There are some shows during Piccolo Spoleto that will be successful no matter what. Even if they’re not good at all, even if we give them a negative review, there’s a certain demographic that will buy tickets and give a standing ovation at the end. The Charleston Ballet Theatre’s Nashville is one of these shows.
Resident Choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr came up with the idea for Nashville, which re-imagines 18 different country classics from a ballet perspective. Using everything from Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” to the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” the CBT dancers don their most stereotypical Western gear (and in one song, Native American loin cloths) and boot-scoot across the stage.
The thing is, the graceful movements of ballet just don’t fit well with twangy, foot-stompin’ country music. The CBT made a valiant effort to mesh the two together, but after watching nearly 20 attempts at making it work, I think we can safely say it’s not meant to be.
The first song, Alabama’s “40-Hour Week” set the tone for the show. With a poorly edited, dated-looking video of various all-American workers playing in the background, the dancers entered the stage bobbing up and down in a sort of countrified plie, shooting fake guns, winking at the audience, and generally hamming it up while attempting to look like cowboys and cowgirls. From there, a great deal of the songs were similarly cheesy and awkward.
The handful of solo dances were the weakest of the bunch as the lone dancers skipped, spun, and leapt their way through the numbers — it seemed like we were witnessing an impromptu dance they might perform in their bedroom late at night. Several times it was as if the music had been completely overlooked, as if they had another soundtrack going in their head.
The strongest points came when more dancers took the stage for songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “I Walk the Line.” That might be because during these songs, the dancers used more typically country forms of dance, like line dancing. It looked less awkward, yet it had us wondering, where’s the ballet? Several songs, in fact, seemed completely out of place in the ballet theater, like “On the Road Again,” in which a Willie Nelson lookalike pretended to play a guitar while a male dancer gave a female dancer a piggy-back ride around the stage.
The most perplexing element of the show was the projections and videos on the screen at the back of the stage. Some, like “Blue Suede Shoes,” are just simple animations using what appears to be free Clip Art. For others, they got more ambitious and made their own videos. Several of them mirror the action on stage to some degree. For the pas de deux between Alexander Collen and Jennifer Balcerzak Muller to Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” the video shows artsy shots of the couple dancing. It’s the same routine they’re doing on stage, but out of sync and distracting. The dance was actually one of the better of the show, but the video detracted major points.
The very worst video, however, came after the intermission. Set to Willie Nelson’s “Georgia on My Mind,” the full-length clip shows a one-eyed dog coming out of a PBR box filled with peaches. The Willie Nelson lookalike picks up the dog and kisses it. The dancers stay off the stage until the clip is over so that we can fully enjoy its WTF effect.
In an almost-as-strange twist, the show ends with Hank Williams Jr.’s “Are You Ready for Some Football,” as the dancers pretend to throw balls and run into the crowd.
On opening night, many in the audience, mainly a mix of seniors and some young aspiring ballerinas, seemed charmed by Nashville. They bobbed their heads to the classic songs, laughed as the dancers hammed it up, and oohed when the one-eyed dog jumped out of the box. It seems that the familiar music, gaudy costumes, and occasional splits and high-kicks were worth the price of admission. But for this reviewer, the entire concept of Nashville was a failure. For a ballet theater to take on the twangy genre is ambitious, but it just doesn’t work.