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At Diana Wortham Theater a truly unique vision was realized; the seamless combination of Shakespeare’s timeless drama Romeo and Juliet with Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical composition Appalachian Spring. The vision sprang from the mind of Asheville Ballet director Ann Dunn, a Renaissance woman whose background in poetry, literature, dance, and music has led her to create and choreograph several new ballets. In an interview with Dunn after the performance, she stated, “When I hear music, I see movement. And when I heard Appalachian Spring I saw Romeo and Juliet.”
The amalgamation of Shakespeare’s story with Copland’s music is not the only thing Dunn achieved on Friday night. A student of both ballet and modern dance, she also achieved the difficult task of blending these two disparate styles into the masterpiece that is “An Appalachian Romance.” The two performances preceding the premiere were indicative of Dunn’s lifelong mission to “fuse ballet and modern dance.” The programming of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake represented Dunn’s love of the classic ballet repertoire, while providing co-choreographer and dancer Lyle Laney an opportunity to display his virtuosity. The refined symmetry of the Tchaikovsky was beautifully contrasted by an energetic, modern dance performance of Vivaldi’s Lauda Jerusalem. The angelic attire of the dancers (clad in a monochrome ensemble of flowing white) and their perpetual chain of vivaciously synchronized movement reflected the spiritual jubilance of Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 147. The dichotomy of Rick McCullough’s modernist choreography and the Baroque order of Vivaldi’s systematic counterpoint provided the perfect backdrop for the fusion of old and new that the audience would experience later in the evening with “Appalachian Romance.”
Following a brief intermission, Pan Harmonia and its guest conductor, Caleb Young, warmly greeted the audience before gently playing Copland’s opening chords. As the orchestra began playing the first few measures and the curtains rose, the audience’s eyes were drawn to the minimalist stage décor and subtle but effective lighting mimicking an Appalachian sunrise. The dancers captured the idyllic imagery of flowers blooming in spring as the slow harmonic rhythm of Copland’s chords unfolded from the pit below. Clarinetist Fred Lemmon’s lyrical interpretation of the opening motive was a perfect accompaniment to the graceful movement on stage.
Continuing in the spirit of artistic fusion, the traditional ballet technique was blended with elements of traditional Appalachian dance styles. This was especially notable in the second scene, the quintessentially rustic “pig-roast.” Dunn had originally intended to bring in a clogging troupe, but in the interest of maintaining unity within the cast and not detracting from the flow of the narrative ultimately decided against it. The dancer’s passionately charged arabesques across the stage were flawlessly complimented by pianist Vance Reese and the double string quartet’s rhythmic precision.
The integration of physical intensity from the contemporary school of dance with the romantic styling of ballet was most apparent at the end of the fifth scene, when the Appalachian Capulets and Montagues break out into a fight. While the dancers were en pointe for the entire ballet, they were able to simultaneously execute the visceral intensity of the contemporary school with a raw force that perfectly captured the tension of the feuding families. Caleb Young coordinated Copland’s festively intricate counterpoint with extreme confidence and precision. His baton guiding the 13 piece ensemble, Young perfectly coordinated the building tension in Copland’s music with the kaleidoscopic display by the dancers on stage. The epitome of great ballet was realized in this complex scene thanks to Young’s direction, the impeccable musicianship of Pan Harmonia, and Ann Dunn and Lyle Laney’s expert choreography.
Laney also wowed the audience with his sublime technique, notably in the sixth scene where his character Roland (representing Romeo) has one final dance with Julia (representing Juliet and beautifully performed by Alyssa Belcher). As a co-choreographer who constantly worked with Dunn in production to highlight the tragic elements of the narrative, Laney clearly had consciously addressed every aspect of his movement, down to the very last detail. Laney’s sensuous and romantic duet with Belcher provided a heartwarming and powerful climax to the tragedy, a physical dialogue that had the audience applauding with fervor. The sweet sound of Kate Steinbeck’s flute soaring over the orchestra was a soundtrack par excellence, representing one last moment of elation before the protagonist’s tragic demise.
It was no surprise to this viewer that the performance received a standing ovation from the audience. The collaborative efforts of Ann Dunn, Lyle Laney, Caleb Young, and Pan Harmonia provided the Asheville community with a beautiful new masterpiece of dance. If Dunn’s mentor Martha Graham (the commissioner/choreographer for the first performance of Appalachian Spring in 1944) and Aaron Copland were still alive to see Friday night’s performance, one can only imagine how joyed they would be to see the evolution of their seminal work into an interdisciplinary artistic triumph for the new century.