Nashville is known for its collaborative spirit, a stronger-together mentality that seems to permeate nearly every corner of the city. The Nashville Ballet manages to capture this synergistic creativity and put it on full display each year at the Ballet Ball. Relying on original choreography from the Nashville Ballet set to live performances from local singer-songwriters and artists, the black-tie fundraiser bridges the gap between music and dance, highlighting the depth of talent in both mediums to be found in the city and the impact these two art forms can have when melded together. With rising country superstar Maren Morris and singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter serving as headliners, the 31st annual event, to be held on February 29 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, promises to deliver yet another moving and memorable celebration of song and dance.
When Ballet Ball co-chairs Allison Cotton and Emily Humphreys compiled their dream list of performers, Maren was first on Allison’s list, and Rayland Baxter topped Emily’s. “Maren and Rayland are both incredibly talented songwriters, singers and performers, and we sought out artists who we believed would appreciate the creative process of collaborating with the ballet and who have built their own careers in Nashville,” Allison and Emily say. The co-chairs were thrilled when both artists agreed to participate, thanks in no small part to Emily’s tenacious efforts to convince them of the honor of the invitation.
“I love the idea of two forms of art merging simultaneously,” Maren tells Nfocus. “I’ve always wanted to have my songs choreographed to and this is such a prestigious company to do so.” The partnership with the Nashville Ballet is yet another feather in the cap of the artist, who, in 2019 alone, headlined her first world tour, formed the female supergroup The Highwomen, won two iHeartRadio Awards and a Billboard Award for her pop hit, "The Middle," and took home the coveted CMA Award for Album of the Year for Girl.
Both Maren and Rayland will each perform three songs at the ball, accompanied by original choreography from Nashville Ballet Artistic Director Paul Vasterling and resident choreographer Christopher Stuart. Christopher is tackling the choreography on all three of Maren’s songs and two of Rayland’s, with Paul choreographing Rayland’s remaining number. Both artists will perform simpler, more soulful versions of their songs. “There will clear, different renditions than an album version, because I'll play by myself or with the help of maybe one other musician,” Rayland tells us. “But it'll be broken down, so you focus on the guts of the song and then the ballerinas.”
Paul echoes the sentiment, adding, “We're presenting a few of Maren's biggest hits in a stripped down way that I think truly highlights the artistry of everyone involved.”
And while the Nashville Ballet is staying mum on the full set list, guests can expect to hear Maren’s latest hit, “The Bones,” among the songs performed live. Christopher will be utilizing a quartet of dancers in his original choreography to accompany the song.
“I always love creating choreography for our Ballet Ball,” says Christopher. “I’ve done it since 2014, and every year it’s exciting and energizing. … We’re really fortunate to have both Rayland and Maren on board for this year’s ball. They’re both so vastly talented, so much so that we’re performing to a total of six songs, which will amount to almost 20 minutes of choreography that our company will learn in just a couple short weeks! I’m a big fan of both artists and love the ways in which their styles don’t immediately make sense together but are actually quite complementary. They’re both true creatives and you can tell they really put a lot of themselves into their work; that’s really inspiring as I go into the creative process.”
While the evening will undoubtedly be entertaining and touching, the goal of the performance — and the entire event — is to raise awareness about the Nashville Ballet’s community engagement programs, the beneficiary of the gala.
“I'm excited to be choreographing for Ballet Ball this year,” Paul says. “It's been a while since I've set anything for the ball and this year's musical guests are so incredible, it's a reminder of the privilege we have of living in such an artistically rich city. This year's chairs have done an extraordinary job of making Ballet Ball something like never before, and our company is stronger than ever before. We're all looking forward to this special opportunity to highlight our community engagement initiatives and thank the generous supporters who make the work we do possible.”
The fact that the ball supports arts education was a selling point for Maren, as well, who tells us, “I donate a portion of my meet-and-greet proceeds to fine arts in public schools so that has always been a priority for me to bring awareness to.”
Not only will guests leave the ball with a greater understanding and appreciation of the Nashville Ballet, it seems likely they will fall even more in love with Maren Morris and Rayland Baxter.
Photographs by Jamie Nelson