The seeds for Dance Theatre of Tennessee's Ballet in the Park series, which opens Giselle on Friday, were planted more than a decade ago. When Christopher Mohnani, the company's founder and artistic director, moved to Nashville in 2001, he was surprised to find that the city didn't have an outdoor ballet performance series. The Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival both held regular performances in Centennial Park, so Mohnani saw an opportunity to bring ballet outdoors.
"San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, they all have an outdoor ballet performance," Mohnani explains. "We wanted to find a niche in the city that carried out our mission, which is ballet for the people."
Mohnani collaborated with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival in 2011, choreographing Romeo and Juliet that year. The Dance Theatre of Tennessee performed in one of the festival's pre-shows, doing excerpts from their upcoming season.
"The response was great," Mohnani says. The collaboration inspired him to approach Metro Parks and Shirley Blackburn, director of Metro Dance, to make his dream of outdoor ballet in Nashville a reality. He consulted with Denice Hicks and Robert Marigza of Nashville Shakespeare Festival to learn more about the logistics of staging an outdoor performance series, such as utilizing three-dimensional sets and wings on each end of the stage to prevent audience members from catching a glimpse of any backstage action. But theater and ballet are not an apples-to-apples comparison.
"We're battling the elements," Mohnani says, recalling the troupe's inaugural 2012 Ballet in the Park run with Carmen. "Last year, we only had four shows [scheduled] — two were rained out. And unfortunately, unlike theater actors, we cannot dance if there is even a sputtering of rain. Even little drops here and there, a girl on pointe shoes can slip."
Despite the rain, the first Ballet in the Park was a success, bringing 1,300 people out for two performances. Mohnani & Co. went the extra mile to ensure the audience would get the same experience seeing the ballet outdoors as they would if they were in a theater. They completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund a dance floor — the Centennial Park Band Shell floor is concrete, which is unsuitable to dance on — and spent more on lighting, labor and costumes. Mohnani says the cost for their upcoming production of Giselle is $25,000. The performances are free and open to the public, but a $10 suggested donation will help offset expenses.
"In order to have quality performances, you have to pay," Mohnani says. "We're asking the public to take ownership of each production, so they know that when they're giving something, it's being brought back to them."
Mohnani says that they chose Giselle, one of the most popular classical ballets, because the storyline — a tragic romance, evil spirits, everlasting love — is easy to follow, and the park provides the perfect backdrop for the dramatic, emotional choreography.
"Imagine sitting in the park, watching 22 dancers in long, white flowing tutus — it's just perfect," he says, stressing that the experience of seeing Ballet in the Park is a special one that can't be re-created indoors.
"An art performance is fleeting," he continues. "It's at that moment; you can't replicate it. Unless you're there to see it, you can't experience it. Even if you see it a couple of years from now, it's different than what you'd see now."
Dance Theatre of Tennessee's Giselle runs 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20-30 at the Centennial Park Band Shell. (The Sept. 30 performance is an Artober kickoff event.) Pre-show entertainment starts at 6:30 p.m. each evening, and food trucks including Deg Thai, JonBalaya, Wrapper's Delight, Lil' Choo Choo, Savory Crepes and Puckett's will be on site.