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

Nashville Ballet's "Lizzie Borden" Dabbles in Darkness

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."

Latest Posts


Film still via SPAC Reimagined, Courtesy kw creative

What to Watch: NYCB Dancers Explore the Outdoors in This Site-Specific Film Series

For the past three years, New York City Ballet dancers Emily Kikta and Peter Walker have created a series of site-specific dance films promoting the company's annual summer residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Although this summer's installment looks different due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kikta and Walker continue the tradition into its fourth year with SPAC Reimagined.

With quarantine restrictions in place and the company's SPAC residency cancelled due to the onset of COVID-19, Kikta and Walker decided to expand the series and shift its focus to the effects of the pandemic on the arts industry. As Walker describes, they hope to use the series to provide "a small offering of what could have been" for audiences who had been looking forward to seeing this summer's performances. The first of the five videos was released today, July 14, in recognition of what would have been NYCB's opening night at SPAC.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Cory Weaver, Courtesy San Francisco Opera

Dancing Divas: How Performing in Operas Can Be a Career High Note

From the flamenco of Carmen to the sprites of Rusalka, dance plays a supporting role in countless operas—and opera can play a significant part in a ballet dancer's career. Pointe went behind the curtain with three dancers whose artistic paths have led them to the opera world.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
James Barkley, Courtesy Dance for Change

Take Class From Celebrated Black Dancers and Raise Money for the NAACP Through Dance for Change

Since the nationwide fight against racial inequality took center stage in May, organizations across the dance world have been looking for meaningful ways to show their support, rather than fall back on empty social media signifiers. July 10-11, Diamante Ballet Dancewear is taking action with Dance for Change, a two-day event dedicated to fundraising for the NAACP, and amplifying the voices of Black professional dancers.

Organized by Diamante Ballet Dancewear's founder, Nashville Ballet 2 dancer Isichel Perez, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre teacher Elise Gillum, Dance for Change makes it easy to participate. Dancers need only to make a donation to the NAACP (in any amount) and email proof to diamante.ballet@gmail.com to be given online access to a full schedule of Zoom master classes taught by Black pros artists. Teachers include Ballet Memphis' George Sanders, Boston Ballet's Daniel Durrett, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, and more. "It's important that we amplify BIPOC voices during this time, and it's also important that we're conscious of where we're putting our dollars," says Bourbonniere. "Diamante is doing both with Dance for Change, and I'm honored to be in this talented group of melanated dancers."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks