A Music City Happening

The Healing in ‘Steal Away’

Ujima and Ragland (photo: Tiffany Bessire)

There’s something to be said about artists that know what the people need. Composer Dave Ragland and choreographer Shabaz Ujima, along with over 30 Nashville-area performers, introduced a new work this December that is timely for the moment we’re living. Speaking to the beauty and struggles of Black Americans, Steal Away is ultimately a dance-music-opera hybrid meant for a community in recovery. African American spirituals are a dominant influence, which paints the music with color and aesthetics that would otherwise not exist with standard compositional techniques. So as the art unravels into something profound and thought-provoking, the audience is exposed to the creative child that the two artists have concocted. And my, is it something to experience.

When Steal Away begins we hear a dark and moody overture, followed immediately into a powerful recitative, both of which give a subtle nod towards what’s to come. The religious elements and operatic grandeur is evident throughout, so it’s refreshing to hear such a modern take on classic hymns and forms of singing. With movements featuring traditional hymns such as Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and This is the Healing Water, the listener becomes drawn into something so purposeful. The program’s transitions into the inner parts of its story are also important to note, as it lends itself to a push-and-pull with the listener that plays with the conventional boundaries of opera. On the surface, one may think the composition is trying to convert the listener to Christianity. Alas, what Dave and Shabaz present instead is a composition that is grand in scope and timely in its message. From the men in skirts, the intentional multi-generational representation, or the rewording of traditional hymns, the two artists convey a story of struggle, hope, and renewal through a momentous lens.

The work overall sounded difficult. Despite this, the musicians in the Diaspora Orchestra played with ease. There were moments of tension that the flute and cello handled with expertise and precision. Jazz-influenced licks that the pianist turned with excellent simplicity. The chamber-style ensemble never once drew the attention away from the performance at hand, rather complementing the dancing throughout.

Conveying the universal feeling of pain, optimism, and renewal, the movements end with a last movement named after the title, as the work’s theme seemingly comes full circle. “Steal away, steal away,”.. the piece does provide more room for wondering and reflection instead of for direct answers. Despite being composed before the COVID-19 pandemic, the message is just as relevant now as before March 2020. Steal Away is ultimately for Nashville and highlights excellent local groups such as Inversion Vocal Ensemble, shackled feet DANCE!, Friends Life Community, and Rejoice School of Ballet. The work purposefully highlights artists typically underrepresented in opera and dance maybe to say, “look at what you’ve been missing out on.”

Art transcends language, life experiences, and political boundaries. Our jobs as artists should be to create things that reflect the times we live in, and the duo of Dave and Shabaz delivered a moment of tranquil yearning. Not yearning for the time we come from, but instead for a future that is not quite here yet. So despite Steal Away‘s message being something that might take time to interpret, we can still be prepared to value art at all ages and stages of life and fight for what is right.

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