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Nashville Ballet's "Lizzie Borden" Dabbles in Darkness

Nashville Ballet's Mollie Sansone. Photo by David Bailey, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Choreographing murder is a—let's call it unique—area of expertise. But it comes in handy in the month of Halloween, when companies like Nashville Ballet give audiences a seasonal taste of the grisly and gothic.

For good reason, artistic director Paul Vasterling calls his October program "Ballet Noir": This year's Lizzie Borden is based on the story of the Massachusetts woman accused of an 1892 double homicide that made international headlines. Agnes de Mille famously choreographed a ballet version in 1948 called Fall River Legend. Though Borden was ultimately found not guilty of murdering her parents, de Mille and composer Morton Gould took artistic license, finding the defendant guilty as charged.


Vasterling's own spin on the story, first staged in 2006, borrowed Gould's music, but introduced an eerie supernatural phenomenon he'd read about known as "shadow people." These are the dark streaks of movement some superstitious folks claim to see in their peripheral vision. "A shadow man haunts Lizzie throughout the ballet," Vasterling says. "He becomes her curse."

For this revival, Vasterling commissioned a new score that pulls the dance further away from its historic narrative. He pairs Lizzie Borden with a world premiere of The Raven, by company dancer Christopher Stuart, based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem. It's a dark doubleheader.

So how does a choreographer induce goose bumps? "It's amazing what you can do in the theater," Vasterling says of the moment when his Lizzie, naked, hatchet in hand, slowly recedes behind a curtain. "It's 30 seconds of silence," he says. "You can hear a pin drop."

Ballet Careers
Gray Davis with wife, ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary, after his graduation from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Courtesy Trenary.

When Gray Davis retired from American Ballet Theatre in July of 2018, he moved home to South Carolina, unsure of what would come next. Last month, just over a year later, Davis graduated from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Today, he's working as a deputy for the Abbeville County Sheriff's Office.

Though Davis danced in ABT's corps for 11 years and is married to soloist Cassandra Trenary, to many he's best known for saving the life of a man who was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in 2017. The heroic effort earned him the New York State Liberty Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by a member of the New York State Senate. We caught up with Davis to hear about how the split second decision he made in the subway affected the course of his life, what it's been like starting a second career and what he sees as the similarities between ballet and law enforcement.

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Sponsored by BLOCH
Courtesy BLOCH

Today's ballet dancer needs a lot from a pointe shoe. "What I did 20 years ago is not what these dancers are doing now," says New York City Ballet shoe manager Linnette Roe. "They are expected to go harder, longer days. They are expected to go from sneakers, to pointe shoes, to character shoes, to barefoot and back to pointe shoes all in a day."

The team at BLOCH developed their line of Stretch Pointe shoes to address dancer's most common complaints about the fit and performance of their pointe shoes. "It's a scientific take on the pointe shoe," says Roe. Dancers are taking notice and Stretch Pointe shoes are now worn by stars like American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who stars in BLOCH's latest campaign for the shoes.

We dug into the details of Stretch Pointe's most game-changing features:

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Ballet Stars
Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

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Ballet Training
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I'm a college freshman, and my dance program isn't challenging enough. We only have ballet three times a week and a few hours of modern, and my classmates aren't as dedicated as I am. There's a small dance company nearby, where I was hoping to take extra classes, but I don't have a car. I want to transfer, but I feel like I won't be in good enough shape for auditions. —Tara

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