Nashville Ballet's Emergence program calls to mind a science experiment. Every two years since 2004, Emergence has mixed new dance and music to create appealing choreographic potions. The best of these works become part of the ballet's repertoire.
This weekend, Emergence returns with one of its most ambitious programs to date. The series, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Martin Center for Nashville Ballet, will feature four new dances staged in collaboration with the Alias Chamber Ensemble and Watkins College of Art, Design & Film. The highlight of the series will be the world premiere of Alias composer and cellist Matt Walker's Arabian Blues.
Emergence has always been a team effort. Paul Vasterling, the ballet's artistic director, started the program as a joint venture with Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music. Dances were set to the music of Blair composers and performed at the conservatory. One of Emergence's early experiments, Ploughing the Dark, featuring the music of Blair composer Michael Kurek, has now become part of the ballet's permanent repertoire and will be performed again next season at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
After the 2006 Emergence, Vasterling opted to move the series from Blair back to the ballet's studios. "We decided to move back to our headquarters in part because we ran out of Blair composers to work with," Vasterling says. "But we also wanted to make use of our new and expanded facility."
Around the same time Emergence moved back to the Martin Center, Vasterling began talking with Alias artistic director Zeneba Bowers about a possible collaboration. Bowers figured she could persuade Walker, who was Alias' most prolific composer — and more importantly, her husband — into writing a new piece for the ballet. After a little prodding and about five years of on-and-off discussions, Walker agreed to the commission.
"I liked the fact that Paul didn't want me to write ballet music," Walker says. "He told me to write chamber music the way I usually do for Alias, and that he would create a dance around whatever I wrote. To me that obviously seemed perfect."
Vasterling, being a collaborative man about town, was meanwhile also speaking with Watkins President Ellen Meyer about projects that might include a visual arts component. Dance would seem to lend itself to such a partnership. Choreographed movement, after all, is inherently visual — who wouldn't want to put a frame around Nashville Ballet's poised performers for display? Meyer, for her part, believed the opportunity would provide Watkins students with valuable experience.
Walker's piece is arranged for the unusual combination of English horn, clarinet, violin and cello. The English horn's rich, exotic nasal quality has always reminded Walker of a snake charmer's sound, so he infused his music with Persian modalities. He also has a penchant for the blues scale, hence the work's default title — Arabian Blues.
"I've never been good at coming up with titles for my pieces," Walker says. "There's no program or narrative for Arabian Blues. The title is just a description of what the music sounds like."
Alias often performs cutting-edge contemporary music. But like most classical musicians, Alias' players rarely improvise. That changes this weekend, since Arabian Blues requires some vamping. "Paul Vasterling says his dancers are comfortable with improvisation, and I've always loved the spontaneity," Walker says.
Arabian Blues consists of one episodic movement that lasts about 15 minutes. Alias will perform it onstage with six dancers, who will function more or less as the alter egos of the musicians. "I like to think of the dancers as the doppelgangers of the Alias players," says Vasterling. Moses Williams, a Watkins student, has created experimental video, light projection and set construction to accompany the performance.
This weekend's program will feature the works of three other choreographers.
Kelsey Bartman, a former Nashville Ballet apprentice now working as associate artistic director and dancer with Pittsburgh's Texture Contemporary Ballet, has choreographed a new dance set to the "Sonata Representativa" of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (no, not even a distant relation of that other Bieber). Bartman and Watkins student Kellie Taylor have drawn their narrative from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's gothic short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," which chronicles one woman's psychological transformation and descent into madness.
Christopher Stuart, a company dancer with Nashville Ballet, has created a dance set to Peter Schickele's American Dreams. Schickele is best known for his comic character P.D.Q. Bach. There's nothing funny, however, about American Dreams, a straightforward classical piece with an Americana feel. Stuart's dance explores the various ways people get trapped in their own mundane routines. Watkins student Robert Grand's video projection reflects our struggle to escape from these boxes.
Brian Enos, who has danced and choreographed with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, has created a new work set to Kevin Puts' And Legions Will Rise. Watkins student Jessica Clay has fashioned sculptural set pieces to go with the dance. Three Nashville Ballet dancers will perform to Puts' music, which is arranged for clarinet, violin and marimba.
Starting this weekend, Emergence will now be staged as an annual event. Each dance will feature a discussion and answer session. "We want Emergence to have the intimate look and feel of an art gallery show," Vasterling says.
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