Consider that ballet began as entertainment for European aristocrats in the 1400s, and it might seem dated. But stray beyond its Tchaikovsky-scored hits, and the genre’s 21st-century manifestation is quickly revealed.
“It’s not just The Nutcracker anymore,” says Ann Dunn, artistic director and founder of Asheville Ballet. Her production, Spring into Dance: A Movement Bouquet, showing Friday-Saturday, May 26-27, at the Diana Wortham Theatre, drives that point home.
Eight resident choreographers, three composers and two visual artists will come together for a night of collaborative live performance. With no restrictions beyond a 10-minute time frame, Dunn likens the show to a floral arrangement: diverse and eclectic. “My theory is to hire the absolute best out there and let them do what they do, rather than dictate a theme,” she says.
So, Hickory-native Sandi Weinberg is finding space between modern dance, live theater and banjo picking. Her performance is inspired by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Broadway musical Bright Star. Set in post-World War II Appalachia, it follows Alice Murphy, an unmarried 16-year-old who has just given birth to her son.
“But here’s the dark part,” says Weinberg. Like some ghoulish ballad, Alice’s father-in-law steals the infant, stuffs him in a suitcase and sinks it in a river. For extra spook-factor, the action is set to eerie mandolin licks and folky vocals in two songs, “Whoa Momma” and “Asheville,” played by musicians Will Saylor, Kevin Scanlon, Trevor Stoia and Elizabeth Terry.
Though disturbing, the narrative resonates with Weinberg. Maybe it’s the clawhammer banjo or Southern sociology, “but it’s like home,” she says. “I’m coming back to my roots and feeling the area as an adult rather than a child.”
Megan Jones Medford tells a similar story. After studying under Dunn, she relocated to New York and worked for Periapsis Music and Dance, LiNK! the Movement and Shauna Sorensen and Dancers. But six years in a concrete jungle left her pining for black-as-night soil and Appalachian sky. “I missed being part of nature,” she says. Her piece, “Embankment,” uses continuous circular patterns to symbolize her reconnection with nature.
“The movement is like how a river might flow,” she says. “It runs into downed trees and rocks, but it keeps on.” The performance speaks on behalf of humankind, too. “It’s about us coming together through this journey of water,” says Medford.
Medford blends artistic mediums by coordinating movement to “Árbakkinn,” a composition by Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and producer Ólafur Arnalds and poet Einar Georg Einarsson. When translated, the verses allude to grief. It opens with, “Here I am, floating in emerald sea/Keep me dense, Keep me as still as can be.”
Mair W. Culbreth’s “This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards” also melds text and dance. She says performers will be moving around a large installation constructed by designer Nicole Bauguss. The panels are covered in words that will be, for the most part, indecipherable to audience members. Because the piece grapples a lot with shifting identity, chiefly her father’s, Culbreth describes the whole performance as purposefully disjointed. “It’s a transtemporal approach,” she says. “You’re not sure where you are, but maybe it doesn’t matter.”
Since being diagnosed with dementia, her dad has slowly lost parts of himself. He speaks on a loop or forgets faces. That disorientation comes through vis-à-vis dance. A duet even mimics a conversation where two people are connected in space, but not so much in thought.
“The fragmented style is like how my dad thinks,” Culbreth says. “I wanted to create confusion in the movements.”
Above all, however, Dunn wants the production to be accessible. She sees each Asheville Ballet performance as a chance to rebrand dance as “cool and contemporary,” not just an outmoded pastime for baroque royalty. “It’s not something you dress up for,” says Dunn. She even encourages audience members to wear their Ashevillean gear (hiking boots, shorts and socks) and bring young children.
“Ballet has this aura in people’s minds as being an elitist art form,” she says. “But it just isn’t.”
WHAT: Spring into Dance: A Movement Bouquet
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., ashevilleballet.com
WHEN: Friday, May 26, and Saturday, May 27, 7:30 p.m. $12-$40