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Dancing Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

How Elizabethan: The new and old of Nashville Ballet's "Black Lucy and the Bard" on PBS's Great Performances.

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Claudia Monja as Black Lucy and Owen Thorne as the Bard in “Great Performances: Black Lucy and The Bard.” Photo: Heather Thorne

For the past couple of weeks or so, thanks to my computer and television screens, I’ve been pretty much glued to Elizabethan England, specifically the reigns of Elizabeth the First and Elizabeth the Second, which ended with the modern Elizabeth’s death on September 8. 

Anyone who habitually watches the evening news, as I do, couldn’t, of course, avoid the latter. The former has absorbed me because of a ballet titled Black Lucy and the Bard — the Bard being Shakespeare — performed by the Nashville Ballet, and musicians Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, who composed the score, which was broadcast last Sunday afternoon by OPB, and is part of the Golden Jubilee of WNET’s Great Performances.  Giddens is a Grammy Award-winning singer, composer and musician; Turissi a jazz musician and early-music specialist.  It’s a fine score, although I found parts of it highly repetitive and a bit dreary in the first 30 minutes of the ballet.

The Great Performances series is best-known for broadcasting the Vienna Opera’s New Year’s Day celebration; performances by the Metropolitan Opera, Live from Lincoln Center; American Ballet Theatre’s stellar Swan Lake; and tributes to such American artists as Joan Baez and Twyla Tharp. So it surprised the hell out of me when Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling let me know that they had included this brilliantly conceived, multi-disciplinary, postmodern, intensely American  “story” ballet in the current season.

Black Lucy and the Bard, originally titled Lucy Negro, Redux, premiered in 2019 before a cheering Nashville audience, much of it made up of people of color. Like many traditional story ballets, it is based on a “what if”:  What if a princess is turned into a swan by day by an evil sorcerer? What if another princess is put to sleep by a wicked fairy for a hundred years and awakened with an aristocrat’s kiss, unchanged? What if young women, jilted at the altar, become angry ghosts taking revenge by dancing their bridegrooms to death, or any other man who wanders into their territory at night?

Claudia Monja as Black Lucy and Nicolas Scheuer as Shakespeare’s Fair Youth in “Great Performances: Black Lucy and The Bard.” Photo: Heather Thorne.

And “What if the Dark Lady of the sonnets was Black?” Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams, who is Black, says in the introductory moments of the televised version. And, what if the Fair Youth of the sonnets was gay and Shakespeare was in love with both of them? Williams’ book, Lucy Negro, Redux — described by New York Times writer Margaret Renkl as “part lyrical narrative, part bluesy riff, part schoolyard chant and part holy incantation” — is based on both those premises, and furthermore identifies the Dark Lady as the proprietress of a London brothel. Such a woman actually did exist.

Vasterling, a storytelling choreographer and, like the Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble, a reader of many, many books, read this one, and immediately saw the possibilities for all kinds of choreography to tell this tale on the ballet stage. And also to make a statement, in collaboration with poet, musicians, and the dancers themselves, about the issues confronting all aspects of American society today—equality, agency, self-determination, diversity, and yes, inclusion. Nothing in this ballet makes that statement more clearly than the role of Lucy herself. “It never occurred to me that I would dance the character of a Black woman,” Kayla Rowser, who originated the role, told me in an interview for Dance International in 2019. She danced it very differently from Claudia Monja, who performs Lucy in this version, directed for television by dance filmmaker par excellence Matthew Diamond.

Brilliant as it is, and as elegantly and forcefully as it is performed by Nashville Ballet’s dancers and the musicians, who are on stage with them, Lucy does contain some flaws, the principal one being the omnipresent poet, walking around the stage as she recites her verse, at times appearing to be telling the dancers—mostly the long-legged Monja in the title role–what to do.  Obviously, her text, and its rhythms as she speaks it, are integral to the choreography and the expression of character. But Randall herself moves awkwardly, and worse yet, draws the viewer’s attention away from the dancers, interrupting the flow of the narrative at best, and upstaging the performers at worst.

These dancers don’t deserve that. No matter what their training and performance experience has been (and both are highly varied), they execute Vasterling’s eclectic vocabulary with everything they’ve got, whether it’s purely classical, or shaded with modern movement, or echoes Elizabethan social dances. Monja, who hails from Havana, joined the company last year, having trained with the National School of Cuba and performed with the company. Her schooling is therefore basically Russian, and she dances with that kind of physicality, telling Lucy’s story with every muscle in her body, including those in her face. Lucy’s a tough woman, who does not return Shakespeare’s love and makes no apologies for that or anything else; including, in at least one pas de trois that includes the Fair Youth, teasing the Bard by flirting with both of them.

Composers Francesco Turrisi, left, and Rhiannon Giddens performing the ballet’s music. Photo: Heather Thorne

Owen Thorne, who has the lean and hungry look of Cassius in a play by Shakespeare that as far as I know has not been made into a ballet, originated the role of the Bard in 2019 and therefore has had plenty of opportunities to fine-tune his performance. He trained initially with Nashville Ballet’s School, then Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and as a freelancer has danced with many companies all over the world. His partnering of both Monja and Nicolas Scheuer as the Fair Youth provides some of the best moments in the ballet, particularly a pas de deux with Scheuer that is laced with tenderness, and longing for a forbidden love.

Scheuer, a Brazilian, like Monja has Russian training, in his case with the Bolshoi Theater School of Brazil. In Lucy he dances a solo I identified in my notes as Mercutio, because it reminded me, vividly, of that taunting bravura tour de force that’s in every production of Romeo and Juliet, including James Canfield’s for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Not every bravura dancer can be funny, but here Scheuer, sending up cliched gay mannerisms with the flip of a wrist or the pout of his mouth, gave me the giggles more than once, pointing the finger at the absurdity of these stereotypes.  And a merry little pas de deux for two women, their faces painted with mustaches and pointed beards, may possibly be my favorite moment in this topical, politically oriented 21st century story ballet. Calling it a story ballet may of course be a bit of a stretch, since it doesn’t end tragically, nor does it have a happy ending. Nothing is resolved.

Sort of like life.

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OPB subscribers at the Passport level can watch Black Lucy and the Bard, all Great Performances in fact, On Demand. 

Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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One Response

  1. As a postscript, Dough Fitch’s costume designs are absolutely superb, an expression of character as well as period. I really loved them.

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