The Nashville Ballet’s got an Attitude
On February 9 – 11 Nashville Ballet held its annual program Attitude, a program “known for its groundbreaking choreography, original music, and cross-disciplinary collaborations” that often push the limits on what, according to Artistic Director Nick Mullikin, “…is traditionally called ballet.” This year featured a set of three world premiere dances from choreographers Yusha-Marie Sorzano, Mollie Sansone, and Jermaine Spivey that created an evening of beautiful, at times hilarious, and starkly relevant dance-centered entertainment.
The first dance, Sorzono’s “Weep” is a work that explores the idea and ideals of collective memory and monuments, danced to a composition by Nashville-based composer Cristina Spinei with a read text by Brian Frank. Through the relative abstract nature of dance, Sorzono is nevertheless able to achieve a more complicated and nuanced investigation on just whose story history tells and “whose story does it hide.” As such, there is much struggle expressed at various moments during the dance, especially during the duet, where one dancer would coerce and force upon the other brisk, fearsome steps that seemed to draw from Vaslov Nijinsky’s great choreography to Le Sacre du Printemps (violent, jagged or angular movements). The costumes, by Mycah Kennedy, in the off-green, worn copper of Lady Liberty, were perfectly drawn, and Lady Liberty’s appearance (not all monuments are of/to singular, ‘great’ men), was inspiring for me as a teacher of history. Sorzono’s work is a powerful reminder that there are always better, and more inclusive, ways to tell history.
Mollie Sansone’s “Speak” also engaged with coercion, but in oratory; it “…physically represents the metaphor getting on a soapbox.” On a stage set with multiple soapboxes of various sizes, the choreography led to different dynamic settings of the soapbox, both real and in metaphor—the couple in argument, a speaker to a crowd, etc, with dancers communicating various emotional responses (rage, pleasure, joy, courage) to the voices they hear and express. In her choreography, one can discern her long classical dance experience (as evinced in the underlying relish for the beautiful in the human form) but with innovations that allow for the development of individual characters, statements and expressions. In her work the movements are less stylized than they are natural and more direct expressions of ideas (the gesture and what it symbolizes stem more from human experience than dance tradition)—the movements emulate their subject. As with any great choreography, the narrative, the idea of the soapbox, is an excellent vehicle for Sansone’s beautiful dance.
Jermaine Spivey’s “In Many Ways,” derives its music (also by Spivey) from words that are spoken by the dancers (“Voices” seems to have been an early theme for the program–there is some evidence of last-minute program shifts) which then grow, from the function of a click track to a full-on score. The choreography has an emphasis on process, the idea of “Creation, Organization, and Reduction.” Despite that, or because of that, it is also a fascinating meta discussion of the process of improvisation and artistic expression. Lastly, at times, it is ridiculously funny.
Individual dancers stood out on Friday: Maia Montgomery and Sarah Pierce in “Speak,” and particularly Imani Sailers who, in “In Many Ways” demonstrated how she was born with more than her fair share of charisma. But overall, the highlight of the night was the troupe. There was a clear sense of synthesis amongst the ensembles, particularly in the way each choreography emphasized the individual and then the shared, all of the dancers are to be commended for their mutual, collective expression.
At the start of the evening, Mullikin came onstage and explained the aspects that, for him, made the evening’s program specifically reflective of Nashville’s culture, and he pointed to the collaborative effort needed to make such a program happen—in the stage design, the lighting, the costume, the composers, the musicians, and the dancers. To this I would add that one of the things that defines the artistic culture of Nashville is the fact that its ballet company is excellent, and Friday night was no exception. Attitude continues through the weekend (tickets are still available) and the Nashville Ballet returns to the stage in April with Paul Vasterling’s wonderful choreography to Romeo & Juliet.