Whether your taste in macabre poetry aligns with the true crime taunt “Lizzie Borden took and axe and gave her mother forty whacks” or Edgar Allen Poe’s more classically toned “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered, weak and weary”, Nashville Ballet has conjured up the perfect Halloween treat as they present a deadly double-feature by pairing the return engagement of Nashville Ballet CEO and Artistic Director Paul Vasterling’s Lizzie Borden with the premiere performances of Nashville Ballet company member and frequent choreographer Christopher Stuart’s The Raven. With the dual productions taking the stage at TPAC’s Polk Theatre for an all-too-brief pre-Halloween run October 26-28, I figured what better Nashville event to feature in the latest installment of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q, so I recently chatted with Vasterling, Stuart and three members of Nashville Ballet.
RAPID FIRE WITH NASHVILLE BALLET CEO and LIZZIE BORDEN CHOREOGRAPHER, PAUL VASTERLING
JONATHAN PINKERTON: I gotta admit, when I think Lizzie Borden, my mind doesn’t automatically say…ballet. Famed choreographer Agnes de Mille approached the subject matter nearly 70 years ago. What inspired you to choreograph your own take on the compelling story?
PAUL VASTERLING: You know, I love hearing that we might be challenging people’s perceptions of ballet with the works that we’re presenting on stage. It’s pretty uncommon to see Lizzie Borden performed by ballet companies nowadays, but you’re right in that the original version was choreographed by Agnes de Mille. My first attraction to the story was through the music—a recording of the original score Fall River Legend (by the Nashville Symphony) used in the de Mille version by composer Morton Gould. I actually choreographed the ballet without ever seeing the de Mille original—I wanted to approach the story based on my own perceptions of what happened. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Lizzie Borden, especially the fact that there are endless theories about what really happened and why. The murders took place in 1892, and we’re still debating the case to this day. After doing a great deal of research, I’ve come to my own conclusions about what happened in the Borden household that day, and leading up to it. I’m a storyteller at my core, and this was one that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell in my own way.
JP: You debuted Lizzie Borden just over a decade ago. I understand there’s new music and new elements in this production. Can you give me details on what’s new in the show for its current incarnation?
PAUL VASTERLING: Nashville Ballet debuted Lizzie Borden in 2006, so it’s been more than a decade since I’ve revisited it. The biggest update to the production this time around is that there’s a brand-new score. In 2006, the ballet was set to Gould’s Fall River Legend, which is the music featured in de Mille’s version. This time around, we commissioned a score from English composer Philip Feeney. I’ve also made updates to the choreography. Every time I revisit a ballet, I always think about how the choreography pairs with the current dancers in the company and make adjustments that play to their individual strengths.
JP: Your presentation of Lizzie Borden is being paired this year with the world premiere of Nashville Ballet company member Christopher Stuart’s The Raven based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting prose. What is it about Stuart’s new work that makes it the perfect companion to your piece?
PAUL VASTERLING: Much like Lizzie Borden, The Raven explores dark themes. Both ballets follow a main character that’s been driven mad in a way, and both works take place in the minds of each of these two characters. Each ballet is also based on a story that’s familiar to most people. Paired together, I think these two pieces can really challenge the idea of “ballet,” which you hinted at earlier. I always like to have a few ballets like that in our season each year.
JP: Alright…Lizzie was acquitted, but come on….did she do it?
PAUL VASTERLING: Yes, I think she absolutely did it. There was intense friction in the Borden household boiling for years, including Lizzie’s mother dying, financial disputes and her father denying her the freedom to find love. Those issues are enough to create unhappiness, yes, but not a motive to commit such a heinous crime. I think the major motive was that Lizzie was a victim of her father’s incestuous abuse for years. She was forced to stay quiet throughout her life, even while her stepmother had an awareness and did nothing about it, and she finally exploded and made the decision to kill.
