Merging Concert and Choreography: Ben Folds with Nashville Ballet

At the heart of ballet is the interplay of music and physique: the use of the intimate relationship between sound, silence, and the responsive movement of the body to bring a story, image, or feeling to an eager audience. Part of Nashville Ballet’s Modern Masters series, Ben Folds with Nashville Ballet is a program driven entirely by this essential dynamic. Mostly set to the music of prominent concert works, it features four unique compositions that have pressed the existing boundaries of ballet forward with added energy from bold ideas and unexpected collaborations; each delivered with astonishing beauty and vitality that is graceful, visceral, and everything in between.

The flagship piece of the production is The Ben Folds Project: Concerto, a concerto for piano and orchestra composed by Folds with choreography by Paul Vasterling, Artistic Director for Nashville Ballet. Folds’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was composed both as a concert piece to be heard in symphony halls and as an intended collaboration with Nashville Ballet. Performed with the piano onstage, it is a treat for any audience member to watch the piece masterfully played by the composer himself. Vasterling’s choreography beautifully highlights all the elements of the work that make its second original intent as a ballet so clear; elements that can be so easily overlooked in a concert setting. The work’s third movement features Nashville Ballet company members Mollie Sansone, Lily Saito, Brett Sjoblom, and Luca Sportelli, who offer a performance that perfectly highlights the rhythmic intensity and drive of Folds’s music. This production is the first time since its premier in 2014 that Folds and Nashville Ballet have performed the Concerto in its intended collaborative setting.

The most intimate moments can be seen in the two middle pieces, Bloom Pas De Deux and Duo Concertant. Bloom Pas De Deux features the music of Philip Glass’s Violin Concert No. 1, played beautifully by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. It is the Belgian-Columbian choreographers reflection on devotion rituals she observed in Bali, Indonesia. The motion that ebbs between delicate and powerful was given brilliant life by Kayla Rowser and Benjamin Wetzel. Duo Concertant features choreography by George Balanchine and music of the same name by Igor Stravinsky; a duet for piano and violin exquisitely played by pianist Alessandra Volpi and violinist Christina McGann. Both musicians were positioned onstage with company members Jamie Kopit and Michael Burfield; whose dancing delivered incredible poise and intensity and perfectly reflected the playing of the musicians on stage with them.

The production rounded off with The Lottery, a narrative work based on the short story of the same name by Shirley Jackson with choreography by Val Caniparoli and music by Robert Moran. Permeated by the unease and violence that motivates Jackson’s short story, Moran’s score is filled with twists and turns that unsettle; often resembling a distinctly American version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This unsteady musical environment was, yet again, delivered in full by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Val Caniparoli’s choreographic setting of Jackson’s original story takes the intensity even further. The imagery presented maintains constant mounting tension, which the cast embodies with an observable passion and completeness. The work features a live lottery at the climax of the piece, at which cast members participate in the same style of drawing the characters in Jackson’s story do as part of their annual ritual.The cast member at the center of the finale of the piece is randomly selected; never knowing with certainty who will be the sacrifice in each individual performance. After a full program of verbal silence, a shouted, “It’s not fair!” became particularly arresting, and certainly provided a standout moment in the production.

Above all, Ben Folds with Nashville Ballet created a unique environment that can be quite rare in performance. It created a space of complete harmony between music and dance; where the two elements could be appreciated in full as one entity and neither vied for dominance over the other. Instrumental soloists were just as visible as the dancers for which they played. Music and choreography both seemed to be produced from a place that is as much source as it is response. Three out of the four programmed pieces were composed with the full intention of their performance in a concert hall without any staging at all, but were choreographed and performed with such a high degree of care and finesse that one almost could not imagine them without their choreography. In the same way, the one programmed piece that was composed exclusively with choreography in mind would hold wonderfully in a concert hall, stripped of its visual elements. The effect is one of actual awe where the audience can feel every caress and every impact in full, with absolute clarity.

Ben Folds with Nashville Ballet can still be seen in TPAC’s Jackson Hall on April 27, 2019 at 7:30 PM and April 28, 2019 at 2:00 PM. Tickets are available at

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