When one thinks of Nashville Ballet, our fair city’s esteemed dance company, one might not immediately connect it with folk, rockabilly or country music, but that didn’t stop choreographers Christopher Bruce and Christopher Stuart from combining the best of these worlds to create the two distinctly different, but thematically similar pieces that make up this year’s “Attitude” program playing TPAC’s Polk Theatre this weekend.
Up first is guest choreographer Bruce’s “Sergeant Early’s Dream”. From upper-left stage, musicians Dan Brayall, Fran Breen, DJ Daly, Eamonn Dillon, Joe Khoury and Derek Pell perform folk songs with a decidedly traditional Irish vibe while members of the company including Mollie Sansone, Sarah Cordia, Kayla Rowser, Julia Eisen, Alexandra Meister, Judson Veach, Jon Upleger, Brett Sjoblom and Logan Hillman bring to life a group of townspeople as they venture to a new life in America, interweaving their new adventures with memories of love and loss along the way. Helping to convey the time-period of the piece is a stark stripped down set and costumes–knee britches for the men, peasant skirts for the ladies–all designed by Walter Nobbe.
The piece begins set to the tune “May Morning Dew”, a slow somber song about hopeful pursuits, Bruce’s dancers seamlessly match the feel of this song with light, flowing movement. The pace quickens slightly with “Eighteen Years Old”, which tells of a mother and daughter discussing the the possibility of the young girl’s pending wedding. Then Bruce perfectly melds the elegance of modern ballet with the humor and fun of an Irish jig that must surely be the forerunner to ‘the twist’ during “Maid of Mount Cisco” as the male suitors, as proud as banty roosters, shake their tail feathers in an attempt to woe the maidens.
Another all-too-relatable highlight of the first half comes when a group of drunken young men literally and figuratively fall all over each other in yet another attempt to catch the eye of a fair young beauty. The audience could be heard laughing out loud, something those of us who aren’t yet regular attendees of the ballet found quite refreshing.
The brilliant mix of humor and heart continues with “Love, Will You Marry Me”. Clever choreography during this number sees the boys following along like love-struck puppies, often ending up chasing each other and their own tails, instead of their intended target.
Of course it’s not all for laughs. Once smitten, “Black is the Colour”, a familiar tune reveals our heroine has fallen in love. Again, it’s beautifully dances as evidenced by the ability to turn the audience’s emotions on their ear.
The piece’s most elegant moment comes during the segment featuring “Barbara Allen”, a traditional 17th century Scottish ballad. First rejecting a dying soldier’s final pleas of the heart, the young female dancer seems too little too late that she may indeed love our hero. In a hauntingly gorgeous turn, the dead soldier rises from his bed and intertwines with his intended just as the backing band sings the very Romeo and Juliet-esque lyrics, “Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard, Sweet William was buried beside her. Out of sweet William’s heart there grew a rose, out of Barbara Allen’s, a briar. They grew and grew in the old churchyard till they could grow no higher. At the end they formed, a true lover’s knot, and the rose grew ’round the briar”. Simply stunning.
The program’s second half, “Under the Lights” debuted as part of 2014’s “Attitude” and is back better than ever. This time around, Sugar + The Hi-Lows featuring Amy Stroup on vocals and percussion, Trent Dabbs on vocals and guitar, Kyle Ryan on lead guitar, Will Sayles on drums and Adam Keafer on bass are positioned on a side-stage just right of the mainstage movement.
As choreographer Stuart indicates in a pre-performance video message, while the piece includes the music of Johnny Cash, as interpreted by Sugar + The Hi-Lows, at one time or another, all of the dancers represent Johnny and his wife June Carter during various aspects of their love life.
Aided by a video montage featuring images of Johnny and June, the second half of this year’s “Attitude” begins as the images of Music City’s rebellious royal duo fade…to black, of course. The curtain rises, but the screen remains. It’s not a technical glitch, as a stark spotlight soon reveals members of the company behind the screen completely encased in silhouette. The dancers move one by one outside the confines of the screen to the outer edges of the stage revealing the men dressed in black, and the women in regal purple tones, courtesy of costume designer Billy Ditty. As the dancers scatter, one lone dancer is left behind the screen obscured in silhouette, striking an iconic Johnny Cash pose holding a guitar. And that’s just the beginning.
Choreographer Stuart and company members Aubrey Clayton, Sarah Cordia, Julia Eisen, Katie Eliason, Keenan McLaren Hartman, Alexandra Meister, Julia Mitchell, Kayla Rowser, Mollie Sansone, Lauren Thompson, Katie Vasilopoulos, Kristin Young, Daniella Zlatarev, Augusto Cezar, Logan Hillman, Nicholas Scheuer, Brett Sjoblom, Aaron Steinberg, Bridge Taylor, Jon Upleger, Judson Veach, Gerald Watson and Nathan Young then set out on a lovely journey that flawlessly captures the larger than life of the man called Cash and the woman who loved him.
While the program includes Cash earworms “I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, “Jackson” and “Folsom Prison Blues”, Stuart wisely choses to also feature two of Cash’s last tunes, “Hurt” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”. Not looking to simply do a Cash ballet, Stuart also includes “Two Day High”, “I’ve Got You Covered” and Tennessee Quick”, three songs written by Dabbs and Stoup that could very easily be part of the Cash wheelhouse.
Of the “Under the Lights” segments that are most memorable, the opener, “I Walk The Line”, featuring Jon Upleger, “Jackson”, appropriately featuring coupled dancers, “Hurt”, featuring Mollie Sansone, with a twist on the vocals by having Stoup take the lead, rather than the usual male vocal choice, and finally the all-in “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, are the most beautifully executed and memorable.
The moment when Upleger takes Hartman in his arms and sweeps her off her feet is the perfect visualization of just exactly what one thinks of when Johnny and June must have locked eyes that first time…and every subsequent time, as June would later write about in “Ring of Fire”, you can just feel the “fever, hotter than a pepper sprout”.
In true Cash style, the evening’s true highlight comes with all eyes on June, this time, in the form of Sansone during the aforementioned “Hurt”. The emotion of this performances perfectly captures the beauty, emotion and ultimate sadness that was the end of Johnny and June’s relationship. After all, on September 12, 2003, Johnny Cash died, just a few short months after his beloved June. Those who knew them best maintain he died of a broker heart. Kind of fitting for a pre-Valentine’s Day weekend ballet.
Nashville Ballet’s “Attitude” featuring “Sergeant Early’s Dream” and “Under the Lights” continues its brief single weekend run with performances through Sunday, February 12 at TPAC’s Polk Theatre with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and a final Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. At the time of this review, limited seating remains for each show. Click Here to purchase tickets. For more information about Nashville Ballet, Click Here or follow the company on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
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