RAPID FIRE WITH THE RAVEN CHOREOGRAPHER, CHRISTOPHER STUART
JP: : When I chatted with Paul, I asked him what it was about The Raven that compliments his Lizzie Borden ballet, so I’ll ask you the same.
CHRISTOPHER STUART: In both ballets, you’re journeying into the main character’s mind. As an audience member, you get to explore each character’s dark side and grief as you’re watching these stories unfold. With it being Halloween, it’s also the perfect time of year for us to present this double feature of eerie, haunting works that you might not expect from a ballet company.
JP: I understand your piece is accompanied by a classical score featuring Franz Liszt. How did you select his work to audibly express your choreography?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: I worked with Nashville Ballet’s Principal Guest Conductor Nathan Fifield on the music selection for The Raven. I met with him and explained what I was envisioning for the ballet, and he sent me several classical pieces that he thought fit the mood. From there, it just became a matter of experimenting with the choreography and music in the studio to see what worked best in conveying Poe’s work. I ultimately picked two different pieces from Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and arranged them together myself.
JP: Can you speak a little of the creative process of bringing a poem like The Raven to life as a ballet?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: The creative process for me always starts with the research. I remember as a student in school being struck by The Raven reading it for the first time. To me, the pounding meter and internal rhyme lends itself perfectly to be told in ballet form. I’ve choreographed several pieces, but this is really my first time choreographing a story ballet based on another person’s work, so that’s been an interesting challenge. I spent a lot of time in the studio with the dancers experimenting with different combinations of choreography and music to find what I feel like is an honest interpretation of Poe’s text in our language, which is ballet.
JP: I’m always amazed by the intricate choreography of performances at Nashville Ballet. How much rehearsal time goes into a show like The Raven?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: I was actually awarded a Commission Initiative Grant from New York Choreographic Institute to work on The Raven, which supports the development of new choreography in a studio setting. So, the rehearsal process has been a little different this time around. The grant allowed me a week of studio time with six dancers in July to begin working on this ballet. That was crucial to the rehearsal process because I was able to have a straight week of experimentation without the pressure of a stage production directly ahead. After the week this summer, I’ve had three weeks of rehearsal in the studio to finish the choreography. This week, we have three days of technical rehearsals, which adds in elements like live musicians, lightning, costuming, etc., at TPAC before the performance opens.
RAPID FIRE WITH MOLLIE SANSONE, DANCING THE LEAD IN LIZZIE BORDEN
JP: : You were most recently featured in Nashville Ballet’s gorgeous The Sleeping Beauty where you danced the roles of both The Fairy of Song in Act I and Princess Florine in Act II. Now you’re playing a suspected ax-wielding murderess. I would imagine the movement of fanciful characters in The Sleeping Beauty differs greatly from those in Lizzie Borden. Can you describe Lizzie’s movement as it conveys her character?
MOLLIE SANSONE: The Sleeping Beauty demonstrates the epitome of pure classical ballet technique, whereas the movement in Lizzie Borden is quite contemporary. Although it stems from the foundation of ballet technique, I think modern movement allows for more freedom of expression. The boundaries can definitely be pushed! This liberation is intriguing to me as a dancer and an artist. It allows me to adequately portray Lizzie’s personality as an emotionally distraught murderess with all of the idiosyncrasies and nuances she possesses.
JP: You’ve been a member of Nashville Ballet for several years now. While I know this is your first time to dance the lead in Lizzie Borden, were you in the previous 2006 production?
MOLLIE SANSONE: This is my 14th season with Nashville Ballet. I began as a member of NB2 in 2004, during which I performed several times with the main company. I joined the main company in 2006, the year Paul Vasterling’s Lizzie Borden premiered. I was just a newbie trying to prove myself! I remember being very inspired by the woman who originally danced the role of Lizzie. She was a beautiful artist. She moved me in ways I’m only now fully understanding. I never dreamed I’d ever have the chance to perform this role. I’m very grateful.
JP: Nashville Ballet always features truly stunning costumes. Can you tell me about the costumes in Lizzie Borden?
