Emergence at Nashville Ballet, 5/19/2012

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“Just keep an open mind,” is what I was told as I took my seat at the Nashville Ballet’s closing production of the season, Emergence. The program challenged audiences and participating artists to stretch their imaginations and step outside of their comfort zones through spontaneous creativity. As CEO and artistic director Paul Vasterling said, “The idea behind Emergence was to be informal, to allow for an exchange.”

The performance was the result of an intensive two-week workshop in which a choreographer, a visual artist and musicians collaborated to produce an original piece. The pieces appeared to blur the lines between dance, music and visual art, resulting in a form of Total Art. With musicians from the Grammy-nominated Alias Chamber Ensemble and artists from Watkins College of Art, Design & Film, Nashville Ballet dancers had clearly met their match.

The first piece was inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," and featured choreography by Kelsey Bartman and visual art by Kellie Taylor, set to Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's “Sonata Representativa.” Bartman and Taylor spoke about the difficulties they faced when they decided to combine that particular narrative to the music. The pre-Bach classical piece was “freer” than most, and Alias artistic director Zeneba Bowers informed us that it was meant to mimic bird calls. Dancers tore paper from a wall installation flooded in uncomfortably optimistic yellow hues as their movements suggested the loss of sanity, while the violins screeched minor-second double-stops in the background.

The music for the second piece, “American Dreams,” was written by a composer who is better known for his musical jokes than serious compositions. PDQ Bach, known in the program as Peter Schickele, infused Quaker tunes, jazz and blues into his score. As a member of Alias said, “This piece is not a joke.” The choreography and visual art reflected the idea of the pixel and alluded to the the constraints of the individual with respect to the whole.

The third piece posed an initial challenge for choreographer Brian Enos. While casting Vasterling a cautious glance, Enos tactfully said, “When I received the piece, I initially thought it was not a piece I would have chosen.” The audience laughed and he added, “But after living with the piece for six months, I love it.” The music — Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts' “And Legions Will Rise” — centered around the marimba, a large xylophone that was struck by a mallet to produce notes that resonated for long enough for the other instruments to pick up the particular note and carry it out, completing the melody circuitously. To reflect this, the scene was set with dangling abstract wooden sculptures by Jessica Clay. At the last strike of the marimba, all dancers hit a pose in unison, which made them look like wooden sculptures themselves.

Cellist and Alias founding member Matt Walker wrote the music for “Arabian Blues” specifically for Emergence. Walker commented on the unorthodox interaction between musicians and dancers during the last production. The musicians moved out onto the center with the dancers, who responded to their live improvisation. “Paul assured me that his dancers would be comfortable with this and I assured him my musicians would be, too — but that was kind of a lie,” Walker said. The dancers moved like shadow puppets illuminated by gyroscopic spotlights of morphing geometric shapes.

Emergence delivered on its promise to provide a "live performance art gallery for audience members,” and reflected the fluid nature of art and the blurring of genres. The program was structured to grow increasingly closer to a complete merging between the visual and the musical. The oldest music was at the beginning, and the newest music was at the end. Musicians and dancers interacted more and more until they finally sat side by side. The set morphed from a sea of moving colorscapes and interactive textures into a sparse light landscape that illuminated the dancers’ movements. Out of the chaos — Emergence!

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