This year, the Nashville Ballet’s Valentine’s program finds them teaming up with local singer/songwriter Matthew Perryman Jones for a reprisal of their 2013 collaboration, “… but the flowers have yet to come” as part of Attitude. The three-part performance also includes the Nashville premiere of both Graham Lustig’s “Fanfare” and Christopher Bruce’s “Moonshine,” the latter of which is scored by Bob Dylan’s Bootleg album.
Just on its own, Jones’ Land of the Living album is a remarkable musical achievement and an indelible listening experience. He crafted and recorded the songs after gleaning inspiration from the likes of Rumi, Hafiz, Rilke, and others. One further conceit he employed was drawn from Federico García Lorca — the duende, about which Lorca has written: “…everything that has black sounds in it, has duende. [i.e. emotional ‘darkness’] […] This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth … All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.”
And it was from there that “… but the flowers have yet to come” arose.
The eight songs forming the foundation of this project all have a certain urgency to them reflecting the controlled chaos that fills the heart and mind of someone seeking something — anything — but, most often and most likely, union. Whether that union is with God or another, the ache of longing that drives the search is the same. And it is felt quite readily in Jones’ compositions and performances.
The ballet’s full cast represented the quest for forgiveness in “Stones from the Riverbed,” before leaving a single dancer in the stage lights as Sarah Masen’s plaintive voice called out. For “O Theo,” a song inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, choreographer Gina Patterson rightfully let Christopher Stuart and Jon Upleger make their way through the winsome wondering before having the broader group join in and ready themselves for a more traditional exploration of love in “Sleeping with a Stranger.” As the song approached its coda, the dancers paired off in various manifestations of the distance that can disrupt and destroy a relationship.
Stuart and Upleger, joined by Gerald Watson and Brett Sjoblom — as well as the other male chorus members — embodied the intense pleading of “Waking Up the Dead” with an appropriately shirtless swagger. Here, there was no room for tenderness, not with Will Sayles’ forceful drums plowing everyone forward toward the edge of the cliff. Then, starting with two dancers, Jones and company rendered a sparse, string-driven version of “Save You.” As one couple turns to two and, then, to three, the number mirrored the push-pull of light and darkness that forms the two tormented sides of every thought, every moment, every relationship.
For the haunting, shuffling groove of “Canción de la Noche,” Julia Mitchell took center stage with support from the full cast personifying the anonymous commonality of a chorus now dressed in nude body wear, having transitioned from the flowing whites of earlier in the program. Upleger and Julia Eisen led “The Angels Were Singing” as the full cast splintered into tableaus designed to match the capacious loneliness of the piece — some hung in an unspoken limbo, some rested in their forced waiting. But all found their place in the end.
As a conclusion to both the album and the performance, the redemptive, liberating “Land of the Living” was well-chosen. It’s a grandiose number that demands consideration punctuated by the singer’s declaration that “You can not love in moderation. You’re dancing with a dead man’s bones. Lay your soul on the threshing floor.” Though the voice proclaims its clear intention with “I am coming home,” some dancers made it back to their flowing whites, some not. Such is life. And such is duende.
Photo by Karen Kipley.