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Nashville Scene Alexei Khimenko and his Merry Pranksters

Nashville Ballet presents "Robin Hood"

By Lisa A. DuBois

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  In this century, Americans tend to identify legendary figures with the actors who have portrayed them on stage and screen. For example, when envisioning that lovable rogue Robin Hood, people conjure up memories of Errol Flynn, or more recently, Kevin Costner. Beginning this weekend, Nashvillians can add Alexei Khimenko to the list when he stars in the world premiere of the full-length ballet Robin Hood, presented by the Nashville Ballet. Dancer Khimenko does have one major advantage over his predecessors--he's the only one of the three who wears tights for a living. Trained at the Bolshoi Academy in Russia, Khimenko is returning for his second season as a principal dancer with the Nashville Ballet. Well-versed in the stories of classical Russian ballets, he is now deeply immersed in British folklore.

"I'm supposed to be a hero, but Robin Hood was never really a hero for himself. He just did the right thing at the right time," Khimenko says. "He was just a simple guy."

Choreographed by artistic director Paul Vasterling, this ballet is far removed from tutus and fairy queens, from ethereal swans and noble-hearted princes. Instead, Robin Hood takes its audience on a swashbuckling expedition among the common folk of Sherwood Forest, where Little John, the Merry Men, Friar Tuck, the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham and the lovely Maid Marian really know how to stir up some fun. They're all pranksters with a penchant for disguising themselves, good guys on a quest to defy the greedy and supply the needy. These are people who prefer action to words, never turning their backs on a healthy swordfight. To settle arguments they whip out steel-bladed rapiers, daggers, and wooden quarterstaves--dancing all the while, of course.

"I've done lots of rehearsing for the fight scenes," says Khimenko, who has some background in fencing. "It's fun when everybody's doing the right thing, but it's scary when they're not."

Adds Kathryn Beasley Gager, who portrays the feisty Maid Marian, "When it's going really well Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham [played by Scott Brown] have sparks flying off their swords!" Gager, who has enthralled audiences with her portrayal of the innocent and fragile Giselle and the gently regal Sugar Plum Fairy, is exploring a whole new aspect of womanhood in the role of Marian. "Marian's an adult. She knows her own mind. She knows what she wants and she knows what she's doing," Gager says. "She's very assertive. She gets into a [physical] fight with Robin Hood, but she's really just trying to tease him." As is customary, Robin Hood rescues Marian. But in this ballet, Marian saves Robin Hood from a perilous fate, too.

In order to stage the fight scenes, Vasterling took a crash course in combat choreography. He selected orchestral, chamber, and solo music by 20th-century composer Erich Korngold as a backdrop. Ironically, Korngold composed the soundtrack for the original Hollywood film version of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. The movie's score is fragmented, however, so Vasterling is using Korngold's music written for concert performances.

"Because the score was not written for the ballet, I had to take the libretto, which I wrote, and find music for it," Vasterling explains. "Then when I found Korngold's music, I had to fit the story to it. The stories of Robin Hood are legends and folklore, they're not linear. They can be taken in any order. The good thing is people know what the central story is."

In this case, the story is about charity. The poor citizens of Nottingham are being cheated by the conniving Sheriff, who is abusing the responsibilities awarded him by the King of England. Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, along with a number of Merry Women, are determined to put a stop to the corruption. After many contests of strength and will, Robin Hood is captured and sent to the gallows where he is to be blessed by monks before his death. But wait--the monks are actually his jovial cohorts. They throw off their robes to reveal themselves, mayhem breaks out, and Marian frees Robin Hood so he can join in the melee.

"I hope kids come out of the theater jumping all over each other [because] they're so excited about the dance," Vasterling says. In his first season as artistic director, he is particularly pleased with the technical abilities of his 14 company dancers, because they not only perform the steps but also express themselves as individuals. "Alexei is such a good guy, such a good person and so kind. He is perfect for the part because not only does he have great technique, but he understands that Robin Hood is a light-hearted, comic fellow," Vasterling says. The artistic director is encouraging Nashville Ballet members to become more visible in the community, more willing to be thought of as celebrities. In fact, the company is now selling baseball cards with the dancers' images and names on them. Once he sees hordes of boys and girls collecting and swapping Alexei Khimenko trading cards, Vasterling will know that the Nashville Ballet has truly arrived.

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