By Ron Wagner
Sarah Southern, a senior film major, was so excited by the opportunity to take Watkins’s inaugural “Professional Practices: Performing and the Visual Arts” class that she signed up without knowing exactly what she was getting into. That ended up causing a brief moment of panic.
“I really had no idea what to expect. I was a little bit afraid we were going to have to dance with the Ballet, and that’s not something that I wanted to do,” she says with a laugh. “Luckily that was not at all what it was.”
The art of dance isn’t part of the Watkins curriculum, but through the “Music and the Visual Arts” course he launched three years ago with Nashville’s famed Warner Music, film department chair Richard Gershman has seen the value of students studying the intersection between visual and performing arts. And he wanted to expand the model.
“I really believe in this idea of learning outside the classroom,” he says. “That’s where they’re going to live when they finish … so to the extent that they can get out there and address problems that are facing entities in the real world, I think that’s a good challenge for them.”
Nashville Ballet artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling also saw potential value in a collaboration after listening to Gershman’s pitch. “We thought this would be an excellent opportunity to bring creatives who may not necessarily go to the ballet themselves into our space to experience the art form. In return, we hoped to learn more about our own work by seeing what pieces the students came up with,” he wrote in an email. “Creation is never what you expect it will be, which is part of what makes it so exciting. Seeing the works of art that the students created was illuminating for me, the staff, and the artists of Nashville Ballet.”
Southern and her classmates spent a semester attending rehearsals, meeting with choreographers and designers, and learning from guest lecturers Lauren Snelling, artistic director of OZ Arts Nashville; Denice Hicks, artistic director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival; Banning Bouldin, artistic director of New Dialects, a modern dance company; and Vasterling. In between, they enlisted techniques like drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, fabrication, stop-motion, video, and performance art to create projects inspired by the Ballet’s fall productions: The Sleeping Beauty, Nashville’s Nutcracker, and the double bill, Lizzie Borden/The Raven.
Some of the created works were selected for display in the lobby of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). “It was a class disguised as a commission project,” says Jason Luckett, a student in Watkins’s MFA in film program. “It was really open-ended, so most people worked as individuals. But I chose to collaborate with a few other classmates.”
Luckett and his collaborators’ most ambitious creation was a take on The Sleeping Beauty (the video of which can be viewed below). A dancer was placed inside a box with translucent walls, which she slowly covered with dark paint. “This kind of represents sleep,” Luckett says. “It was a clever idea, and that was my favorite project.”
Influenced by watching rehearsals, Southern cut a square out of a thick Grimm’s Fairy Tales book, opposite the page with the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” and filled the space with a clay ballerina, illuminated by fairy lights. It was chosen to be shown to the public during The Sleeping Beauty’s run.
What was not chosen was also instructive, particularly those decisions that had to balance inspiration with a client’s needs. Luckett’s 25 square-foot installation wouldn’t fit comfortably inside TPAC’s lobby, for example, and its edgier tone wasn’t necessarily what the Ballet was looking for. “That was a valuable lesson,” Luckett adds. “Going in with these huge ideas and realizing that’s not always possible … It was rockier than I thought it would be, but it’s always rockier than you think it’s going to be. [But] at no point did I not think this was valuable.”
A Virginia native, Luckett earned his undergraduate degree at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and was encouraged by Gershman, his adviser, to take the Nashville Ballet/Watkins initiative. The opportunity to work with a team led to big ideas.
“I thought sure, let’s make art. Let’s do it,” Luckett says. “We kept getting more and more ambitious … We created this little piece that we loved, and we wanted to keep pushing forward with it and see what we could do with this box. We realized that it was straying further and further from what Nashville Ballet was willing to allow. [There] was this fork in the road where we had to decide who we were making this for, and we decided to do it individually.”
“[The Ballet] has an image—which totally makes sense for a company like that,” says Southern. And understanding and working with brand standards was a worthwhile eye-opener for students. For example: the state laws that prohibit nudity of any kind where alcohol is sold. The Ballet itself had to alter its own choreography for Lizzie Borden according to these laws, as did a student who needed to add clothes onto her drawing. Southern laughs: “There were a lot of people having to add clothes onto drawings and projects after the fact.”
Southern signed up largely for the chance to work with students with different interests and talents, and she wasn’t disappointed. “I haven’t taken a lot of classes that were for everybody … So this seemed like a really cool opportunity to work with other artists who use other mediums, and also that kind of meant that I was allowed to create art in a medium that wasn’t just filmmaking,” she says. “I’m not a super fine artist, but I like experimenting.”
Haley Timmins, who is a fine arts major, simply enjoyed being able to learn something new. “There were film students, photo students, fine artists, and figuring out how we all interpret a different medium was interesting,” she says. “I personally really enjoyed the other parts of the class, like going to see the ballet rehearsals, learning the history about dance, because I knew nothing about dance and the history of ballet in general … The pain that comes along with being a ballerina was really shocking I think to everyone.”
A Pittsburgh native, Timmins plans to move to Savannah, GA, after graduation, with a goal of establishing herself as a painter and printmaker. “I enjoyed it a lot,” she says of the class. “It was out of everyone’s comfort zone, so it was cool for all of us to be on that boat together.”
Southern hopes to be a film editor, and the Ballet/Watkins Initiative offered a taste of life as a professional. “When I get into the outside world, how do I respond to my audience?” she says. “That turned out to be what I learned most from the class.”