On the heels—or should I say toe shoes of—last year’s successful remounting of his Johnny Cash-inspired Under the Lights as part of Nashville Ballet’s annual Attitude series, dancer/choreographer Christopher Stuart has set his creative eye on presenting a new piece, Seven Deadly Sins, debuting Friday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m. at TPAC’s Jackson Hall. Helping to bring each of the seven deadly sins to life, Stuart is aided by Ten Out of Tenn, a brilliant collection of some of Music City’s most creative and successful musicians, singers and songwriters. In addition to Stuart’s Seven Deadly Sins, Nashville Ballet’s Artistic Director and CEO, Paul Vasterling, with musical accompaniment by the Nashville Symphony, will present his choreographic take on Appalachian Spring, a ballet originally created by legendary ballet dancer/choreographer Martha Graham and famed composer Aaron Copland.
Earlier this week, as Stuart, his musical collaborators and members of Nashville Ballet readied for Thursday’s final dress and Friday’s opening night performance, I posed Seven not-so-deadly questions to the prolific dancer/choreographer for the latest installment of my recurring interview feature, for a special Rapid Fire 7 Q.
Rapid Fire 7 Q with dancer/choreographer Christopher Stuart
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Last year you revisited your stunning Under the Lights for Nashville Ballet’s Attitude series featuring the music of Johnny Cash performed by Sugar + The Hi-Lows. I loved that you began the piece literally presenting the Man in Black, by way of projecting silhouettes of the dancers behind a screen. What aspect of that piece are most proud of?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: I discovered Johnny’s music when I moved to Nashville from Connecticut in 2002, and I still remember the moment I was hooked. I was watching the video for Hurt, and I had an immediate connection to him as an artist. After I started digging more deeply into Johnny as a person, I became really interested in the man behind the music. I think I’m most proud of how Under the Lights captures the emotion behind the different chapters of Johnny’s life—both the incredible highs and incredible lows. You feel his intense love for June, but also his issues with addiction. Through all of his struggles, though, I think he was just trying to be the best husband, father and artist that he could. I wanted that to come across, and for the audience to be able to relate that back to their lives. We all have things we’re struggling with, and we’re just trying to do the best we can every day.
JP: I have to admit, while I’ve always enjoyed ballet, I’ve never considered myself the typical ballet patron. That said, every time I see a Nashville Ballet performance, I’m struck by the relatability. Whether by including humor, or merging classical ballet movement with more modern choreography, there truly is something for everyone. Is that something your conscious of when choreographing a new piece?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: Definitely. One of my goals, and one of Nashville Ballet’s goals, is to challenge some of the preconceived notions that surround ballet—that it’s only tutus, pointe shoes and classical music. We present those types of classical ballets each season (like Nashville’s Nutcracker, Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.), but we also make room for contemporary ballets with music from different genres that might challenge your traditional idea of ballet.
I particularly like collaborating with Nashville musicians to create something that’s unexpected because it allows us to welcome in folks who may not have otherwise considered ballet. I met so many different people at Under the Lights who came because they’re a fan of Johnny Cash, and left becoming a fan of ballet. I think lots of people walk into the theater thinking they’ll see one thing, and walk out with a completely new idea of what ballet can really offer.
JP: On the subject of new work, your newest piece debuting with Nashville Ballet is Seven Deadly Sins. Can you tell me a little about the piece?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: Seven Deadly Sins spotlights each of the temptations we face every day—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. There’s one main character, the Protagonist, who journeys through each of the seven deadly sins embodied through choreography and music. Another character, Agatho, represents both the struggle for good and evil as she guides the Protagonist toward and away from each sin. At the end of the ballet, the Protagonist is essentially worn down by the weight of the sins. As a bit of a spoiler, rain will actually fall on stage at the end to represent the Protagonist washing away his sins and receiving redemption.
