Spring fling

Duets and duels: Lyle Laney and Alyssa Belcher dance the principal roles in a ballet that draws inspiration from Romeo and Juliet, the music of Aaron Copland and the surrounding mountains. Photo by Duncan Barnes

There are many inspirational forces at work behind The Asheville Ballet's production of An Appalachian Romance. The music of late composer Aaron Copland, a connection with local chamber music ensemble Pan Harmonia and the story of Romeo and Juliet are among those influences. But it was Ann Dunn's move to Asheville in 1980 that set this particular dream in motion.

“It seemed like a natural to me,” she says. Dunn is the artistic director of the Asheville Ballet (she's also a writer and teaches courses in Renaissance literature). Copland's ballet and orchestral suite, Appalachian Spring, featured a minimalist set designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. “The whole ballet looked, to me, like the prairie,” says Dunn, who wanted to recast it in actual Appalachia.

So, An Appalachian Romance takes place between two feuding mountain families. “Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, but serious,” says Dunn. The two lovers in the story (think: Shakespeare's star-crossed couple, danced by Lyle Laney and Alyssa Belcher) bring the warring clans together.

“I immediately thought of Copland when I thought of Romeo and Juliet,” says Dunn. Cues in the music recalled, for her, the saga of the Capulets and Montagues that she's produced a number of times, in ballet form, over the years. The original Appalachian Spring was nothing like that story, and its principal performer was none other than the late modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, with whom Dunn studied for two years in New York. (Dunn also trained under Black Mountain College teacher-in-residence Merce Cunningham.)

It was Graham who commissioned the Copland work, which premiered in 1944. “Her Appalachian Spring was the iconic one,” says Dunn. “But I didn't want to do a modern dance version, I wanted to do a classical ballet, and I wanted to set it in the mountains of our region here.” Dancers will wear pointe shoes, paired with Appalachian garb in corduroy and calico. And the choreography includes a pig roast.

As Dunn and Laney (who was named associate artistic director of the ballet company last fall) began choreographing their production, Pan Harmonia founder Kate Steinbeck got in touch to let Dunn know that her group would be performing the Copland piece as part of its May programming. It “captures the essence of an ideal America, one of open fields and endless possibilities,” says press for the upcoming concerts (Sunday, May 19 at the Masonic Temple and Thursday, May 23 at White Horse Black Mountain).

Of that synchronicity, Dunn says, “It's just one of those wonderful random Asheville things.” She hired Pan Harmonia to perform; Steinbeck and violinist Jamie Laval have curated a group of musicians. Caleb Young (an assistant conductor for the Indiana University Philharmonic, who has roots in Hendersonville) will conduct.

But An Appalachian Romance is really just one part of the program. The concert, says Laney, “spans the gamut of a good 130 years.” He'll stage a unique take on Swan Lake that, he explains, took elements of the White Swan Pas de Deux and the Black Swan Pas de Deux, and created a black-and-white pas de deux.

“I think we're being fair to Tchaikovsky,” says Laney. “Choreographers can choose to make a change, but they better have a good reason.”

Dunn adds that dance is like an oral art form, with choreography handed down over years and even centuries. There's a vocabulary — movements and gestures — that conveys story and emotion to the audience. But as much as the traditions have been preserved, change is also inherent in dance. “Ballet has changed so much in the last century. It was [New York City Ballet co-founder George] Balanchine who took off all the tutus,” says Dunn. “The influence of modern dance on ballet has been huge.”

Which is why the third part of the evening is the modern, danced-in-bare-feet Lauda Jerusalem, set to the music of Vivaldi. “This is not 'Four Seasons,'” Dunn says of that Baroque composer's popular set of violin concertos. “It's nine minutes of non-stop, exciting, rip-roaring dancing. It requires a lot of stamina.”

But Dunn's dancers are up to the challenge, and that's just one more reason why now, after more than 30 years of envisioning, this production is about to be a reality. The Asheville Ballet has trained dancers that have gone on to professional companies, and many work overseas. Some current students are getting ready to head off to their next adventures; others are mature performers in the 20-40 age range. “This is the year because there are so many great dancers,” says Dunn.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: An Appalachian Romance
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Friday and Saturday, May 17 & 18 (7:30 p.m., $25/$35/$50 for adults and $15 students and children. http://www.dwtheatre.com)

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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