Words by Sarah Deloach
It is not every day you get to watch professionals dance to Elvis Presley while also wearing pointe shoes. Alabama Ballet is giving everyone the opportunity to do so from February 25-27 by putting on one of Dennis Nahat’s ballets, Blue Suede Shoes. This full length ballet features 36 songs from Elvis himself and combines classical dance with classic rock.
Dennis Nahat has memories of growing up in Detroit that provide the inspiration for this one-of-a-kind ballet, which combines all the flavor from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Because the foundation of Blue Suede Shoes is all Elvis’ music, the production was granted special permission to use the original recordings. Nahat wanted to create a piece that was about the American Dream and what being an American really meant, while also not making a mockery of the late super star. Elvis actually does not even appear on stage, but rather tells the story of a group of high-schoolers as they make their way through adulthood in America. All of the characters are even designed after real people–Nahat wanted all of the characters to be relatable and similar to the people watching it. Grouping Elvis’s music into themed scenes means that even well-versed Elvis fans can discover something new about his music. The songs are also not arranged in chronological order, putting them in a different light; and because song choices from different albums are juxtaposed, there are many comparisons and contrasts that may have not been considered before.
This ballet begins in “High School” showcasing the three main characters and their fancy soft-soled blue shoes, paying homage to the title, while all of the ensemble dancers portray the mostly happy days of dating and hanging out with friends. From here the characters split up into other music-filled scenes, including songs like, "Hot Dog Drive-In," "In the Army," and "Jailhouse." Among Elvis’ favorites featured are "Don't Be Cruel (To a Heart That's True)," "Love Me Tender,"' "Heartbreak Hotel," and "Hound Dog." Seeing ballet steps instead of the King's trademark sashaying hip movements adds even further dimension. New avenues of interpreting the music are opened up as the songs are put to well-thought-out, storytelling choreography. "Love Me Tender," for example, doesn't focus on romance, but shows one of the characters expressing patriotic devotion.
Scenery and costumes usually act more as support to the rest of the production, but here the sets are so dazzling and lavish they are on level with the dancing itself. The scenery by Hollywood designer Bob Mackie is beautifully painted in electric colors, and it elicited applause from the audience several times. Mackie even designed all of the costumes and they are works of art themselves.
Originally performed by the Cleveland Ballet, Alabama Ballet has a fun opportunity to make this piece their own and have so much fun while doing so. When asking Nahat if he had anything to say about the upcoming shows in Birmingham, he said, “All I know is, anyone that comes to see it is going to have an eye full.”
For tickets to Blue Suede Shoe, click here.