For some people, classical art is the stuff of museums and well-preserved ruins — perfect as it is and not to be disturbed. For Paul Vasterling, CEO and artistic director of the Nashville Ballet, successful art gets people talking.
Under Vasterling's leadership, The Nashville Ballet will perform modern choreography set to two Stravinsky pieces that have inspired endless conversation, even a riot: The Rite of Spring and The Firebird. The music will be performed by a pit orchestra featuring 55 members of the Nashville Symphony. The partnership reflects Nashville's dynamic arts scene and the evolution of the classical arts here.
"These two scores have had a profound influence on the world of music and art," Vasterling says in the press release. "Stravinsky's music changed the course of music composition, and inspired many other works of art, including Carl Orff's legendary Carmina Burana, which we performed last season. ... Written only three years apart specifically to be choreographed, the music of The Rite of Spring and Firebird were revolutionary works of art for their time."
The Rite of Spring and The Firebird influenced artists of all types. Leonard Bernstein said Rite has "got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name." Charlie Parker quoted the introduction to Rite in "Salt Peanuts" when he visited Paris in 1949, and played the first few notes of Firebird in his song "Koko" two years later. The style of ballet performed at the premieres spawned modern dance. But change didn't come easy.
When Rite premiered in 1913 in Paris with the Ballets Russes, it caused a riot. Composer Camille Saint-Saëns was in the audience, and he stormed out during the opening bars, peeved about the unusually high bassoon part. Catcalls and whistles from the audience echoed across the stage, where the dancers moved in scandalous new ways. Boos filled the air, followed by yells and shouts. Supporters and opponents threw punches. Fights spilled into the aisles. Producer Sergei Diaghilev flashed the theater lights on and off in an attempt to restore order. The police arrived during intermission but were unable to subdue the crowd. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, drowning out the orchestra. Stravinsky escaped through a back window to wander the streets. Surprisingly, Diaghilev said the reaction was exactly what he wanted. Like Vasterling, he believed art should inspire conversation.
It's doubtful there will be riots at TPAC, but this program will challenge people who may only be familiar with tutus and prancing melodies. According to a disclaimer: "Nashville Ballet's performance of Rite of Spring has adult themes and partial nudity, and may not be suitable for younger viewers." Or Rick Santorum, for that matter.
Nashville Ballet's performance of Rite will feature choreography by Salvatore Aiello, an American choreographer known for capturing the essence of the human spirit. He worked with Tim Yeager, now a ballet master with the Nashville Ballet.
Yeager says the ballet — the story of a virgin sacrificed in a pagan ritual to ensure a bountiful harvest — is really about the circle of life. "Rite is artistic, athletic and sensual," he adds, "and I consider it one of the most thought-provoking and jaw-dropping ballets ever."
In Firebird, Vasterling's original choreography will accompany Stravinsky's memorable music, composed in 1910 as his first ballet score and later reduced to a 20-minute suite. Stravinsky was inspired by a traditional Russian fairy tale in which a phoenix guides a prince through an enchanted castle. In Vasterling's interpretation, the firebird is an otherworldly being who accompanies a man on a journey.
According to Vasterling, there are four different styles in Firebird, and each scene is a different style. The piece begins with a postmodern approach. The second scene is more weighted and lyrical. The third scene is more aggressive, and introduces sharper lines. The last scene is a classical adagio. He thinks blending dance forms produces a richer language with a wider vocabulary. The result is more expressive than classical ballet or modern dance alone.
Live music from members of the Nashville Symphony "brings the performance to a whole different level," Vasterling says. "The exciting thing about live performance, what makes it infinitely more wonderful than watching something recorded, is the energy that you feel from the performers. When you put the musicians with the dancers, they sort of feed off of each other. Everyone is surrounded by the music at all times."
Christopher Stuart is one of the lead dancers in Rite. "I don't know the last time a ballet has done Rite of Spring with an orchestra," says Stuart, who's been with Nashville Ballet for over a decade. "It's so big it usually pours out onto the stage. We're very fortunate that we're able to work with the orchestra this time."
The live pit orchestra isn't the only thing that sets this performance apart from Nashville Ballet's last staging of Rite and Firebird six years ago. The set designs and costumes are new too. In Rite, the set features bamboo scaffolding and dramatic lighting, and the dancers wear sparse costumes. In Firebird, the costumes reflect that the dancers have been boiled down to their spirit essence, appearing as if their bodies have been painted in rainbow colors. The set includes a morphing luminescent tree and translucent skyscape.
According to Vasterling, it all adds up to a feast for the senses. And if you have a strong reaction — positive or negative — more power to you. "The goal is to get people to have an emotion about art," he says, "not just sit there and let it wash over you and fall asleep. If you don't like it, say so. It's good. It's OK. I'd rather people say that to me and actually start a conversation than say nothing."
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