Presented by Nashville Ballet
April 25-27 at TPAC’s Polk Theater
Call 255-ARTS for ticket info
Change is the essence of human history, and language is an undeniable instance: Nobody today can easily understand Beowulf (c. 900) or Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1400), though both are written in “English.” Even today, our tongue is not the same in Birmingham, Ala., as in Birmingham, England. Language, ineluctably evolving everywhere, is an apt emblem for culture anywhere.
And yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Today’s drama in Iraq is iterated throughout the Bible and the histories of nations: Arrogant power devours and exploits, overreaches and is overthrown by other arrogant power. And while lovers are forever embracing, innocents are forever being slaughtered. Seen thus, every tale speaks truth, if rightly read. Even in something as simple as Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” strip, we are given naked radiant gists of human drama.
The same holds true of ballet. The word “ballet,” like its cousin “ballad,” derives from a Latin term denoting song and dance used together to tell a story. Nashville Ballet’s artistic director, Paul Vasterling, calls ballet “the athletic art,” and it is certainly that. Ballet dancers may be the best conditioned of all athletes, possessing a distinct fusion of strength, agility, flexibility, balance and stamina. But that athleticism serves also a narrative purpose: Ballets are ballads in motionstories set to music and made visible through bodies in motion.
For these stories, the defining standard is the linear elegance of the ballet russemovement distilled into a precisely delineated grammar of poses and runs and leaps and turns. During the last century, this standard was alloyed with modern dance, a stylizing of more natural human gaits. Now choreographers can marry ballet russe to barn dance, as Agnes de Mille and Aaron Copland famously did in Rodeo, and as Vasterling is doing now in Music City.
Nashville Ballet’s corps of some 18 performers have delivered high-quality realizations of Giselle and Rite of Spring. But they have also delivered fresh new work, much of it choreographed by Vasterling himself; a stunning example is last year’s season finale, the vivid and powerful Dracula. Next season promises the premiere of local composer Conni Ellisor’s The Bell Witch, choreographed by Vasterling. And this season’s finale provides an appropriate segue from Transylvania to Tennessee: Friday through Sunday at TPAC, the company presents a swashbuckling Robin Hood, choreographed by Vasterling to music by Erich Korngold (d. 1957).
Korngold is a well-regarded “serious” composer who also won two Oscars for film scores, one of them The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Though Vasterling found that music “too Hollywood” for his own conception and chose instead excerpts from several of Korngold’s classical compositions, what he does with the fable is in the swashbuckling, go-for-the-gusto spirit of the film. Korngold’s energetic and richly colorful music gives the choreographer’s imagination plenty to feed on.
The Robin Hood legend, perhaps based on a historical person, comes down to us via some 38 ballads, composed over several centuries and collected by 19th century British scholar F.J. Child. Many story writers and balladeers have made free with these archetypal materials. Perhaps a dozen Hollywood versions are available on video, but the core situation is always the same. A community’s legitimate leader goes off to fight an “honorable” war. In his absence, a tyrannical subordinate seizes power and turns into Saddam Hussein. Out of the exploited folk arises a hero who fights against the tyrant with courage and genius, abetted by his beautiful beloved. The tyrant tries to kill the hero and claim the beauty, but is finally defeated when the legitimate governor comes home to restore order. Joy reigns supreme in the end.
The challenge in such familiar materials is how to handle them. Vasterling approaches the tale with characteristic audacious ingenuity. In effect, the company will deliver two versions: In the four performances, Robin Hood will be danced alternately by Matthew Christiansen and Eddie Mikrut, Maid Marian by Jennifer McNamara and Christine Rennie, and the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham by Christopher Mohnani and Eric Harrisaccomplished dancers all.
The production is designed to attract adults and children alike, but this is no Hallmark affair. There’s plenty of vigorous swordplay and lots of humor. There’s menace in the drama too, and though the sheriff’s abuse of Maid Marian is obliquely conveyed, it’s not sugarcoated, nor is the moment when Robin is badly wounded by a stab in the back. Friar Tuck at the outset is no nice, cuddly priest but a venal pander, though he joins Robin’s side some halfway through the action. And Robin’s men don’t win outright: In the midst of a ferocious melee that might go either way, the legitimate ruler returns to set things right in a more or less miraculous rescue.
Like last year’s Dracula, Robin Hood shows Vasterling as a keen and daring dramatist in his chosen medium, and his dancers as capable realizers of his imaginings. Even in a non-dress rehearsal earlier this week, the dancing was impressive throughoutsolos, duets, trios and ensemble numbers. Robin and Marian’s duets promise to be especially compelling, including the early scenes that depict their combative courtship. Their several solos should be equally noteworthy; as a captive, Marian movingly dances her fierce grief at her abuser’s sadism, while Robin dances his sorrow at being helplessly separated from her.
Vasterling has chosen his music wisely and used it very well. Along with lush and expressive orchestral passages, it includes excerpts from a violin concerto, and a piano trio featuring dramatic cello-and-piano passages. Particularly effective are the cello and piano duets when Robin and Marian are alone together. The dancers’ costumes suggest Shakespeare’s Prince Hal rather than Tennessee Williams’ Stanley Kowalski; the minimalist sets have a hanging bridge and staircases for lots of derring-do, as well as a maypole and a gallows. Viewers are always reminded that this is a fablenot CNNand should come out of the Polk Theater smiling and chatting.
Even so, given this moment in our planet’s history, and Vasterling’s handling of these materials, though this fable may delight and console, it cannot obliterate the collapsing World Trade Center towers or the Geiger counters clicking in North Korea. Viewers may be given a respite from actuality, but will not be immunized against it. Baghdad in ruins is Baghdad yet. Robin Hood is a fable, but as presented by Nashville Ballet, it warns us that no victory is ever once and for all.
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