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Tennessee Performing Arts Center - James K. Polk Theater
United States
Tennessee
Nashville, TN
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Nashville Ballet and the Bluebird Café's Attitude, a Winning Combination

by Shirley Blackburn
February 17, 2016
Tennessee Performing Arts Center - James K. Polk Theater
505 Deaderick Street
Nashville, TN 37219
(615) 782-4000
Attitude, Nashville Ballet’s winter show presented in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater on Valentine’s weekend, banished the winter chill and captivated the audience from start to finish at the Sunday, February 14 matinee. The company collaborated with Nashville's The Bluebird Café to offer dance and music lovers both levity and intensity in an engaging program that featured three contemporary works.

Choreographer James Sewell’s "Chopin Tributes" opened the show on a somewhat deceptive note. The title implied a traditional classical piece but the choreography was a playful, kitschy collage of classical movement and acrobatics that gave its six dancers a chance to hone their comedic skills, which they did superbly. Pianist Robert Marler, discreetly ensconced on the side of the stage, provided an apt foil for the dancers’ humorous antics as he expertly played Chopin’s beautiful music.

One section of "Chopin Tributes" featured the dancers facing downstage, one behind the other, in a straight line standing shortest to tallest in a sliver of light. They repeated exaggerated arm and hand movements at timed intervals that created the effect of a kaleidoscope. In another, they created mischief by snatching an imaginary crown from one another all the while flipping head over heels into splits and standing on their heads and hands. In the final section, the dancers propped a mattress on its side laterally toward the audience with only their faces showing. They moved in slow motion to the side and disappeared behind the mattress giving the impression that their heads were on a conveyor belt. They ended by careening into, over and onto the mattress. It was hilarious.

No best of show performer in "Chopin Tributes." Keenan McLaren Hartman, Brett Sjoblom, Kayla Rowser, Nathan Young, Daniella Zlatarev and Augusto Cézar performed with equal facility, verve and theatrics.

Jirí Kylián’s "Petite Mort" (“little death,” the French term for orgasm) presented a sensitively nuanced exploration of the physical and emotional complexities of the ultimate human connection. Set to music by Mozart, the choreography offered the audience a mesmerizing blend of classical and modern movement.

The curtain opened to a rumbling sound as six men clad in nude trunks walked backwards toward the audience with swords raised above their heads. They turned to the front and executed a series of ritualistic lunges and turns in silence that was broken only by the sound of the swords whipping through the air and striking the floor in unison. Regrettably, one dancer dropped his sword, which distracted from the majesty of the opening movement.

Just after the music started, the men moved upstage into darkness before running toward the audience with an enormous billowing cloth that segued one section of the dance into another. Six female dancers, also clad in nude dancewear, appeared from under the cloth, each one partnering with one of the men.

The men’s outstretched arms, lifted like eagles’ wings above their partners, contracted around and away from their partners throughout the dance. That signature movement, which seemed to signify both the approach/avoidance and the liberating aspects of intimate relationships, appeared in both the ensemble dancing and the pas de deuxs. Kayla Rowser and Brett Sjoblom rendered a compelling pas deux that exuded passion, strength and tenderness. Keenan McLaren Hartman and Nicolas Scheuer deftly maneuvered the intricacies of their steps as their bodies intertwined and separated seamlessly.

Neither the men’s ensemble dancing in the first section nor the section that featured the ladies’ dancing in plastic ball gowns was as cohesive as they had been during Thursday night’s preview performance. However, "Petite Mort" rendered the afternoon’s most intellectually stimulating and physically challenging choreography.

"City of Dreams," the brainchild of Nashville Ballet’s artistic director Paul Vasterling, ended the performance on a high note. Working in close concert with Erika Wollam Nichols to replicate the physical structure, essence and creative aura of The Bluebird Café, Vasterling laid the groundwork for a spectacular finale: three songwriters, nine songs, one top-notch guitarist (Gary Burr), four choreographers and a stage full of energetic dancers.

Although much larger in scale, Polk Theater’s stage became The Bluebird Café. Set design by Vasterling and Todd Coogen included café tables and seating in the orchestra pit for selected audience members as well as along the sides of the stage for the dancers. Scott Leathers’ muted lighting accurately recreated the intimate ambiance of Nashville’s premier music venue. A raised platform at the edge of the stage provided seating for the songwriters and guitarist. After the songwriters introduced themselves, stagehands rolled the platform upstage to make way for the dancers. As happens at The Bluebird, each songwriter gave a brief history of the evolution of the song prior to singing it as accompaniment for the dancers.

Whether by design or happenstance, the choreographic choices made by Banning Bouldin, Brian Enos, Gina Patterson and Christopher Stuart were similar in style, which facilitated the transition of one dance to another regardless of the musical style or content. Despite the similarities in the choreography, the dancers’ movements reflected the unique aura created by each song.

As the stage rolled back, the dancers spun out of their chairs and began dancing to songwriter Victoria Banks’ “The Wheel,” which represented the cycle of life. Augusto Cézar’s eye-catching energy, ability and style were nowhere more evident than in this piece by renowned choreographer Brian Enos.

Mollie Sansone and Jon Upleger danced a gut-wrenching pas de deux to J.T. Harding’s “Somewhere in my Car.” Christopher Stuart’s choreography effectively imparted the sadness, pain and regret inherent in the loss expressed in Harding’s lyrics. Sansone and Upleger seemed to be the thread that connected all of the dances and quickly switched moods as dictated by the songs. Both were in top form—-technically and artistically.

Georgia Middleman’s “I’ll Have What She’s Having” is a musical take on the diner scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally. Sansone and Brett Sjoblom with Julia Eisen, Keenan McLaren Hartman, Alexandra Meister and Judson Veach attacked Gina Patterson’s Apache-style movement with vigor and humor. The audience loved it.

Nashville native Banning Bouldin set a plaintive piece to “Dare to Dance Alone” by Georgia Middleman. Sarah Cordia with Cézar, Upleger and Gerald Watson danced with a dreamy quality apropos to the lyrics and sweeping movements.

Nashville Ballet at The Bluebird Café was indeed a very special Valentine treat for the community.
Nashville Ballet in James Sewell’s 'Chopin Tributes.'

Nashville Ballet in James Sewell’s "Chopin Tributes."

Photo © & courtesy of Karyn Photography


Nashville Ballet in Jirí Kylián’s 'Petite Mort.'

Nashville Ballet in Jirí Kylián’s "Petite Mort."

Photo © & courtesy of Karyn Photography


Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's 'City of Dreams.'

Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's "City of Dreams."

Photo © & courtesy of Karyn Photography


Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's 'City of Dreams.'

Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's "City of Dreams."

Photo © & courtesy of Karyn Photography


Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's 'City of Dreams.'

Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's "City of Dreams."

Photo © & courtesy of Karyn Photography


Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's 'City of Dreams.'

Nashville Ballet in Paul Vasterling's "City of Dreams."

Photo © & courtesy of Karyn Photography

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