Despite the fact that one is based on a notorious true-crime murder-turned hauntingly familiar school yard rhyme, while the other originated as mysteriously macabre poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, Nashville Ballet’s pairing of The Raven and Lizzie Borden work well when presented together as they manage to find common ground in the pain and suffering of their leads.
Presented first in the program is The Raven, conceived and choreographed by company member Christopher Stuart. Paying homage to the work’s literary genesis, The Raven begins with opening lines of the famed poem projected onto a dark scrim. As the words fade like haunting apparitions in the night, the scrim rises to reveal Nashville Ballet company member Nathan Young as The Narrator, sitting alone in high back chair to beat all high back chairs….or is he alone, for there is a figure dressed in black, even his face obscured by a black form-fitted hood, who seems to be standing beside him.
From the orchestra pit, pianist Alessandra Volpi begins to play a piece by Franz Liszt who’s rhythm and stark meter mimic beautifully that of Poe’s purposeful pounding prose. As Young stretches and constricts, seemingly in an effort to get comfortable in his un-easy chair, he drops a bottle from his hand. He then rises and makes his way centerstage where a portrait of his lost love Lenore (Julia Eisen) eerily glows in the night. Lenore then materializes dressed in a blue gown. That fact that Stuart named the love interest Lenore, may or may not be a wink to the fact that Lizzie Borden’s sister was named Emma Lenora Borden, potentially tying the two featured pieces together, but I digress.
Whether she an affectation of The Narrator’s mind, or simply a result of the consumed content of the empty bottle is unknown. That’s the beauty of ballet. Not only is the audience watching the choreographer’s interpretation of the work, they’re also left to decide for themselves their own narrative as it unfolds before them.
Affectation, ghost or happy memory, throughout the piece Lenore appears and disappears just as quickly, leaving a tormented Narrator to his own each time. Of course those familiar with Poe’s 1845 poetic masterpiece realize there’s another primary character, and just like that, there comes a tapping, gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door. Enter Kayla Rowser as the titular character, The Raven, dressed in a dark leotard with a blue-black feathery pattern, hints of Lenore’s costume’s color scheme, but with her face completely obscured by a black hooded headdress with pointy spikes down the back, reminiscent of a raven’s plumage. Stuart also conceived the scenery and costumes for the piece.
Just like the raven in Poe’s poem, after each visit, Rowser, without uttering a single word, repeats a specific motion, leading the audience to come to know this symbol as a version of the repetitive, yet finalizing phrase, “Nevermore”.
The anguish and despair Stuart and the company of dancers achieve in The Raven is impressive indeed. Seemingly doomed to his misery, the audience can’t help but feel for The Narrator, but alas relief never comes to him and instead of memories of dances with Lenore, he eventually embraces the morbidity of the raven’s visits as he is ultimately driven mad.
After a short twenty minute intermission, the second piece begins. Whereas the first piece acknowledged its origin with words on the scrim, Nashville Ballet CEO and Artistic Director, Paul Vasterling’s Lizzie Borden pays tribute to its story’s most lasting pop culture reference as the audience is treated to an audible scare when young girls are heard chanting the frightfully familiar “Lizzie Borden took and axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one”. The syncopation of this childhood taunt also cleverly recalls the previous piece by mirroring its rhythm.
With that, Kimbell Jensen and Sophia Rothenberg appear onstage jumping rope dressed as two young school girls. Conceived and choreographed by Vasterling, with music newly commissioned from composer Philip Feeney, the interpretation begins with Lizzie (Mollie Sansone) dressed in a simple, but colorful blue dress–another visual tie to the previous piece., Presumably after having already done the doubly dastardly deed, Lizzie is surrounded by a chorus of ghostly figures as she looks back at times in her family with Jon Upliger dancing the role of Lizzie’s Father, Katie Vasilopoulos as Lizzie’s Stepmother and Sydney Box as Young Lizzie. It’s interesting to note that whenever Lizzie’s Father & Step Mother are on stage together they do this almost backward bow movement, a movement that to me represents their shame and attempt to hid their true selves from their community, for there are dark secrets yet to be revealed in the piece.
As Lizzie travels further in her memory the audience sees Lizzie dancing with her younger self and her real Mother (Julia Eisen). That happy memory is cut short when a shadow figure appears and takes the joy from Lizzie’s young life.
The next scene depicts her Mother’s funeral and the arrival of her Stepmother. Delving further in the psyche of Lizzie, there’s a closeness between she and her father, a closeness that becomes too close, hinting at possible incest. Again, anytime there’s a feeling of things not being quite right in the Borden household, the Father and Stepmother move in unison in that odd bow movement. They also lock arms from time to time and stand perfectly still, bringing to mind some sort of twisted version of painter Grant Wood’s American Gothic come to life.
Still longing for happy memories, Lizzie then imagines a community barn dance type scenario with the ghostly couples now taking the form or happy dancing duos. Whenever a potential suitor for Lizzie seems to be getting close to her, he is unceremoniously dismissed by her Stepmother.
Feeling conflicted by her desires and the shame of similar desires come to life with her Father, Lizzie is soon visited by the shadow figure again who this time shows Lizzie an axe, thus planting the idea of breaking away from her tormentors.
Her friend, the Borden family maid (Sarah Cordia) takes her to the solace of a nearby church and she remembers being reunited with one of her suitors, who happens to be a local preacher (Judson Veach), but again her parents intervene and drag her away from what might have been her final chance at happiness.
In the show’s most glorious scene, Lizzie takes the axe in hand and literally dances with her demons, mimicking a first, harsh chopping motion, intermingled with languid thoughtful movement.
She then strips off her clothes (thus the show’s suggested Adult Audience advisory) and awaits her fate. It’s at this moment that the set, primarily dark throughout the piece is suddenly lit in stark blood red light, revealing two large rectangular structures, perhaps a nod to the oft rumored motive of Lizzie’s crime, the fact that her Father had gifted a home to her Stepmother’s sister in the months before the murders.
Once discovered by the family maid, Lizzie remembers the verdict of her murder trial…SPOILER ALERT…Acquitted. Finally free of her family, Lizzie is then seen in a bright red gown, rich from the notoriety of her infamous crime, but alone.
Nashville Ballet’s The Raven/Lizzie Borden continues it’s limited pre-Halloween run with performances October 26-28 at 7:30 p.m. each night. 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.
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