Nashville Ballet shines in groundbreaking ‘Lucy Negro Redux’

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

Sonnet 127, William Shakespeare:

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrow’d face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profan’d, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ [brows] are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so. 

Just who the “dark lady” is in 28 of Shakespeare’s sonnets (127-154), with her black hair and dark “dun” colored skin, has been the subject of speculation since the sonnets were written. In 2012, Duncan Saikeld, a Shakespearean scholar at the University of Chichester, declared that he believed the “Dark Lady” was the owner of the Clerkenwell brothel, known as “Lucy Negro,” or “Black Luce.”

Owen Thorne as Shakespeare, Carolyn Randall Williams, who wrote the libretto for the ballet and was the narrator, and Kayla Rowser, who dances the role of Lucy Negro.

Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams, herself a beautiful, black woman, traveled to England to meet Saikeld. The result of that journey was her book of poetry, “Lucy Negro Redux.”

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turisi, who wrote the music and perform it live for the ballet

Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling choreographed Williams’ poetry into a ballet, with music created by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turisi, who have explored the music of Shakespeare’s time, with Williams herself as narrator and guide through this reimagination of Shakespeare’s love affair with Lucy.

Following its world premiere in Nashville recently, “Lucy Negro Redux” is one of the headline attractions at this year’s Big Ears Festival, which opens today. The ballet’s Knoxville premiere was last night at the Tennessee Theatre.

There was an inescapable image that struck me the moment I saw Kayla Rowser, the beautiful star ballerina of “Lucy Negro Redux,” performed at the Tennessee Theatre last night. Rowser’s body appeared to be suspended in air – her torso floating in space as her arms and legs moved freely, like a beautiful butterfly, with a mounting pin through its thorax, its antenna and legs free in space. No bobbing up and down as she switched feet and lifted a lifted a leg high in the air, or spun fluid pirouettes.

Scene from the ballet showing Doug Fitch’s creative costumes

With Doug Fitch’s creative costumes that are simultaneously avantgarde and suggestive of Elizabethan high society, the ballet was a series of vignettes from village and social scenes to intimate moments between Lucy and her tall Shakespeare, Owen Thorne. There was a lovely quartet danced by Mollie Sansone, Brett Sjoblom, Julia Eisen and Michael Burfield. Sjoblom also danced the role of the professor in the scene of him introducing his theory of Lucy as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.

The ballet ended with an epilogue in which there was a resolution, a claim of power and the knowledge of our own beauty.

Brilliantly done, “Lucy Negro Redux” is a groundbreaking work on multiple levels. Its structure of a narrator is relatively new in the ballet world.

“Lucy” will be performed again tonight. Big Ears passes are required for admission.

More information about the Big Ears Festival can be found here.

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