Review: “Lucy Negro Redux” ballet, coming to the Newman Center

When the Nashville Ballet takes the Newman Center stage at the end of the month to perform “Lucy Negro Redux,” attendees won’t need to alter their sense of what ballet is so much as expand their sense of what it can be.

It turns out the so-called perfect storm has a creative counterpart that we’ll call the perfect confluence. And “Lucy Negro Redux” — which plays March 29  and 30 — comes out of that kind of creative convergence.

Three exceptional artmakers, bound by a voracious curiosity and a rich relationship to their particular “canons,” embarked on the collaborative journey in 2017.

  • Poet and writer Caroline Randall Williams readily admits to being a “Shakespeare girl.” It is her book of poems that inspired the undertaking, which had its world premiere in Nashville in 2019. And it is her voice that will deliver the spoken word verve parts of the libretto.
  • Singer-composer Rhiannon Giddens brings her abiding gifts for roots music to a score that teases that tradition but also strikes Elizabethan notes. She’ll be playing the viola on stage, along with Italian co-composer Francesco Turrisi, who will be playing the delightfully called “cello banjo,” among other instruments.
  • Paul Vasterling, the ballet’s creator and artistic director of the Nashville Ballet, knows the rules upon rules of his beloved art, but was thrilled at the wild possibilities once he read the book that a company board member handed him as they passed in the hallway.

In her book, “Lucy Negro, Redux,” Williams takes on — and takes inspiration from — Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets. Her poems embrace, reimagine and throw caution to the wind with great depth and playfulness. They tease Elizabethan possibilities but also expound on the utterly contemporary ways she sees herself as subject and progenitor of myriad traditions.

“In the old age black was not counted fair/Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name,” begins Sonnet 127, the start of The Dark Lady sonnets. But it is this bit of business that struck Williams, so much so that she traveled to England to meet with a scholar who has done work to trace who this woman might have been in the young Shakespeare’s life:  “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun/If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”

What Black woman does not recognize herself in that deft couplet? Oh, snap! The Bard’s Dark Lady is a Black lady. Was she the brothel owner Black Luce?

“I was going away to a friend’s house, right outside of Nashville. And I just picked it up and stuck it in my bag and started reading it out on a little porch. I read it in one sitting,” Vasterling said during a recent Zoom

chat. “When you read something like that, you can see it immediately, that it could be something theatrical. I didn’t realize that Caroline was inherently theatrical.” He called Williams, a Nashville native, and had her visit the ballet.

For all of Vaterling’s enthusiasm, he recalled telling Williams he wasn’t “sure if I’m the guy to do this valley — white guy here.” He laughs. “She said, ‘I think you are.’ ”

Giddens was on tour, performing in Nashville when Vasterling and Williams pitched her the project. “When I read the poetry, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I get it,’ ” she said. “I had just started working with Francesco Turrisi, who has been in a Renaissance ensemble for 15 years. And I was like, oh, maybe bring him into this.” The two have since released two albums together.

Both she and Turrisi will be onstage during the performance: Giddens on the viola; Turrisi playing the seductively named cello banjo, which she introduced him to, among other instruments. “I didn’t even know he played stringed instruments because he’s a percussionist. He plays piano. And I was like, really? Like, what else do you play?’ ” Giddens said, smiling. “He started playing it like a lute. Some of my favorite pieces for ‘Lucy’ were composed on those two instruments together.”

During a residency at New York State’s Chautauqua Institution, the two of them got together with Williams and Vasterling as well as the dancers to began working through the ballet. “That was just magic,” said Giddens, who, as the cofounder of several musical groups — including the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops — is no stranger to collective work. “You really have to leave your ego at the door when you’re collaborating if you want a good collaboration and let the piece itself become the thing that you’re rooting for rather than your part of the piece.

“The work that went into the ballet really shows that this idea of the sort of megalomaniacal creator who just goes off into an attic and then makes this thing and then makes everybody do that thing, it’s just BS,” said Giddens. “That’s not how it has to happen. You can really find a thing as a group, even with really strong (people in the room). And all of us are very strong — in a beautiful way.”

The “artist” going it alone is only one version of the creation narrative. It’s often little more than a myth that stymies artistic growth — that, and who gets to be deemed an artist. Giddens felt transformed by Williams’ approach to her own writing.

“I think one of the reasons it was such a great collaboration is because I feel like what (Williams) is doing with her poetry is something I’m doing with my music,” Giddens said. “She’s very well versed in the contextualization of that history. And she also is embodying that history because of where she’s coming from, where I’m coming from. We are a part of that history as well as observers and critiquers.”

  • Provided by Karyn Kipley Photography/the Nashville Ballet

    Shakespeare's Dark Lady gets her moment in the spotlight in the Nashville Ballet's "Lucy Negro Redux." Credit: Karyn Kipley Photography, provided by the Nashville Ballet

  • Provided by Karyn Kipley Photography/the Nashville Ballet

    The Nashville Ballet's "Lucy Negro Redux," choreography, libretto and directed by Paul Vasterling, based on Caroline Randall Williams book of poems. Credit: Karyn Kipley Photography, provided by the Nashville Ballet

  • Provided by Karyn Kipley Photography/the Nashville Ballet

    Lucy and Caroline Randall Williams, right, poet and the author of the book on which the ballet is based. Provided by Nashville Ballet

But the connection was even more profound than a shared status as Black women. It cut to the skin, the sinew, the bone of being. “In some ways, she gets a little more in the dirt than I do,” said Giddens reflectively. “I have been a very disembodied creator for a lot of my life because that was just how I responded to things in my childhood. I could see that this was a project that would get me a little closer to being more fully embodied in myself, if you know what I mean, because (Caroline’s) there. So that’s how we inspire each other. Right? I definitely feel like it was a good step for me to be working with another woman of color, to be playing in her sandbox and going, ‘OK, maybe I can be a little bit more like this, too.’ ”

The ballet premiered in Nashville in 2019, with principal Kayla Rowser originating the role of Lucy. The hometown crowd showed up for their ballet company but also for their native daughter, Williams.

Opening night was an especially big night for Rowser, who pioneered the role of Lucy but has since retired. (It has yet to be announced who will perform it here.) She had spent much of her career pushing against the notion of being a Black dancer, yet there she was on the stage where she was embodying a Black woman in a lead role. “She had felt a lot of anxiety because she spent so much time, so much of her career, wanting to just be considered for the quality of her dancing separate from race,” recalled Williams.

There is a moment when the two are onstage at the end of the ballet and Lucy dancer places her hand on Lucy poet’s shoulder. They make eye contact. “And she just had tears of joy and relief pouring down her face,” Williams said of Rowser’s performance in Nasvhille.

“I know I’m a loud, rash, militantly liberal Black woman who writes poetry that speaks my truth the way I see it. But asking her to dance this role built around my words, for her to have that experience, and then for her to have had a positive outcome, that was amazing.”

If you go

“Lucy Negro Redux.” Choreography, libretto and direction by Paul Vasterling. Based on the book by Caroline Randall Williams. Music by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. At the June Swaner Gates Concert Hall at the Newman Center, 2344 East Iliff Ave., March 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets at newmancenterpresents.com or by calling 303-871-7720.

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