Menlowe Ballet's time-traveling Nightingale piece begins with dancers portraying soldiers from various eras and parts of the world to the sounds of "The Universal Soldier," which describes the common experiences of soldiers in war, as well as war's futility. The scene then transforms into a teen's bedroom in the 1960s, where a girl dances to the haunting anti-war folk song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" In her hand is a lava lamp, a visual reference to the titular lantern born by Nightingale, as the folk-rock music fades away and Beethoven takes its place. We see Nightingale reflecting on different stages of her life in flashback — spending time with her sister, being courted by but ultimately rejecting an eager suitor, serving as a nurse in wartime — with Measor serving as the voice of Nightingale in brief audio snippets.
"Sarah-Jane, being from England, knows all the Florence Nightingale folklore," Lowe said, adding that he brought his own experiences growing up in the U.S. in the 1960s and his interest in the anti-war movement into the piece.
Nightingale, named Florence after the Italian city where she was born, grew up in a wealthy, liberal-minded British family, kept a foundling owl called Athena as a pet and felt called to serve society from a young age. She became a volunteer nurse and is best known for her care of wounded and ill soldiers during the Crimean War of the 1850s. Her pioneering work led to wide-ranging improvements in sanitation, increased understanding and use of statistical methods, and the development of nursing as a professional career.
To prepare for "The Lady with the Lamp," which is timed to coincide with National Nurses Week, Lowe and Measor did research into Nightingale's life and times, including a visit to London's Florence Nightingale Museum, a house within St Thomas' Hospital where visitors can see some of Nightingale's personal artifacts as well as a collection of other items relating to the Crimean War and the history of nursing (that famous lamp, Measor pointed out, was actually a Turkish one, not the Victorian English style lantern that's often portrayed in popular culture).
At a recent rehearsal, Lowe sported a T-shirt promoting the English rock band Iron Maiden. The choice of wardrobe was deliberate, Lowe explained, as the band's song "The Trooper" is based on the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, part of the Battle of the Balaclava in the Crimean War. "The words are very deep," he said, and, considering that battle's ties to Nightingale, they considered using it in their piece. Even though they ultimately decided not to include the heavy metal track, Lowe's shirt serves as a reminder of the diverse influences that go into Menlowe Ballet's programs.
Measor said she had considered including Nightingale in her choreographic debut — 2016's "Portraits," which celebrated notable women in British history and was reprised in last spring's "Floraison" — but ultimately decided she was such an interesting and important figure that she deserved a piece of her own, "in full glory."
"The Lady with the Lamp" is one of three pieces that make up the 90-minute "Illume." "Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return" was choreographed by renowned Broadway and modern dance choreographer Donald McKayle and was inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees. In addition to its current social relevance and universal themes, the piece now has added poignancy due to McKayle's death, at age 87, on April 6 of this year. The groundbreaking dance master was the first African-American man to choreograph a Broadway musical and was known for touching on social justice issues in his work, according to Menlowe Ballet's Executive Director Lisa Shiveley.
"We feel incredibly honored to be bringing this work to the Bay Area," she said, describing how the piece depicting refugees forced to flee their home involves the dancers crowding together on stage, symbolizing the very real struggles faced by displaced people. "They have literally no place to go, it makes you feel panicky to watch," she said.
Menlowe Ballet strives to strike a balance between classical and contemporary dance. Fans of ballet standards will find something in "Illume" for them as well, with "Swan Lake, Pas de Cinq," an excerpt from Dennis Nahat's take on the beloved story of princesses competing for the heart of a prince. "You'll get your pink tights and your pointe shoes, don't worry," Shiveley said, for those with a taste for tradition. But on the whole, she said, from Lowe's anti-war sentiments and Measor's feminist heroines to the social-justice activism of McKayle's choreography, Menlowe Ballet has a commitment to bringing not only high-quality dance but also important ideas to the local arts scene.
"This is our little bit to say, 'This matters,'" she said. "We want to be telling these stories on stage for our audiences."
Where: Menlo Atherton Performing Arts Center, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton.
When: May 11-13; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to menloweballet.org.
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