‘Carmina Burana’ ballet puts 800-year-old poetry by monks to music

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 7:38pm
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Carmina Burana

If you think ballet is all about dainty dancers in pink tutus, Nashville Ballet's artistic director Paul Vasterling is out to prove otherwise with this weekend's performance of Carmina Burana.

Centered around one of the 20th century's most powerful and popular pieces of music and featuring not only the Nashville Symphony but also the 200-voice Belmont Oratorio Chrous, the Nashville Children's Choir, several special soloists and multimedia effects, this production is akin to ballet on steroids.

It's the perfect way for those unfamiliar with ballet to dive right in.

Vasterling wants audiences to see how much range ballet has.

"I purposefully create programs with elements that are in deep contrast to one another," he noted, referring to the show's more classical opening act, a piece called "The Golden Cage" which is accompanied by a Beethoven tune performed by violinist Christian Teal and pianist Craig Nies of the Blair School of Music.

Its theme centers around the well-off women in the 19th century who would have been the audience for Beethoven and other chamber music. While their lives were in many ways wonderful, they were also quite restricted. This quieter, more introspective piece provides the perfect counterpoint for the at-times downright raucous second half.

The ballet version of Carmina Burana is only the most recent incarnation of a work that is more than 800 years old. It was originally an illuminated manuscript containing poems written by monks in the 12th and 13th centuries.

"The most interesting thing for me," said Vasterling, "is that it was written by rebels. They were the bohemians of the day, and they wrote about things everyday people experienced."

In the mid to late 1930s, German composer Carl Orff set the poems to music, and his dramatic, intense piece was an instant success. Though its incorporation by Nazi Germany into their propaganda machine made the piece somewhat unsavory by association, its sheer power in expressing the range of human joys and sufferings through the vehicle of a Wheel of Fortuna has propelled it past its own history and into the regular repertoire of nearly every symphony in the world.

Orff intended the piece to exemplify his concept of "Theatrum Mundi," a coming together of music, movement and speech — elements that he considered inseparable. Thus, the Nashville Ballet's production is actually the most authentic way to experience Carmina Burana.

The themes it explores, both in the original manuscript and in Orff's interpretation, are indeed ones we can still relate to today. Some are almost painfully relevant, such as the fickleness of fortune and wealth (as the most famous piece of music, the towering "O Fortuna," dramatically reminds us), or a scene set in a tavern exploring the excesses of desires gone awry.

However, the wheel of fortune does not always point to doom and gloom. There is also the appreciation of spring's arrival in nature's cycle, as well as the happiness that results from finding a balance between earthly desire and spiritual awareness.

In fact, the multitude and universality of the themes is another aspect that renders this ballet accessible to an audience not necessarily well-schooled in ballet. Vasterling contends that one of people's biggest misconceptions about ballet is that "they won't understand what's going on, and have to 'get' it.”

“I'm always looking for ways to mitigate that idea,” Vasterling said. “All you need to know is that you like it. This one has familiar music that everyone knows, and it's really compelling music. It's used at Titans games. Plus the pieces are fairly short; if one piece doesn't appeal to you, it's soon on to the next one."

Vasterling loves when people offer him their interpretation of the work, and ask if they're right.

"I always say ‘Yes,’ because the ballet allows for everyone's thoughts and experiences. Ballet is a more abstract experience than opera or theater (both of which I love!); you bring yourself into it, and then, like a prism, the work reflects back on you."

With a lot of room to play with choreography and staging due to Orff's loose structure, Vasterling was able to incorporate in a literal manner this idea of art being simultaneously a reflection of us and a part of who we are. At one point, dancers dressed as parchment paper (the original material of the Carmina Burana) will have the actual words of the poems projected onto them, first in the original Latin, and eventually transitioning to English, symbolizing the piece's (and by extension, art in general's) enduring relevance and popularity.

Whether one is playing in the orchestra, singing in the choir, dancing onstage, or simply taking it all in as part of the audience, every person in the room plays a part in this gigantic production.

"It has a feeling of spectacle," Vasterling mused, "and I think people will be moved."

What: Nashville Ballet’s Carmina Burana
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: TPAC, 505 Deaderick St.
Cost: $21.50-$72.50
Info: nashvilleballet.com, tpac.org, ticketmaster.com