Tall tales and ghost stories are a Tennessee tradition, not so odd perhaps in a state snake handling can be a part of religious practice. Both were elements in Nashville Ballet's season opener, which I attended as a guest of the company. Artistic director Paul Vasterling has been building all audience in a city better known for Grand Ole Opry than ballet, with programming that both reflects and responds to the city's culture.
Ouroboros, Vasterling's three-movement ballet about the ride played by serpents in various religions, has a marvelously integrated and danceable score by Nashville composer J. Mark Scearce. A glowing red set piece designed by Jason Facio, suggestive of the eponymous Ouroboros (the symbol for a serpent with her tail in her mouth), forges a link between the three sections, as do lengths of rope suspended, snakelike, over the stage.
Brave, ambitious, and in places quite stunning, Ouroboro's is well-crafted but not entirely a success. The corps in the first movement is introduced lying on its collective back, legs waving ill serpentine fashion, which looks more silly than spiritual--although Jennifer McNamara is superbly regal as an ancient princess and Jon Upleger is a naively sensual initiate. The second movement works best, with Christopher Mohnani as Adam and Rachel Ellis as Eve both alternating as the serpent. Vasterling made a richly textured, softly curved, playfully innocent pas de deux for them, which changes when the snake slithers through the set piece, morphing into the worm in the apple of temptation. The music becomes hard-driving, and the movement shifts to angular shapes as innocence, not to mention the Garden of Eden, is lost to Adam and Eve.
Least successful is Part 3, about snake handlers, which opening night was too buttoned up and unspontaneous. The classical choreography is perhaps wrong for portraying the dance like state that allows snake handlers to treat serpents like pieces of rope. But by the third performance, the cast, led by the remarkable Christine Rennie as an outsider who joins the group, was dancing more like worshippers in the grip of religious fervor.
Ann Marie DeAngelo's The Bell Witch is a grand entertainment with a Copland-like score by Nashville corn poser Conni Ellisor incorporating folk songs by J.C. Brown. DeAngelo tells the talc of the Bell family "witch," who murders the head of that family and prevents a marriage, with full use of the classical vocabulary--entrechats six, pas de chats, barrel turns (in one case performed by a woman!) cabrioles, bourrees, and at one point, militia men who break into, well, break dancing, all put together with a craft that shows character and tells the story.
McNamara as the Bell Witch is chilling and poignant, and Sadie Harris as Betsy Bell, the would-be bride, has the most beautiful feet I've seen anywhere--perfect commas elegantly and powerfully used.
One can seen DeAngelo's performance autobiography with the Joffrey Ballet in the choreography: Betsy's intended, danced by Matthew Christensen, ill the witch's grip moves like Petrouchka, and one pas de deux is reminiscent of Cranko's Romeo and Juliet. No matter--it all works to tell the story.
Nashville Ballet has air unusually strong male complement. Eddie Mikrut, who is quite young, danced the haunted middle-aged John Bell with acting skill as well as fine technique.
Scenic projections and 3-D design by Gerald Marks set up a deliciously spooky atmosphere, and Charles Schoonmaker's costumes worked well, especially the witch's green-tinged Southern belle ball gown. Both premieres were commissioned jointly by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and the ballet company.
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|Author:||West, Martha Ullman|
|Article Type:||Dance Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2004|
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