Steal Away

We often talk about the ways in which art can impact a community, whether by educating, entertaining or simply bringing people together. But in the case of Steal Away — premiering this weekend at OZ Arts — the art not only shines a light on the importance of community, it also reflects the people within it.

Created by Emmy-nominated composer Dave Ragland and acclaimed choreographer Shabaz Ujima, Steal Away is described as a “contemporary music-dance-opera hybrid inspired by traditional spirituals and art songs.” The new work explores universal themes of struggle, hope and renewal through the lens of African American spirituals. The intriguing project — which has been in the works since 2019 — showcases the talents of more than 30 local artists, representing companies and organizations such as Inversion Vocal Ensemble, Diaspora Orchestra, shackled feet DANCE, Friends Life Community and Rejoice School of Ballet.

“I wanted to create a modern-day oratorio that not only celebrates the Black American spiritual, but also contemporizes it through movement and spoken word,” says Ragland, founder and artistic director of Inversion Vocal Ensemble. He’s a respected composer, conductor and vocalist whose work has been featured as part of the Frist Art Museum’s Nick Cave: Feat. Nashville, Nashville Opera, Nashville Ballet and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, among others.

With a blend of new arrangements, orchestrations and original music in hand, Ragland approached Ujima, whose striking choreography has appeared with Nashville Ballet, Nashville Opera, Shades of Black Festival and Kindling Arts Festival, along with his own company, shackled feet DANCE.

“As we began to look at how we could expand the work, it was important to me that the movement embraced and honored everyone, with an amalgam of diverse movers onstage,” Ujima says. “When you look at African culture, everyone takes part in the dance and art together. Elders and children are all involved. We don’t usually see that here. But for Steal Away, we wanted to create something special that represented who we are as a community. Our oldest artist is 73 years old, and the youngest is 11. And it’s been wonderful to see how they connect and inspire one another.”

Beyond this multigenerational casting, Ujima also wanted to feature those with different abilities, including members of Friends Life Community — an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for teenagers and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Our Friends artists are some of the most beautiful dancers around,” he says. “They’re so natural in their response to the music. It’s an honor to create space to reflect our community in this way.”

Ragland agrees, noting that Ujima’s open approach emphasizes the value of art at all ages and stages of life. “Working in music and entertainment, it’s easy to get caught up in the now — what’s hot, who’s the fresh young talent,” Ragland says. “We tend to give older artists awards, but not opportunities. Shabaz has inspired me to be a catalyst for change in that respect.”

Such give-and-take is typical of the pair’s collaboration. And while Ragland and Ujima have worked together on several projects in the past, Steal Away may well be the most ambitious. “I feel like Dave and I balance one another, in terms of style and perspective,” Ujima says. “We’re like the yin and yang. But I’m so thankful to have this brotherhood of artists, and to have this space to come together as creators. It’s been amazing.”

Steal Away was originally slated to premiere at OZ in April 2020, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the delay presented plenty of challenges, Ragland says it ultimately allowed the piece to progress and strengthen.

“As I always tell my students, you have to allow your work to sit in the crockpot for a bit,” he says. “And as serious as the situation has been with the pandemic, it gave us time to let the ideas marinate. I feel like everything has really come together now.”

Ujima says the delay also brought the work’s themes of human connection into sharper focus. “It’s very spiritual — not just in terms of the music itself, but also in the overall feeling and tone.

“I feel like it’s so deeply rooted in the human spirit and experience. You don’t have to be Black, or even necessarily Christian, to recognize these themes. We’re looking at the struggles we all go through — the hardships, hope and, finally, ascension. We’ve all been so separate, so isolated these last couple of years — I think this gathering of artists reminds us of just how powerful our community really is, and what we can achieve together.”

When asked what moment they’re most looking forward to seeing onstage, both artists point to “Wade in the Water” — the iconic spiritual often associated with Alvin Ailey’s masterwork Revelations.

“Whenever I hear that music, my mind immediately goes to Alvin Ailey,” Ujima says. “So to be able to create my own version of that with a live orchestra onstage, with elders and children performing together — it’s going to be divine. I can’t wait for people to see it.”

And for Ragland, it’s this infusion of music, movement and spoken word that is most exciting. “The synergy of all these elements working together is so unique that if you come back a second night, you’re likely to have a whole new experience,” he says. “Of course, that’s the beauty of live performance, but I do think that you could pick up on something different every night.

“I hope audiences will approach the work with an open mind and an open heart,” he adds. “It’s been such a rewarding experience for us, and I hope this work opens people up to what art in Nashville is and can be.”

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