll of history while somehow reflecting the hope and courage of people who refuse to allow it to destroy their lives or to wrest away the memories of all those loved ones no longer with them.

Some 90 captivating minutes of creative, imaginative movement, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project features the superb dancers of Nashville Ballet at their finest, bringing to life history in such a way that left their audiences rapt, riveted to the smallest of moments and the largest of themes as they are conveyed onstage to a stunning, stirring musical score.

BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's Stunning Performance of Stephen Mills' LIGHT
Katie Vasilopoulos and Chris Stuart
- photo by Karyn Photography

The power of dance to transform audiences from who they were the moment the house lights went dark to the people they become during the hour-and-a-half of consummate, beautiful storytelling has, perhaps, never been so dramatically felt. If you were sitting in Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre and weren't moved by Mills' exquisite piece, your mind and body must have somehow become separated, for we have never felt such an emotional impact while watching dancers - at the very zenith of their near-inestimable talents - completely caught up in the power of creativity that we mere mortals can only hope to achieve.

Mills' choreography for Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project is evocative and soulful, at times joyous and exhilarating, while in the very next phrase heartbreaking and demoralizing. In other words, he somehow captures the range of human emotion, setting it on a cadre of dancers who become his life-altering instruments.

BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's Stunning Performance of Stephen Mills' LIGHT
-photo by Karyn Photography

Mollie Sansone, one of my favorite dancers from Nashville Ballet's long list of impressive talents, dances the role of "The Survivor" with unfettered ease, effectively portraying her character with a dramatic intensity which ensures the audience will be drawn into the story, challenged by the tale at its every turn. Sansone (and Katie Vasilopoulos, with whom she shares the role) is surrounded by Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling's extraordinary ensemble of dancers who typically amaze and delight audiences - though perhaps never to this degree - and who exhibit the astonishing ability to captivate and engage through their physical power and unrelenting stage presence.

Guest artists Denise Eason and Owen Thorne are joined for the performance of Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project by such stalwarts and stars of Nashville Ballet as Sarah Cordia, Julia Eisen, Katie Eliason, Keenan McLaren Hartman, Alexandra Meister, Julia Mitchell, Kayla Rowser, Lauren Terry, Daniella Zlatarev, Logan Hillman, Nicholas Scheuer, Brett Sjoblom, Christopher Stukart, Bridge Taylor, Jon Upleger, Judson Veach, Gerald Watson and Nathan Young - names which should be as well-known and celebrated as any that readily come to mind from the pantheon of entertainment/creative luminaries.

BWW Review: Nashville Ballet's Stunning Performance of Stephen Mills' LIGHT
-photo by Karyn Photography

As beautifully danced as it is, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project is also strikingly designed. The aesthetic, evocative and simple in its rendering is nonetheless powerful and illuminating in setting the various scenes in Mills' work. Christopher McCollum's costumes are wonderful evocations of the time period, yet somehow timeless; Tony Tucci's startling lighting design, sometimes dim and atmospheric in the very best way that description may be realized, adds depth and drama to the ballet; and the media design, by EXOPOLIS, manages to convey the sometimes shocking, oftentimes commonplace, occurrences of a world that is both real and imagined that rivets one's attention to what is happening on the stage.

Without question, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project represents the continued growth of Nashville Ballet and the constant effort by its creative leaders to push the boundaries of ballet in Music City, in order to show its power and its scope. Bravo!

Attitude: Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project. Concept and choreography by Stephen Mills. Music by Steve Reich, Evelyn Glennie, Michael Gordon, Arvo Part and Philip Glass. Presented by Nashville Ballet, at James K. Polk Theatre, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. February 9-11.

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