REVIEW: 'American Originals' from Nashville Ballet

REVIEW: 'American Originals' from Nashville Ballet

There is a moment during "Who Cares?" - the third offering in Nashville Ballet's chill-chasing winter series American Originals - that perfectly captures the joy that is possible only through dance: the radiant and irrepressible Kimberly Ratcliffe is so thoroughly enjoying herself while she trips the George Balanchine-choreographed light fantastic to George Gershwin's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" that you cannot help but be transported.

And is there any better way (save for a trip to the tropics) to escape winter's chill than by witnessing yet another artistic triumph from Nashville Ballet? Artistic director Paul Vasterling and his talented company transport their audience to the 1930s (and one contemporary side-trip - Vasterling's "Awaiting Redemption" - the program's second stanza) with American Originals, the winter series now onstage at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre. There are, in fact, so many heartwarming moments to be found in the joyful, musical program that you cannot help but leave the theatre with a lighter heart and, most defintely, more Spring in your step.

With each passing year and with each new offering, Vasterling and the other powers-that-be at Nashville Ballet gain new admirers for their troupe, whose skills are confidently and expertly highlighted by the choices made in regard to the company's repertoire. Clearly, Nashville Ballet has gained stature with its beautiful and much-lauded treatment of the classics, but it may well be contemporary offerings, such as those included in American Originals, that more assuredly showcase the company's extraordinary depth. Quite honestly, the panache with which each performance is delivered is awe-inspiring - and certain to lift the collective spirit and ward off even the most frigid temperatures.

While any Balanchine ballet is enough to excite the audience, and Nashville Ballet has earned its justifiable reputation with its flawless interpretations of the master's works, performing his tribute to the music of George Gershwin is like gilding the lily. "Who Cares?" - featuring a veritable "greatest hits" of songs from the Gershwin canon - is expressively performed by the company's dancers, who interpret Balanchine's movements beautifully, bringing the timeless tunes to glorious life onstage.

Created by Balanchine in 1970, "Who Cares?" also showcases the dual natures of his work; it was he who first bridged the divide between classical ballet and musical theatre, which here is presented at its zenith. It makes one long for a future collaboration between Nashville Ballet and Tennessee Repertory Theatre (are you listening, Rene Copeland and Paul Vasterling?) who could truly bring a work like "On Your Toes" to rich and vibrant life for Nashville audiences. Perhaps it's a pipe dream, but a compelling one nonetheless.

The aforementioned Ratcliffe (whom I fear I may heap too much praise upon, but I just cannot help myself, so in love am I with her exquisite artistry) dances sublimely in her solo moments and in her duet with the handsome and versatile Jon Upleger to "Who Cares?"; they are a perfect pair whose artistry and commitment elevates anything they do onstage as individuals, but as a team they are amazing.

If any performance can match Ratcliffe's, clearly it's Sadie Bo Harris' peripatetic "Fascinating Rhythm" that features her impeccable technique to perfection. Mollie Sansone and Brendon Lapier's duet to "Embraceable You" is a romantic romp, perfect for the Valentine's Weekend slate of performances.

The ensemble's performance of "Strike Up the Band" is a lovely opening to the piece and the subsequent performances of the ladies' ensemble and the men's ensemble, to "Somebody Loves Me" and "Bidin' My Time," are theatrically presented and energetically danced, despite some obvious (though forgivable) missteps. The entire cast's "I Got Rhythm" is a valentine to the theatricality of Gershwin's music and the perfect accompaniment to Balanchine's choreography, which truly blends the dual and competing worlds of show business and ballet - to complete artistic success.

"Filling Station," the 1938 work choreographed by Lew Christensen and set to the evocative music of Virgirl Thomson (with a wonderfully comic libretto by Lincoln Kirstein that takes the action straight from a comic book) gives Christopher Stuart one of his best opportunities to show his athleticism, grace and sprightly sense of humor as Mac, the filling station attendant whose filling station becomes the setting for an entertaining evening of expressively clever dance. He is given able support by Brendon LaPier and Robert Poe, as his truck driver friends; the three men give typically broad-shouldered, yet somehow tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly on-target performances.

Eric Harris is delightful as a motorist seeking directions, while his wife (Kelsey Bartman) and child (Mollie Sansone) wreak havoc with their truly hilarious take on domestic bliss. Christopher Butler and Kimberly Ratcliffe, as a rich young couple who stagger in from a night of country club revels to claim the filling station as their own dance hall, display their deft abilities while maintaining complete control of their dancing selves. Finally, the scene features up-and-coming company apprentice Mark Allyn Nimmo as a not-so-menacing gangster, and Damian Drake as a dashing state trooper.

While the plot is outrageously over-the-top, this mounting of "Filling Station" somehow captures the '30s era milieu (thanks in large part to the décor and costume design of Paul Cadmus), in all its humorous glory, while allowing the dancers' capabilities to shine through.

The production's middle piece - the revival of Vasterling's 2001 "Awaiting Redemption," which features a score by Nashville music notable Hal Ketchum - gives the audience a break from the glamorous 1930s era, while affording them a moving, affecting experience. Vasterling is a gifted choreographer and in all of his works created expressly for Nashville Ballet he is able to showcase his company's unique abilities.

Staged by company stalwart and ballet master Sharyn Wood Mahoney (whom, I must admit, I both adore and admire), "Awaiting Redemption" relates the story of a dancer, told from the perspective of four different points of time in the man's history. Danced by three exemplary performers - Jon Upleger, as the man in his 40s; Christopher Stuart, in his 30s; and Brendon LaPier, in his 20s; with young Brady Davis as the 10-year-old boy who will become the man - Vasterling gives us his unique take on the man's life and career and the people who move and out of his life. Upleger, Stuart and LaPier dance their shared role with a blend of athletic vigor and artistic grace, bringing the man's story to life with their total commitment.

The men are paired, if you will, with Andrea Vierra and Sadie Bo Harris as the women in their character's life. Vierra and Harris beautifully portray their characters' roles in the man's history, and their superb performances lend a genuinely felt romance to that story.

Perhaps most striking is the performance of Ketchum's score by vocalist Neal Coomer, accompanied by Kenny Greenberg and John Mahoney. Coomer's evocative renditions of the songs add greatly to the overall feel of the work and underscores the performances of the dancers with drama, color and pathos.

It's hard to imagine anyone seeing "Awaiting Redemption" and not experiencing a cavalcade of emotions. Vasterling has succeeded in crafting a work that is artistically compelling yet universally felt.

"Awaiting Redemption" brims with emotion, warming the heart and feeding the soul with its richly woven tale, making it the centerpiece of this superbly crafted evening of mid-winter artistry.

- American Originals. Presented by Nashville Ballet. Paul Vasterling, artistic director. Andrea Dillenburg, executive director. At the James K. Polk Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. February 12-14. For further information about Nashville Ballet, visit the company website at

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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