I teamed up with Nashville singer-songwriter collective Ten Out of Tenn to create a brand-new soundtrack for this ballet. One of the Ten Out of Tenn artists, K.S. Rhoads, and I collaborated on the concept and feel of the music. K.S. grouped each of the artists together (Butterfly Boucher, Trent Dabbs, Gabe Dixon, Katie Herzig, Matthew Perryman Jones, Erin McCarley and Amy Stroup) and worked with them to create a song inspired by the concept of one of the seven deadly sins. Instead of taking the concept of the seven deadly sins so literally, they used each sin as a starting off point and applied it to their own lives—just like they would in their typical songwriting process. The Ten Out of Tenn artists will debut the music at Seven Deadly Sins backed up by live orchestration from the Nashville Symphony, which K.S. also scored.
JP: Which of the Seven Deadly Sins proved most challenging to present via movement?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: The challenge wasn’t so much in representing any of the seven deadly sins through movement, but more in how to have the dancers portray them through character work. I didn’t want the choreography or the dancers’ characters to be so literally based on the sins, but more of an embodiment of them. It’s a fine line.
That being said, the section for “wrath” was probably the most challenging. I wanted to find a way to get the emotions of wrath across in a way that felt true to its definition but, again, wasn’t in your face literal. I think we got it, though. That section is all men led by Judson Veach, and you can feel fury in the movement. Judson even kicks down a door at one point on stage.
JP: Of the seven, what was the most fun to bring to life?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: “Gluttony” was the most fun to bring to life, and it was also the first one I choreographed for this ballet. The song for gluttony, which is called I Can’t Get Enough of Everything, was written by Gabe Dixon, Jeremy Lister and K.S. Rhoads. It just clicked the moment I heard it. For this section, I choreographed a solo featuring Augusto Cezar. We went into the studio together, and it was really collaborative between us. This section is just Augusto on stage dancing for five minutes straight, which is not something you see a lot. Typically with a solo, a male is paired with a female and they share the stage together. Instead, Augusto is carrying the section solo the entire time. It’s physically demanding for a dancer and it’s pretty impressive to watch.
JP: As you mentioned earlier, your choreography for Seven Deadly Sins will be accompanied by new music from Ten Out of Tenn. Among its members are Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup, both also members of the aforementioned Sugar + The Hi-Lows, with whom you collaborated during Under the Lights. What’s it been like to work with them and the other members for Ten Out of Tenn as they create new music for the piece?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: I’ve known several of the artists in Ten Out of Tenn for a long time, so it’s been incredible teaming up with them for this project. Nashville Ballet has worked with a few of the artists previously, like Trent Dabbs, Amy Stroup and Matthew Perryman Jones, but this is the first time the artists have created original music for one of our performances.
Each of the artists bring a completely different vibe and feel to their music. Basically, Ten Out of Tenn was created in 2005 to highlight Nashville’s music scene beyond the country genre we’re typically known for. The musicians range from Americana to folk to rock to pop, and the songs they created for this ballet are true to who they are as artists. A Matthew Perryman Jones song sounds like a Matthew Perryman Jones song; a Gabe Dixon song sounds like a Gabe Dixon song. Each artist approached the sin they were assigned from a personal place to go deeper into its meaning, which in turn only magnified what I can do with the choreography.
JP: What do you hope the audiences take away from your interpretation of Seven Deadly Sins?
CHRISTOPHER STUART: Every day we’re faced with temptation in some way, sometimes large, sometimes small. Some days we’re able to make the right choices, and sometimes we don’t. Seven Deadly Sins looks at the issues that I think we all struggle with every day. The idea of the seven deadly sins might sound dark, but they’re just vices we all deal with to some degree like jealousy, anger and laziness.
Because we’re imperfect humans, we’re going to slip-up from time to time. I think that’s okay, though, as long as we’re continually trying to make strides to be a better person. Seven Deadly Sins ends on a hopeful note, and I think that’s helpful to remember. We’ll all make wrong choices at some point, but we can ask for forgiveness when we do.
If the audience walks away from this piece and just takes a moment to reflect on their own lives and what they could work on, then I think that’s a win. Life is all about the choices we make, and that’s what this ballet is about.
Nashville Ballet’s Seven Deadly Sins and Appalachian Spring will be presented at TPAC’s Jackson Hall Friday and Saturday, May 5 & 6 at 7:30 p.m. with a final Sunday matinee on May 7 at 2 p.m. 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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