Arts & entertainment

Telling history with imagination

Nashville Ballet brings ‘Lucy Negro Redux’ to University of Denver

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Finding steady footing in spaces that have historically been antagonistic to your presence is no small thing. But that’s just one of the things that united Caroline Randall Williams, Rhiannon Giddens and Kayla Rowser when they worked on the Nashville Ballet’s world premiere of “Lucy Negro Redux” in 2019.

For Williams, a poet and writer, that space was Shakespearean scholarship; in Giddens’ case, it was the bluegrass genre; and for Rowser, the world of ballet. And while being Women of Color pioneering their way into these areas gave them a shared experience to relate to, it also put them on the same footing as the character of Lucy — a Black woman making a life in Shakespearean England.

Now Lucy’s story is coming to Denver.

“The story is so wholly a ballet and so wholly a stage performance of poetry and music,” Williams said. “If you love musicals, you’ll enjoy it. If you love world class instrumentation, you’ll love it. If you love pure ballet, you’ll love it. All three exist on the same stage.”

The Nashville Ballet’s production of “Lucy Negro Redux,” featuring music performed live by Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, and spoken word by Williams, will be presented at the Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver, 2344 East Iliff Ave., at 7:30 p.m. March 29 and 30.

 

Based on Williams’ book of poetry of the same name, the ballet is based on her proposition that the “Dark Lady” and the “Fair Youth” — to whom so many of Shakespeare’s love sonnets are written to and for — were a Black woman and a young man. Williams worked with Giddens, Rowser, who has since retired, and the Nashville Ballet’s artistic director Paul Vasterling to create a show that explores topics as relevant now as during Shakespeare’s time — love, beauty and the importance of identity and self-knowledge.

“I love to collaborate — it’s my favorite part of what I do. And as a choreographer, you’re making your art with other people’s bodies, so it was thrilling to collaborate with so many composers on this piece,” Vasterling said. “The show was created by poetry and music meeting on an equal playing field.”

In the show, the titular Lucy is a brothel owner, and Williams said some might be tempted to judge the character for her work. But Williams hopes that instead of judgment, the character will be an example of playing an active, self-determined role in one’s own life.

“This is a story of agency. I invite people to remember that seizing claim of your body’s story and making choices about it is always empowering and agency affirming,” she said. “I don’t want people to get confused by Lucy’s profession but rather to be uplifted and clarified about her agency to make her own decisions.”

If all the themes the show focuses on sound thoroughly modern, that’s no mistake. Despite its roots in a playwright from more than four centuries ago, all the creatives involved in the ballet wanted to ensure it spoke to modern audiences.

“This show is really about now. It’s about how we see ourselves in the world, about what beauty is and what it means,” Vasterling said. “I hope that it transforms the way you think about the world in some small way.”

For Williams, now that her story of Lucy has come to life in two mediums, she hopes audiences come away from the ballet with a sense of history’s power and resonance when it is considered with an open mind.

“I want people to do some re-remembering and think of history with radical acts of reimagination,” she said. “History is so much more complicated, sexier and realer than we’ve been taught. There’s something about the sheer wonder and sense of possibility in looking at the past.”

Lucy Negro Redux, Nashville Ballet, Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver, Caroline Randall Williams, Rhiannon Giddens, Kayla Rowser, Clarke Reader, arts, ballet, dance, poetry, Shakespeare, Francesco Turrisi, Paul Vasterling, history

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