New York is coming to Nashville, but is Nashville ready? The house was embarrassingly empty last fall when America’s leading ballet company, American Ballet Theatre, came to TPAC. The choreography was as great as it gets, and the young dancers were fabulous. But where was everybody? Was this just an aberration on the local audience’s part because publicity was lacking?
Evidently, some performing arts groups still have faith in us. A glance at dance offerings this winter and spring proves that Nashville is rich in both quality and quantity of choices.
Kicking off the season, two renowned dance companies from New York will appear within a week of each other in late January. Merce Cunningham Dance Company, performing Jan. 24 at Langford Auditorium, is one of the premier modern dance institutions to survive as others rapidly come and go. The innovative Cunningham organized his group in 1953, and he has experienced great success on the international circuit. He is an important pioneer in the field of dance, having been one of the first choreographers to use electronic music; he worked in partnership with John Cage until the composer’s death in 1992.
The first time I saw Cunningham’s ensemble, way back in the ’60s, John Cage himself performed on an oversized, handmade synthesizer. He had cranked up the music so loud that the human ear could hardly tolerate it. Merce Cunningham’s choreography was so fascinating, however, that I remained enthralled by the spectacle. The two collaborators were simply ahead of their timetoday such a decibel level is s.o.p for any rock concert event.
You don’t need to bring your earplugs to Langford, but do be prepared for an “Event,” as the performance is titled. Cunningham is the inventor of “chance dance,” in which a coin may be flipped to determine the sequence of dances for that particular evening. In other words, he should be up to his usual tricks. This “Event” features segments of dances from Cunningham’s best-known works strung together in original ways and performed in tandem with a dance from yet another work. It sounds as if it might be chaotic, but it’s great fun to watch the random interweaving of the dancers as they come together and glide apart. Every performance is, basically, an original premiere.
Tharp!, the second New York-based company coming to town this winter, is headed by the trendy Twyla Tharp. The petite, energetic choreographer has bounced from company to company over the years, but she appears to have settled down at last. She achieved wide repute in the 1970s, when she began an association with Mikhail Barishnikov and American Ballet Theatre; her “Push Comes to Shove” was a hilarious spoof of old vaudeville hat tricks and balletic devices. Nashville will see premieres of “Sweet Fields,” danced to Shaker hymns and other choral music; a piece called “66” (after Route 66) that boasts a duet for two Pirelli tires, one bold and the other shy; and a dramatic piece, “Heroes,” danced to music composed by Philip Glass. Nashville will also get to see a local dancer, Logan Pachiarz, who made goodhe’s a featured dancer in the company. Tharp! will appear at TPAC Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
Sandwiched between these New York companies, on Jan. 27, is American Indian Dance Theatre. The group was so popular last year that it has been brought to TPAC for another appearance. The members are all Native Americans who perform dances of various tribes, mostly from the Southwest and Plains regions. The company aims to present these authentic dances in such a way that they will entertain a large public even as they suggest profound spiritual aspirations. To delight and instruct is a difficult aspiration for a theatrical dance group, but it’s a goal that American Indian Dance Theatre achieves admirably. The dancers are assisted by haunting flute music, elaborate lighting, and the beauty of authentic regalia. Most of all, the sincere dedication of the performers makes for a memorable evening.
On Feb. 21 and 22 at TPAC, the Nashville Ballet features an “evening of ballets of love”a misleading title if there ever was one. The scene from Swan Lake shows the prince betraying his beloved swan queen becauseduhhe can’t tell the ballerina in the white tutu from the one in the black tutu. You’d think he’d recognize that the fragile dancer who swoons with passion in his arms is not the same as the powerhouse who is determined to seduce him with her witch-like feminine wiles. The highlight of this ballet features the evil black swan at her manipulative best, performing technical tours de force that would overwhelm any prince. No wonder the foolish man swears true love to the wrong woman.
After the Nashville Ballet’s amorous goings-on, audiences will have a month to catch their breath until Lewitzky Dance Company makes its March 27 appearance at Langford. Bella Lewitzky comes from the West Coast, and she tours half the year, at this point in her career having visited some 20 countries on five continents. Her chamber company of solo artists presents experimental dance that may verge on drama and ritual or may simply utilize conventional dance forms. The dancers are agile and technically awesome. Alvin Ailey, one of her school’s stars, achieved considerably more fame than his teachers back in L.A., although Lewitzky has grabbed the headlines herself of late. She stood her ground as spokesperson for freedom of expression when NEA bashers went on a rampage several years ago. The program at Langford has yet to be announced, but it may include newer pieces such as “Meta 4,” which playfully incorporates spirals, diagonals, and horizontal lines into unique combinations. This year marks Lewitzky’s farewell performance tour, so don’t postpone seeing her company in the hopes of catching it next year.
In April, dance companies will blow into town along with the spring showers. Les Ballets Trockadero, the unique all-male ballet company, appears at TPAC on April 5 and 6. Hairy armpits, tutus, and men tottering in toe shoes? Too much! But they are all highly seasoned dancers and, more to the point, outstanding comedians.
The other April performances are all sponsored by local companies: Nashville Ballet is back at TPAC again April 25-27. Its repertoire grows more ambitious every year, particularly for a young company that has recently suffered multiple directorship changes. This time it attempts Giselle, one of the most extraordinarily beautifuland challengingballets ever choreographed. I don’t want to give away the plot, but suffice it to warn you that the story is a real tearjerker. Bring your handkerchief.
No swans, no evil witches or magicians, and no weird willis will come dancing across the stage April 12 at 328 Performance Hall. No, “just us” kind of folks can be seen onstage at the Tennessee Dance Theatre’s benefit performance. TDT specializes in Southern regional works about real people, works based on stories from Southern writers, or even pieces about the abstract geometrical designs of Southern quilts. This is a beautifully trained company with some unusually fine choreography that speaks to the heart. Its spring program offers a new work, danced to music by Max Carl, that explores Louisiana agrarian life. Tickets for the benefit and concert can be purchased separately; call the company at 248-3262 for details.
Time was, New York City was considered the dance capital of the world, but it no longer boasts such a monopoly. Ever since the ’60s, the regional dance movement has been booming, and Nashville is but one beneficiary of this geographic trend. We can now see touring dance companies that have performed all over the United States and even the world. Unlike the musicals that visit TPAC, these are the original companies with their creators at the helmthey’re not second-string traveling road shows with talented youngsters and one semi-retired “name” star.
Moreover, Nashville can boast of its own fledgling companies, such as the Tennessee Dance Theatre, which stood the New York dance critics on their ears a few seasons ago. Keep up this accomplished standard, and they could be calling us Dance City, U.S.A., in a few years. If that miracle happens, the question will be: Is New York ready for Nashville?
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