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Tales of Love and Lust

Apples and oranges! Apples and oranges! In Nashville we are blessed with two very different dance companies, the Tennessee Dance Theatre and the Nashville Ballet, each of which appeals to different tastes. Both presented evenings of dance recently, and both acquitted themselves admirably. Lucky Nashville.

For the Tennessee Dance Theatre’s performance, fans’ whoops and cheers were even louder than usual April 12 at 328 Performance Hall. It was time to celebrate a good year: The company has been on the road to Paris (and not the one in Tennessee, either) and to New England, where it performed with great success. Chattanooga Switch, a new piece, underscored the company’s trajectory. This group is on the go.

The evening opened with one of the company’s thrift shop signature pieces, Ellington Suite, to music of Duke Ellington. Four mannequins, carried about by four department-store floor-walkers, were dressed in the latest ’30s modes, mostly black-rayon-crepe beaded dresses topped with tiny black hats with veils. They had on white gloves, even.

The men danced in a jazzy, exuberant style, letting off steam from a hard day’s work. They were all wonderful dancers, and their cheerful acrobatics were as playful as seals in a wading pool. When one of the guys grabbed a mannequin and whirled about, the others followed in proper Fred Astaire fashion. In a wonderfully whimsical moment, two of the fashion mannequins turned human and responded in kind. A swirl of ecstatic madness followed, with the women dancers, Leah Chevalier and Kelly Wadlegger, leading on the men. They would strike sophisticated poses for a moment, and then Saimir Avdyli, Ryan Buechler, Michael DeVers, or Billy Ditty would suddenly pluck them out of their rigid stillness. The women managed to keep their cool, even while being tossed about and lifted in awkward positions. The choreography, by Donna Rizzo and Andrew Krichels, was witty and insouciant both in its conceit and its execution.

Sonje Mayo’s Chattanooga Switch fits in beautifully with the company’s style, thrift-shop decor and all. Her clever choreography is hand-tailored to showcase this group, which possesses lotsa attitude, and yet it’s designed to stretch these new young dancers to their utmost. Energy was in abundance here. Train conductors Saimir Avdyli, Ryan Buechler, Michael De Vers, and Billy Ditty burst into the station waiting room, almost colliding in their enthusiasm to eat up the space. They were all equally powerful dancers, with the prize for charisma shared by look-alikes Avdyli and Buechler.

The men’s attention was diverted from their business by the entrance of two beauties, Elizabeth Lentz and Jennifer Perfilio, who played the role of passengers, complete with old-fashioned leather luggage in hand. The flirtations began, and the dancers hit a hilarious climax when Lentz, with a visible glint in her eye, performed a wild fandango with a rose clasped firmly between her teeth. As a dancer, she possesses a long lanky line and could catch the eye of anyone, rose or no. The men were quick to respond to the scent. In a daring move, one threw her across the stage into the arms of the three waiting dancers. Things moved rather fast after that point, and the finale was a symmetrical frame of four conductors unzipping their trousers as they stood over two prone (but willing) female bodies. Whoops! A train whistle—and the women hopped up, grabbed their suitcases, and dashed for the train. Sorry, guys. Better luck next time.

The sex was considerably more decorous, as was the dancing, at the Nashville Ballet production of the great ballet classic Giselle, presented last weekend at Polk Theater. The refined style of classical ballet is just perfect for portraying tragic lovers, the perfidy of men, and other standard (yawn) ploys of the 19th-century romantic period. The hero does not unzip his pants, but his fooling around causes considerably more problems than a missed train connection.

All eyes focus upon the heroine, for it is her ballet in more than name alone. Giselle’s fresh innocence and trust lead to the heartbreak and the tragedy of her death. In the second act, her forgiving ghost offers redemption to her faithless but now contrite lover. The role of Giselle traditionally has been allotted to world-class ballerinas renowned as consummate actresses as well as dancers of inordinate technical achievement. The ballerina must by turns be vivacious and naive in the first act, lyrical and commanding in the second.

A tough combination to find in any one body, let alone right here in the Nashville Ballet, where dancers tend to be young, beautiful, and aspiring. Yet our own Kathryn Beasley Gager carries the production. She has a fine sense of line and proportion that shows well in her poses. Her armwork was elegant even in the midst of a flurry of activity. Endurance was a problem, for as she tired, her balances fell off and her great leaps grew smaller. On the whole, however, her mature command of the role was impressive.

When Giselle first entered onstage, her eyes searched high and low for sight of her true love, Count Albrecht, here played as a total cad by Scott Brown. She flirted, played games, and was willfully determined to believe in him. When the duplicity of this perfidious man was dramatically revealed, she slipped into insanity. Other ballerinas play this scene in the kind of passive, gentle, pathetic madness typical of a 19th-century literary heroine, but Gager was wild and impassioned. Her dance was almost frightening in its abandoned, out-of-control intensity. Hers is an original interpretation that seems to work rather well as one answer to the ancient puzzle, “What exactly does Giselle die of, anyway?” Over 150 years ago, scores of virgins evidently died of broken hearts, but today’s modern young woman doesn’t buy that option, making it hard for audiences to accept it as crucial to the dramatic turn of events.

The Act II scene of ghostly wilis was quite effective. The fog machine worked overtime to produce a low smoke that hovered over the stage. Dancers in long white tutus, faces forming impassive pale masks, wafted across the fog. These dancers represented—are you ready for this?—the ghostly spirits of young women who had been jilted on their wedding day. From the looks of things, this was apparently a frequent occurrence in 19th-century Germany. The whole specter, if I may, raises the ultimate male fantasy. But watch out! These women are set to revenge themselves on any unwary man who crosses their path after midnight.

OK, I admit it. The plot is silly, but the original choreography by Jean Coralli is really beautiful. As directed by Nicole Johnson, the Queen of the Wilis, the corps de ballet danced admirably. The group turned into an implacable machine that geared up to destroy the Count, who, penitent, has wandered into the woods to strew flowers on Giselle’s grave. The wilis slowly crisscrossed the stage in alternating lines, or they posed with eyes averted while Giselle implored mercy for her lover, tenderly danced by Scott Brown. The corps de ballet moved as one, determined to exact revenge upon all mankind.

Moral of the story:These days, you’d probably do better to take the train.


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