Dancer Claudia Monja (left) is Lucy in Nashville Ballet’s “Lucy Negro Redux,” choreographed and directed by Paul Vasterling. Poet Caroline Randall Williams (right) wrote the book and performed spoken word. Credit: Andrew Schwartz/Veritography, courtesy of the Harriman-Jewell Series.
Nashville Ballet’s “Lucy Negro Redux” is a loving and irrepressible imagining of the “dark lady” from William Shakespeare’s sonnets. Inventive choreography, spoken word, and original music come together in a transcendent story of a strong Black woman.
The ballet was presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts’ Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
The work is based on the poetry of Caroline Randall Williams, who developed this idea in her collection “Lucy Negro, Redux,” taking lines from Shakespeare (with supporting historical documents) and evoking Lucy’s perspective, which in turn speaks through the centuries to Williams’ herself…and to us. It is, as Williams writes, the “black aesthetic writ large.”
Dressed in garnet red, she performed on stage throughout the work, weaving in and out of scenes, turning her attention from audience to dancers in a way that intimately connected the observer to the art.
Paul Vasterling, artistic director for Nashville Ballet, choreographed and directed the ballet. In fact, he was the first to conceive the poetry as movement, to see the rhythms in Williams’ words as potential for this larger story. Vasterling uses elements of classical and modern ballet, Elizabethan dance, even vaudeville, to balance and connect these worlds. He choreographs on the ensemble in a painterly way, mixing broad strokes and subtleties, showcasing his company at the best of their abilities.
They turned to the extraordinary Rhiannon Giddens for the music. She and partner Francesco Turrisi performed on stage, Giddens barefoot in a wine red Elizabethan-esque gown. They created a folk score (with a few of Giddens’ songs reworked for the project), each night a little different, reacting to each other, the poet and the dancers. There’s a mix of folk, Renaissance, blues, jazz and operatic influence, highly improvisatory, laced with vocalise. Their versatility and range was evident, too, in the instrumental choices: viola, cello banjo, frame drums and piano.
Moments of call and response, Williams to Giddens, emphasized the ageless qualities of these connecting art forms.
Black Luce, a real woman who ran a brothel, who Williams conjectures was Shakespeare’s lover, is not presented as reprehensible or demeaned. She is a woman of power, a woman full, complete in herself, nothing about her hidden or shameful. Claudia Monja danced this role, an emblem of grace and strength. She was often sweetly smiling, ready, accepting, except in the ferocious moments when she is decidedly not, with the alternate power to be angry, refusing to be this one thing to this one man.
There is also a lop-sided love triangle, as such, between Shakespeare (Owen Thorne), Lucy and the Fair Youth (Nicolas Scheuer). The moments between Shakespeare and Lucy are sensual, but not near as tender as those between him and the Fair Youth, who has a bit more willfulness, is a bit more eager. Thorne portrayed Shakespeare convincingly conflicted in his yearning for the two, confused and tortured by his feelings; Scheuer was all cheekiness, with sprightly athleticism.
It’s funny, too. Williams’ Southern-inflected delivery connects this Shakespearean vernacular with 21st century references. There are bawdy bits and realness and rawness. The Gesta Grayorum scene is wild, delicious in its irreverence.
Douglas Fitch designed costumes, as well as scenic and prop design. The costumes, especially, played with and against the stiff images of Renaissance portraiture, the dancers most often in nude shifts or stages of Elizabethan dishabille. The three lead women were all in shades of red, Lucy back and forth between her simple leotard and a filmy dress in merlot. The costumes, too, added dramatic visual effect for a show with minimal, versatile set pieces.
Scott Leathers designed lighting, revealing characters and shadowing moments, helping maintain focus. The mirror scene, especially, cunningly played on this, with strong spotlights and hidden faces.
It ended softly, proud and promising, stripped of artifice, focusing on the figures of Williams, Monja, and Giddens, fractals of Lucy as muse: the poem, the dance, the song.
This is an impressive work to come out of Nashville Ballet, celebrating their community of artists in a cohesive performance that resonates with modern storytelling.
Reviewed Friday, April 8, 2022. Nashville Ballet’s “Lucy Negro Redux” presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series. For more information visit www.hjseries.org.