About a mile east of Briley Parkway down Lebanon Road — past a slew of fast food joints and a motley array of businesses — there's something exciting happening on the Music City dance scene.
You have to keep your eyes peeled as you jog left onto Old Lebanon Road and search for an otherwise forgettable shopping center anchored by a thrift store. There, in what was once a Furniture Warehouse, is the 14,000-square-foot facility housing Dance Theatre of Tennessee, the brainchild of Christopher Mohnani, a major dancer with Nashville Ballet from 2001-2009 and now, in his "retirement," an artistic director, choreographer and impresario carving out some new geographical territory on the arts landscape.
DTT was launched in 2010, an offshoot of an idea Mohnani first toyed with in 2004 when he founded the Asian American Performing Arts Society as a forum for pickup dance activities when Nashville Ballet was on hiatus. Drawing upon corporate and private donations — Bridgestone was a major player — Mohnani has transformed an unlikely locale into an impressive working facility that features multiple studios of varying sizes, the requisite sprung floors for serious dancing, several pianos courtesy of Steinway, plus modest but useful office space and storage for costumes.
"Our goal," explains Mohnani, "is to offer an alternative, another option for the city so that people who are really into dance and ballet don't have to wait months before seeing another production."
Mohnani shepherds a hungry performing company of 27 dancers and directs an academy with 100 students, most all of the latter drawn from underserved (and clearly growing) communities east of the Cumberland River and south of Nashville. Besides classical ballet training, DTT also offers tap, hip-hop and jazz instruction.
Without a permanent theater of its own, DTT operates on what Mohnani calls a "have stage, will dance" basis. Exemplifying that ethos, DTT's upcoming version of Nutcracker will travel to Dickson, Clarksville and Murfreesboro. This weekend's season opener will be presented on the campus of Harpeth Hall.
Titled At 75 — A Tribute to Elaine Thomas, the program honors DTT's assistant artistic director, whose distinguished career includes solo performances with London's Royal Ballet Company, where she also taught. In addition, Thomas has served as ballet mistress, coach, choreographer or director for Pennsylvania Ballet, Ballet West, San Diego Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet and Nashville Ballet, and she has worked with luminaries such as Frederick Ashton, Bronislava Nijinska, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. "Elaine turns 75 this year," Mohnani says, "and we were thinking this would be a perfect opportunity to pay her tribute."
The eclectic lineup of dance pieces opens with "Green," featuring music by Johann Sebastian Bach, choreography by Ballet Memphis' Hazel Sabas-Gower, and the quick feet and sensitive presence of lead ballerina Beth Loosmore, along with 10 other dancers. "Green" mixes classical and modern stylings to convey the four elements of nature: earth, water, air and fire.
Also on the bill is "Swimming the Cumberland River," featuring music by British producer/remixer/composer Nellee Hooper, electronic soundscape creator Bernie Krause and film and TV composers John Williams and Mark Snow. The choreography is by Ballet Philippines' Alden Lugnasin. Here, nine dancers clad in Speedos utilize some rather eccentric movement to recreate the sadness, shock and courage evoked by Nashville's May 2010 flood.
The pièce de résistance of the program is a performance of Act 2 of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, itself an inspiring precision piece of unalloyed classicism. DTT's rendering features the lithe grace and fluid physicality of Jennifer Drake as the Swan Queen, plus the hearty masculinity of former Nashville Ballet feature dancer Brian Williamson as Prince Siegfried. A group of 17 charmingly animated female dancers provides strong support. Mohnani choreographs, embellishing the original stylings of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
"Swan Lake is a good showcase for our company," Mohnani says, "and Elaine was known primarily for two ballets in her performing days at Royal Ballet: Giselle and Swan Lake. Plus Swan Lake was the first ballet that Elaine and I worked on together with Nashville Ballet, so we share that connection as well."
Guest artists from Ballet West, Pennsylvania Ballet, Texas Ballet Theatre and Australian Ballet will also contribute shorter pieces to the evening.
Firmly espousing the "ballet for the people" philosophy that he absorbed years ago in his native Philippines, Mohnani hopes for the fulfillment of broader, longer-term goals for DTT. "Within five years," he says, "I foresee the Nashville area continuing to embrace us as an active part of the performing arts community. We want to offer consistent options for dance performances, collaborate with other arts organizations, and develop a wider audience for dance by including the demographic east of the Cumberland River."
For further information on Dance Theatre of Tennessee, visit dancetheatretn.org.
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