BWW Reviews: EMERGENCE Shows Off Artistic Collaboration At Its Very Best


Let's face it: You have to give Paul Vasterling, the grand poobah (as both artistic director and CEO of Nashville Ballet, what other title suits him best?) of all things musical/dancical/theatrical in Music City, a whole bunch of credit for the imaginative-heretofore unexperienced-heights he has helped his company achieve and his city to claim as its own. The man has redefined the idea of collaboration while giving human form to the term "synergy" with his continuing efforts to push the creative envelope in a city filled with artistic types and their sometimes conflicting sensibilities.

Obviously, the man has chutzpah. And balls. Balls of the creative/artistic/imaginative/boundary-shattering type that the rest of we mere mortals can only hope to put out there at some point.

Most recently, Vasterling has teamed up with Zeneba Bowers, the founder and artistic director of the Grammy Award-nominated ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, to challenge the preconceived notions of artistic collaboration with Emergence, a collection of four new works that spring fully formed from the minds of some of the country's most innovative young choreographers who are teamed up with ALIAS' wildly talented and inspiring musicians and up-and-coming students from Nashville's Watkins College of Art, Design and Film. On view this weekend for audiences at Nashville Ballet's Martin Center, Emergence is an in-your-face dance experience that leaves you breathless, perhaps confounded and definitely yearning for more such compelling and challenging art.

Vasterling says the collaboration with ALIAS came in the wake of "bottles of wine and a lot of cheese" shared by the pair in their East Nashville homes, a revelry that led to the type of synergy for which both artistic entities-Nashville Ballet and ALIAS-are known for among Music City's upper echelon glitterati. The way it transpired, if memory serves, is Bowers (who neither looks nor dresses like the sister wife her first name would suggest she might be-in fact, she alone is married to ALIAS' Matt Walker) suggested musical compositions for the choreographers to use, Vasterling passed the music along (well, except the piece he kept for himself) and then Watkins students entered the fray to offer their own unique contributions to the four projects that emerged to become Emergence.

It should be noted that the 2012 offering of Emergence is the latest such series of dance works from the fertile ground of Nashville Ballet bearing that title. In fact, this year's offering is just the latest in such programming from the company, thus making it an annual event. But, truthfully, since I didn't see the earlier renditions, they don't officially exist in JefWorld for the sake of this-what shall we call it?-review, reminiscence, a memory play (where's that damn crystal unicorn, anyway?)…okay, if you insist, it's a review.

And it will be a flat-out, full-throated rave. I never feel quite so inspired or excited about the artistic possibilities in Nashville than I do when I leave a performance by the exceptionally talented dancers of Nashville Ballet. Paul Vasterling is a god, not that he should let it go to his head (and, truth be told, the unprepossessing Vasterling would never let that happen). Seriously, though, he has raised the bar time and time again, setting the standards of artistic excellence ever higher in a city where creativity abounds and artistic challenge is an everyday fact of life.

The same can be said of Zeneba Bowers (whose first name was given to her mother while she was serving in the Peace Corps in Chad; it means "father's jewel," which makes my deeply sardonic eyes water) and the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, who pursue their musical and artistic dreams in a city better known for its far-too-heavily-influenced-by-pop-music-pablum-country-music to offer a top-flight alternative to audiences eager to embrace their efforts. In fact, in its ten years of existence, ALIAS has given its time and talents to make Nashville a better place, lending support and a beautiful musical score to the work of countless charities, social service organizations and assorted 501-c-3 entities throughout Middle Tennessee. They're good people, these stunningly, staggeringly gifted musical types, and their performances in Emergence only lends further credence to that notion.

Former Nashville Ballet apprentice-and co-creator of the Works-in-Progress Choreography Project and associate artistic director of Texture Contemporary Ballet in her hometown of Pittsburgh-Kelsey Bartman's Sonata Representativa, set to music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and featuring visual art created by Watkins student Kellie Taylor, is inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, a gothic short story considered among the first American examples of feminist literature. Published in 1892 and written in first-person, the story is made up of journal entries by a woman commanded to stay hidden in her bedroom due to a "temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency" (which sounds surprisingly akin to playwright Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play-which Jessika Malone will direct for ACT 1 next season).

Bartman's vision for the piece brings that story to life in a series of movements that clearly suggest someone battling their inner demons in an effort to escape the prison of their barely recognized and completely misunderstood mental illness. Danced with confidence and an amazing sense of immediacy by Christopher Butler, Caylan Cheadle, Julia Eisen, Katie Eliason, Brendon LaPier, Cheston Repola and Kevin Terry, Sonata Representativa presents a tableau vivant of ever-changing, ever-moving and interchangeable personalities to convey the essence of the story.

Bowers, on violin, is joined by cellist Matt Walker and keyboardist Roger Wiesmeyer to provide the musical accompaniment composed by Biber (considered one of the most important composers for the violin in the history of the instrument) which sounds almost startlingly contemporary.

Nashville Ballet dancer Chris Stuart (whom I heralded as "king of the hill"-or words to that effect-in wake of his recent performance in Nashville Ballet's twinbill of Stravinsky-inspired ballets Firebird/Rite of Spring, presented at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall earlier this spring) debuts as a choreographer of noteworthy aspirations and design with Out of the Box, his original work set to Peter Schickele's  (yep, the guy who created P. D. Q. Bach and NPR's Schickele Mix) "American Dreams," in which you can hear the inspirational notes and snatches of melody of some of the most revered American composers in memory.

