Behind the Scenes of PBS’ Great Performances – “Black Lucy and The Bard”


“I read it over a weekend and thought, wow, this could really be something,” said Paul Vasterling, artistic director of Nashville Ballet. Tonight at 9 p.m. PBS will present a filmed performance by Black Lucy and the Bard as part of his Great performance showcase, an original ballet based on the book Lucy Negro, Redux. During a recent ATC press conference, the creative team behind this production came together to pull back the curtain and reveal how the show came to be. “The process of bringing the ballet to life and understanding how we create this book of poems, it’s really not linear, adding some linearity to it and making it a story that could become a dance. It was so much fun working with Caroline and Rhiannon, and it was really a collaborative process throughout, with the lead ballerina whose name is Kayla Rowser, who actually played a big part in creating the choreography . Paul’s production credits also include choreographer and stage production manager.

(Courtesy of Heather Thorne)

“I studied abroad at Oxford as an undergraduate,” revealed Caroline Randall Williams, author of Lucy Negro, Reduxwho was a lifelong Shakespeare fan and first read a story about the bard’s scandalous love life with a woman known as “Dark Lady” in an August 2012 issue of the magazine Daily mail. “I found a report about a discovery by Duncan Salkeld, who was a professor at the University of Chichester, who put Black Luce, who was a woman known to history, in the same play as Shakespeare in a file of Elizabethan prison. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God. How exciting! There’s been several candidates for Dark Lady over time. And Black Luce has kind of been frilly positive but has then got rejected for some reason. There are people who say, ‘Oh, she’s not black. Only her character was black’, because she owned a brothel. But there’s has a record of blacks in Britain, specifically in the London area where her brothel was at that time. And then there’s the record of the sonnets. ‘So I’d swear beauty herself is black, and all what your complexion lacks’, speaking of my mistress, the eyes and the hair are threads, black threads come out of her head. You know, he actually talks about her color, the texture of her hair, the brown color of her breasts in these sonnets. So I think it’s Black Luce. I think this brothel owner was a black woman, and I’m very excited about the legitimacy of her candidacy as a black lady. So I went to London, saw the prison records with Dr Salkeld, and was overwhelmed with the thought of stepping on those same stones while working in London where Shakespeare might have walked and where Lucy ran his business. I started working on this book, and we are here today.

Original ballet needs original music and Paul turned to Grammy Award winner Rhiannon Giddens. “At the time this opportunity presented itself, I had just met a fantastic musician, Francesco Turrisi, who ended up composing the score with me, and it happened to be a musician Italian who at first played a music group called L’Arpeggiata but was also a jazz improvisational cast and combined those two things and had a deep cultural understanding of the Mediterranean including North Africa and the drumming tradition from this region,” the composer explained. “They tried to get it to play at the Globe. He knows the music of the era intimately but is also very deep into the improvisational aspect of that music and connects it to my perspective on the American self, which is so much where Caroline comes from. So it was kind of like I was representing Caroline’s side, and he was representing Shakespeare’s side, so we were able to mix them up in a way that I don’t think I could have done with someone else. ‘other. They are a unique couple. I really think it all depends on how we collaborated and then how we collaborated in turn with Caroline and Paul and the dancers.

(Courtesy of Heather Thorne)

(Courtesy of Heather Thorne)

“I think the main reason was that it was story driven,” explained Great performance Executive producer David Horn on the decision to include Black Lucy and the Bard this season. “It was so unique to come up with this idea… We’ve made a tremendous effort to bring Shakespeare to American audiences and with our collaboration with the Public Theater, a very diverse Shakespeare project over the past three years. So this just had all the buttons, the opportunity to work with Rhiannon, Caroline and Paul. That’s also one of the missions. I keep talking about the mission, but one of the missions of Great performance is to try to highlight the great regional companies, arts organizations and companies that we have here, and we had never done anything about Nashville, even though we have a long history of doing many Balanchine ballets at Grand Ole Opry Studios for 40 years since.”

Black Lucy and the Bard is the culmination of a lifelong dream for author Caroline Randall Williams. “I wanted to be an actress,” she confessed of her role as a narrator in the production. “I came to Shakespeare as a child through children’s theatre, I was apprenticed to the National Shakespeare Company. I studied in London. I was an apprentice at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario in high school. And then my mom kind of said, ‘You can’t go to the conservatory. You have to go to university.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And so, I went to Harvard and studied how to write poetry. I became a step less practical instead of more, I think, probably. So all that to say I didn’t quite know when I was writing Lucy that my poems were just as performative as they turned out to be or that they lent themselves just as well to interpretation. But I always write imagining how it’s going to sound, how it’s going to be pronounced, the cadence of the poem is more important to me than how it finally lands on the page. So getting back on stage with my own poetry felt so empowering. It was such a huge gift, and to get to do it with the creative genius of the choreography of Paul, the artists who embodied the story, and then Rhiannon, we tracked her down because she’s been a hero of mine for that I’m literally a teenager, so being able to pair my art with his was just a crazy gift.

Don’t miss Black Lucy and the Bard tonight at 9:00 p.m. on PBS, part of Great performance.

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