A weekend away offered me an opportunity to see dance in a new city – I always try to check out performances venues wherever I travel and Nashville is a great place to do so. Home to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) which hosts several theaters, a museum, and a cultural center, Nashville is a bustling arts scene expansive beyond it’s nickname as “Music City.”
A displaced southerner myself, I am always eager to support the development of emerging dance organizations – especially ballet companies. In the south, performing arts organizations almost solely rely on loyal patrons unlike northern cities which can also rely on tourists and passersby. With the sprawl of the southern city-scape, one doesn’t simply “pass by” on the daily walk from the subway. Patrons choose to go somewhere based on a recommendation, connection to someone performing, or perhaps, a fancy date night – basically, patrons are “earned” rather than “gained.”
Walking in the door to Jackson Hall felt sort of like a homecoming (although I didn’t really know anyone), people milled around with dozens of volunteer greeters and ushers eager to point out restrooms, the bar or cafe, etc. Points for TPAC: beverages ARE allowed in the theater! A joint effort with area organizations, NFocus – “a magazine that reflects the people, culture and generosity of up and comers and longtime bluebloods in Charlotte, Louisville and Nashville” – presented the evening. With this collaboration, audience members received several entry points to knowing and understanding more about the production and the company. A common complaint for many companies: despite laboring over creating a intensive, informative playbill, 80% of audiences never open it. This means that companies must find other ways to speak to their audience. NFocus did this by showing a few videos before and during intermission. We heard (and saw) Mr. Vasterling (Artistic Director & CEO) describe the rehearsal process, his intentions with creating this work, and dialogue with his collaborators. The intermission videos displayed dancer photos and bios, along with fun facts.
On to the dance: I’ve never seen a full-length production of R & J, so this was a night of firsts. Nashville Ballet boasts a strong corps de ballet with up-and-coming dancers from the second company and school – although they excel more at pirouettes from second than from fifth. Vasterling wove the Capulet and Montague families together as much as possible through the use of humor and distinguished them by dressing them in different hues (the Montagues in cool tones, the Capulets in warm tones). Vasterling also devoted extensive care to the fight scenes (enlisting the oversight of Tim Klotz). Vasterling presents a somewhat goofy Romeo (danced by Christopher Stuart Saturday evening) at first, trailing haphazardly after the ladies. But at his sighting of Juliet, Romeo suddenly becomes a man with a mission; he is reborn and refocused. His friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, always at his aide, band together to support his mission. Vasterling’s corps sections are fluid and fill the stage seamlessly. His dancers are highly dramatic and compelling actors – from the snarled lips of Christopher Butler to the flirtatious gaze of Nicholas Scheuer to the infuriatingly playful Judson Veach (not to mention his mile long legs) to the agonizing loyalty of Caylan Cheadle.
The standout dancers (from Saturday evening, April 27th) however, consisted of Mollie Sansone as Juliet and Kayla Rowser as Mercutio’s Gypsy. Sansone’s lines continually flowed, her port de bras never ended, they simply carried her along. She sailed through her attitude turns. In Romeo’s arms (warmly partnered by Christopher Stuart), Sansone fell back in rapture. A girl in dire conflict; both lovestruck and unsure. Torn by love for Romeo and for her family, she anxiously sorted through thundering emotions of love and loyalty under the complications of society expectations. It’s the timelessness of the story, and yet Sansone appeared fresh and convincing in her distraught meanderings. Rowser’s gypsy outsmarted everyone; her flirtatious-break-your-back battements a guise for her tenacity. In one of the many fights between parties, Rowser used her flexible legs to ensnare; wrapping them around an antagonist, she threw punches with the best of ’em. Rowser utilized suspense in her delivery, the wind-up slow and deliberate (so you see it coming) but she still knocked you out smiling every time whether turning, leaping, or kicking. This delivery allowed her character to hit-and-run as the Montague’s star player inciting chaos and only to move on, unharmed.
It was a full evening; a delightfully rich portrayal of the saga of love. Theses dancers are eager and ambitious, led by a conservative yet risk-taking director. I wish I were in town for the Ben Folds Project. Thanks for introducing me to Nashville.