There are new things afoot for Dance Theatre of Tennessee as the 3-year-old company embarks on its 2012-13 season, not least of which is the sign on the company's unpretentious but comfortable studios at 2710 Old Lebanon Road. "It took two-and-a-half years to finally get our sign," says artistic director Christopher Mohnani. "A small grant from the Community Foundation helped us out."
Mohnani has been gaining support from other quarters as well, mainly Metro Parks and the Metro Arts Commission, who have contributed to DTT's effort to kick off its season with a fresh idea. Spinning off from Nashville Shakespeare Festival's 25 years of success performing outdoors in Centennial Park, DTT will offer Ballet at the Park, opening tomorrow evening at the familiar band shell venue.
"The idea for Ballet at the Park started last year when we did a preshow performance for Shakespeare in the Park," Mohnani says. "I was involved as choreographer with NSF's 2011 production of Romeo and Juliet, and artistic director Denice Hicks had us do some excerpts from Swan Lake and some other pieces from our fall program. The response was great, and from there it seemed logical to explore how DTT could perform in the park more formally."
Further discussions with Hicks and NSF operations manager Robert Marigza helped former Nashville Ballet principal dancer Mohnani make his idea a reality. "They were tremendously helpful," he says. "They pointed me in the right direction, toward the right people, and also supported us in other practical ways." Like Shakespeare in the Park, the DTT performances are free, with a suggested donation of $10.
It's a strong program, featuring Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen (1967), a suite that pays homage to Bizet's opera masterpiece about the desperate love triangle between a fiery gypsy woman, a soldier and a toreador. The familiar musical themes are present, and if anything, Shchedrin's heightened use of percussion makes for an even more passionate treatment of the title character.
Fortunately for DTT, the sinewy and sensual Jennifer Drake dances the lead, conveying all of Carmen's emotional danger and purely physical allure. Brian Williamson is a fine Don Jose, the handsome young corporal driven to a kind of madness by the faithless beauty, while Dillon Davis is his rival, the bullfighter Escamillo. Gabriella Gambino offers a strong supporting performance as Micaela, Don Jose's yearning childhood sweetheart.
The choreography is by Mohnani's Filipino countryman, the late E.V. Cruz. "It's a more condensed version of the story," says Mohnani. "This is a ballet I first encountered in Manila. I eventually played roles in it — first a villager, then Escamillo, then Don Jose. I love the dramatic narrative here — the dancers can explore all of the five senses in reaching out to their audience.
"Also, I wanted us to do something for first-time ballet goers — to present something they can relate to: Carmen is actually quite like reality TV, but done en pointe."
The program's opening piece, Ecole de Ballet, offers a quaint tour through the ballet school experience, featuring DTT's academy students as well as its permanent company members. The music is by world-famous Austrian pianist, composer and teacher Carl Czerny, with choreography by Ballet Manila's Osias Barroso.
The set design at the band shell is by Gregg Colson and Randy Purcell, the original costumes by Michael Miguel and Joy Matubis.
"This is a great opportunity for us," Mohnani says. "My own very first ballet experience in Manila was a park performance of Don Quixote. Community performances are where our niche is going to be, and we are sticking to our mission of ballet for the people."
The Monday, Oct. 1, performance is DTT's way of helping launch Artober — Nashville's monthlong citywide celebration of art. (See a list of Artober highlights here.) For further information on DTT's upcoming season, visit dancetheatretn.org.