MOLLIE SANSONE: Everyone is donned in all black except for Lizzie, young Lizzie and her biological mother. Since the story is told in retrograde, through Lizzie’s perspective, everyone is either dead or portrays haunting “shadow people” who manipulate Lizzie’s thoughts and motives. Their choreography sometimes resembles the characteristics of zombies, and they will have dark, ghoulish makeup to mimic that. In contrast, Lizzie wears a blue dress the entire ballet, except for the very end, which is one of my favorite parts that I can’t reveal—you’ll just have to see the show.
JP: Have you researched documents, movies or details of the actual Lizzie Borden case in preparation of dancing this role?
MOLLIE SANSONE: I’ve read several things to understand the historical facts of what happened. I’ve also watched the 2014 Lifetime movie Lizzie Borden starring Christina Ricci. I actually just finished watching the 1975 movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden. I’ve gained a lot of inspiration from this research. It’s helped me creatively by gathering different ideas and visuals to formulate my own interpretation of Lizzie’s character. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of stepping into the shoes of someone else. It’s what I dance for!
RAPID FIRE WITH JOHN UPLEGER, LIZZIE’s FATHER IN LIZZIE BORDEN
JP: This isn’t your first foray into the dark world of Lizzie Borden, having danced the role of her father in Nashville Ballet’s 2006 premiere of the piece, correct?
JOHN UPLEGER: Yes, when the ballet premiered in 2006 I played the role of Lizzie Borden’s father. Another dancer was cast as the father, but due to an injury I stepped into the part. At 24, it was a great opportunity to portray a dark character.
JP: In the 10-plus years since you debuted this role, are you now approaching it differently?
JOHN UPLEGER: I relish the chance to revisit a role. I think having more experience brings confidence and with that a willingness to take more artistic chances. I enjoy trying different character choices throughout the rehearsal process. It can be as simple as how you take another dancer’s hand that gives the audience a feeling of unease. Those types of details are something that I’m more aware of this time around.
JP: I can’t let an opportunity to chat with you go by without saying you were simply splendid as Carabosse, the wicked fairy godmother in Nashville Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Now you’re dancing the role of an equally evil character, Lizzie’s dad, whom some might say deserved the ax. What’s the best part of dancing the role of a less-than upstanding character?
JOHN UPLEGER: I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to play a wide array of characters during my career. It can be a challenge to step into a role that’s outside of your own temperament. At the same time, it can be freeing to let yourself become someone else. The character is allowed to be evil and isn’t burdened by a moral compass. In Paul’s telling of the story, the father compels Lizzie to make a choice about the situation she finds herself in. After watching the production, it might lead you to reevaluate your stance on her guilt or innocence.
JP: Is there a certain moment of choreography within Lizzie Borden that you think the audience is going to absolutely love?
JOHN UPLEGER: I’ve truly enjoyed watching Mollie Sansone tackle the role of Lizzie Borden. In her second solo, she struggles with whether or not to carry out the murders. The choreography requires strong technique, and also demands adept artistry. I find myself completely enthralled when watching the scene and I think the audience will be as well.
RAPID FIRE WITH JULIA EISEN, LENORE IN THE RAVEN
JP: Tell me about the character you’re dancing in The Raven.
JULIA EISEN: I’m dancing the role of Lenore, who is the long-lost love of the Narrator (the main character of the poem). Lenore is a mystery; someone we don’t know much about. We’re unsure how she passed away, or what the circumstances were surrounding her death. What we do know is that the love and heartbreak of her loss is extremely powerful. It eventually drives the Narrator insane. Lenore represents more than just a character in this poem. She represents a sense of lost happiness. A happiness that we all want to hold on to, especially when we feel overcome by such darkness. It’s hard to grasp the enormous loss of someone who was so deeply loved and is now gone. The truth becomes impossible to face and we attempt to find comfort by remembering an image, an object or even a pleasant memory that might stay with us.