The music, which Stuart admits he probably wouldn't have selected himself (this proved to be a recurring theme in the "interludes" placed among the Emergence offerings when the artistic teams would talk with the audience about their collaborations), gave the budding choreographer a chance to look outside his own world, his own mind, to quite frankly think "outside the box," in creating a work for his friends and colleagues-Sarah Cordia, Eddie Mikrut, Julia Mitchell, Jon Upleger and Andrea Vierra-to perform. The artistic symbiosis of these six longtime friends and artistic collaborators among Nashville Ballet's awe-inspiring cadre of dancers results in a fresh and contemporary work that showcases the best of their combined abilities. In doing so, Stuart proves himself a choreographer of distinction, one whose name you are commanded (that sounds high-handed, I know, but I'm trying to impress this upon your mind) to remember and to follow what will most certainly prove to be an amazing arc in his artistic development.

Video projections of distorted clips that "explore the boundary of the pixel-the inherent building blocks of a digital image," created by Robert Grand, Schickele's exquisitely evocative "American Dreams" is performed with studiEd Grace and sensitivity by violinists Alison Gooding and Jeremy Williams, violist Chris Farrell and cellist Michael Samis, who perform with such passion and feeling as to prove themselves essential parts of the collaboration so beautifully on display.

Choreographer Brian Enos, whose career has taken him across the country in search of his own artistic Valhalla, continued the theme of not being particularly taken by the work of music presented him by Vasterling for his contribution to Emergence. But, like Stuart before him, he ultimately found himself completely in love with Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts' "And Legions Will Rise." And it's obvious, from watching the stunning movements created by Enos for his dancers that the seed of inspiration planted by Vasterling-at Bowers' suggestion that the music of her friend Puts be used for the work-has been brought to full flower in the piece.

Danced with commitment and what can only be termed "vigor and vitality," And Legions Will Rise follows three couples who represent the three instruments that perform the composition with such deep feeling. Chris Norton, who plays marimba in the composition, led a brief, if totally informative, tutorial on the piece before it was performed, helping pave the way for the audience to become thoroughly captivated by the performance.

Enos' vision is brought vividly to life by his six dancers-Augusto Cezar, Damian Drake, Alexandra Meister, Mollie Sansone, Katie Vasilopoulos and Judson Veach-with an almost shocking conviction and complete and utter understanding of the musical requirements of the piece. It's beautifully performed and expressively interpreted by the sextet of highly capable dancers under the direction of an amazingly focused choreographer.

The charming and extraordinarily skilled Norton is joined in performing the score for the piece by Bowers on violin (her control is impressive) and Lee Levine on clarinet (you will be hard-pressed to find a better musician on this instrument). Watkins student Jessica Clay provides the sculptural set pieces that hang from the rafters to provide a warmer visual contrast to the darker tones of Puts' music.

So I know this Arab guy, down in the Delta, who makes the most delectable hot tamales I've ever put in my mouth. And I must confess that I've had an unrelenting hankering for his savory confections of cornmeal and pork since leaving the Emergence performance that concluded with Vasterling's own magnificent choreography for "Arabian Blues," composed by Matt Walker, which melds a recurring Arabianesque melody with the "down and dirty" evocations of steamy, hot and sultry Delta blues.

It is, perhaps, an unexpected blending-not unlike the specter created by an Arab man who peddles his tamales on the streets of a north Mississippi town-that crafts something far beyond what could ever be expected. It's dark and delicious, slightly wicked and alarmingly sensual, making it the perfect ending for this year's Emergence.

In the music, which interpolates that Arabian motif throughout the composition, you will hear an imaginative homage to the interpreters of the blues who have come and gone before, as well as the inspiration of noteworthy American composers (Levine's haunting clarinet recalls the opening notes of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with a slightly irreverent panache), all of which inspires Vasterling to his expected choreographic heights and his oh-so-wonderful dancers to their own expressive zenith.

Walker's confident playing (he performs on the cello for the piece) and his clear understanding of his artistic intention in the piece allows the other musicians (who include the aforementioned Levine, violist Chris Farrell, and Roger Wiesmeyer on English horn) to improvise beautifully, urging the dancers to create new and inventive movement at will.

Moses Williams provides the visual art for the piece and Vasterling's innovative vision for Arabian Blues puts the musicians at center stage in a circle to which they invite the dancers to join them in a musical celebration of earthly-and earthy-delights that are redolent in any zestfully flavored stew set to the blues. Danced with a palpable sense of urgency that renders each performer an agent-provocateur bent on luring the unsuspecting audience into the stagebound celebration of sensuality, it is the evening's most completely realized offering.

Bredon LaPier, Kayla Rowser, Mollie Sansone, Christopher Stuart, Jon Upleger and Judson Veach have rarely looked better or danced with more elan than they do in Arabian Nights, making the piece the ideal choice to ring down the curtain and to leave audiences breathlessly awaiting more-murmuring under their collective breath "what's next?"-from Paul Vasterling and Nashville Ballet while hungering for more from ALIAS Chamber Ensemble and looking forward with great expectations to what will come from the students at Watkins College of Art, Design and Film.

Two more performances are on tap on Saturday, May 19 (at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) and really shouldn't be missed.

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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