One luminous princess and a duplicitous twin. One avian stand-in for female purity. One evil sorcerer. One duped prince. No, it isn't the debut of the "Real Housewives of Nashville"—it's the kickoff of the Nashville Ballet's 25th anniversary season and their fourth mounting of the history-rich Tchaikovsky classic Swan Lake. Despite a rough public reception in 1877 — the original's complex music was considered undanceable — this tale of love, trickery and transformation eventually took its place just behind the Nutcracker as the composer's most popular ballet.
"The piece challenges the continuum of the dancer's development," says Paul Vasterling, the ballet's artistic director and CEO. "It has to be technically dramatic and true to form regarding the shapes of the dancers and the ballet lines. It's the perfect blend of form and theater."
Veteran soloist Dawn Scannell of the Houston Ballet has been guiding the ensemble of 50 in setting the choreography. "Dawn's a ballet master," says Vasterling. "She's danced all these roles many times, and she's familiar with the Swan Lake tradition as it has been passed down. She knows the lead role back and forth, and here we're turning up the volume a little bit, with a more physical approach that pushes the principals."
Vasterling says Swan Lake is fittingly known as the "Hamlet of ballet," demanding a command over the extremes found in the dual roles of Odette and her evil twin, Odile. "Finding the truth within it is tricky," he says. "It's like a theater piece, with dancers communicating both out to the audience and to each other. We want the arabesques to be perfect, the lines to be gorgeous."
Starring dancers Sadie Bo Harris and Christine Rennie, who star in alternating performances, will help with that. The propulsive, dazzling Harris, who started as a Nashville Ballet trainee a decade ago, makes her debut in the leading role.
"That's what Nashville Ballet is about," says Vasterling. "We train dancers and watch them grow and develop into artists. That's a great way to talk about our anniversary."
As usual, Nashville theatergoers can expect beautiful sets and costumes with the expressive choreography, plus the accompaniment of the Nashville Symphony.
The season continues with more Tchaikovsky on Dec. 10-19, as Vasterling's Nashville-centric version of the Nutcracker plays TPAC for the third consecutive year, with magical dancer Eric Harris returning as the quintessential magical Drosselmeyer.
The company's Winter Series, Feb. 11-13, features the American premiere of Twyla Tharp's The Storyteller, plus two previously performed favorites — Postcards from the Boys, a meditation on homelessness, with music by Darrell Scott and Guy Clark and choreography by Sarah Slipper; and the late Salvatore Aiello's Satto, an athletic tête à tête between a wind god and a leaf. (In addition, a special family performance of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf will be presented on Feb. 12.)
Tharp arrives in Nashville in March to accept the Vasterling Award for Artistic Achievement at the ballet's annual ball, taking place at the post-flood-refurbished Schermerhorn, and the season concludes with a flourish April 29-30 and May 1 with Carmina Burana, a virtual encore performance of Vasterling's 2009 production with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Nashville Children's Choir and guest vocalists. German composer Carl Orff's popular 1936 score will be familiar to most theatergoers, while the sensual lyrics are based on Latin verses written by mountain-dwelling German monks. Aiello's The Afternoon of a Faun, set to the reflectively beautiful music of Claude Debussy, opens this program.
Gone but not forgotten
New York choreographer Yanira Castro's performance-art piece Wilderness was presented three times last week at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium as part of a Sarratt Gallery special installation spearheaded by curator Bridgette Kohnhorst. While crowds were relatively modest, the impact was huge. A cast of five performers, accompanied by improvised serial piano stylings, inhabited their environment — a field of black rubber mulch that looked like millions of pieces of chewed-up rubber tires — directly with their audience. Then they took away the stools, forcing viewers to relocate, and made their way inward. The effect dramatically stretched the boundaries of conventional theatrical expectations, and evoked unexpected reactions — as the performers laced through the audience, some viewers, clearly a bit intimidated, hugged the walls instead of interacting. If the lively arts are to reach a more immediate, visceral level, this is the kind of experimentation we might all benefit from. (More, please, for us folks in Honky-Tonk Hollywood.)
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