JP: From checking out your bio I learned that you moved to Nashville to become a member of Nashville Ballet’s NB2, then apprenticed in 2012 and became a full company member in 2013. As I confessed to Paul when I spoke with him earlier, I’m pretty new to the world of ballet fandom, myself. So can you give me a brief synopsis of the difference between Nashville Ballet and NB2 and what it takes to earn an apprenticeship and finally to become a full member of the company?
JULIA EISEN: Simply put, Nashville Ballet has a main company of professional dancers that perform on stage at TPAC each season. NB2 is Nashville Ballet’s pre-professional training program that provides dancers the opportunity to improve the skills needed to achieve their goal of a performing career.
When given the opportunity to be a part of NB2, you are literally “in training” learning Nashville Ballet’s unique technique and culture, because every ballet company has its own. There are also performance opportunities that help you grow as a dancer. NB2 brings ballet to more than 30,000 people each year through performances in schools, public libraries, community centers and more as a part of Nashville Ballet’s Community Engagement Program. NB2 also has the opportunity to be a part of the corps de ballet with the main company, meaning they’re a part of the large group of dancers performing together on stage (in non-soloist roles). Overall, as a member of NB2 you’re able to decide if you fit with the company and, conversely, you’re evaluated by your potential with the company.
From NB2, you may be asked to become an apprentice. Apprentices are given new opportunities like attending class with the main company and taking on more performance opportunities, which might include understudying more challenging roles. As you move through your apprenticeship, you may feel like you’re well prepared to become a member of the main company. But, there are a lot of variables at play that you have no control over, so there are no guarantees. You work hard, stay focused, do your best and see if you are given a spot.
JP: Shattering the old saying “those who can’t…teach,” when not dancing as a member of Nashville Ballet, you yourself do indeed teach ballet, tap and jazz. What’s your favorite aspect of being a student…conversely, what’s your favorite aspect of being a teacher?
JULIA EISEN: First, let me say that I love to dance and I love to teach. They’re not exclusive to one another; it’s special whichever side of the barre I’m on. I get a real sense of joy when I’m taking class and something clicks. It feels like a light bulb has just turned on and I’ve found a new way of moving or expressing myself. I get that same sense of excitement when I watch one of my students have a similar reaction to something I have shown them. I love the parallel between being a teacher and a student, and it’s particularly special because I’m experiencing both at the same time. It definitely feels full circle when I learn something in the studio and then I can bring that immediately to my students.
JP: Bringing Christopher’s vision of The Raven to life, has this given you a new appreciation for Poe’s written word?
JULIA EISEN: Reading this poem again from the perspective of a performer opened another window for me. I wanted to dive deeper into understanding each character, and specifically how to portray Lenore. As dancers, we speak using our bodies. Our emotions are shown through our movements. So, it was important to look at the story from another perspective. I wanted to draw a parallel between our movement and Poe’s words—the underlining emotions and the struggle shown in between each word. Poems have a rhythm when you speak them out loud so that each word falls in its rightful place. Dancers use rhythm to execute our movements, so there’s that parallel there. I have to say Christopher did an incredible job in bringing the words and overall feel of The Raven to life through his vision.
Nashville Ballet’s Lizzie Borden/The Raven will take to the stage at TPAC’s Polk Theatre for three days with performances set for Thursday, October 26-Saturday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m. each night. Ticket pricing begins at just $35. Featuring such a limited run of only three performances, chances to seeNashville Ballet’s chilling Halloween double-feature, will disappear quicker than a bowl of your favorite treats, so be sure and CLICK HERE to purchase tickets.
Up next for Nashville Ballet will be the 10th Anniversary presentation of Nashville’s Nutcracker with select performances December 2-23. CLICK HERE for tickets or more information. You can always follow Nashville Ballet on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
If you’ve enjoyed this latest installment of Rapid Fire 20 Q, be sure and CLICK HERE to peruse previous conversations. Be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at email@example.com.