Nashville’s role in the women’s suffrage movement has been turned into a ballet. The new piece 72 Steps highlights a specific moment that was pivotal to women getting the right to vote.
During a rehearsal with Nashville Ballet's second company NB2, the dancers seem to wander aimlessly, while each states a fragment of text from a letter. The focus eventually falls on two dancers playing the role of mother and son: specifically, Phoebe and Harry Burn.
A century, Burn was the swing vote in the Tennessee State Legislature in Nashville — and Tennessee was the final state needed to ratify the 19th amendment. It was a letter from his mother that persuaded him to vote "aye."
The ballet they are preparing is called 72 Steps, referring to the 72 years of campaigning for women's suffrage that led to the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment. It centers on Nashville's role in the movement.
As part of the creative process, choreographer Gina Patterson led the performers through reflection on modern civic issues, including having them write letters to politicians in order to relate the fight for suffrage to today.
"We didn't want it to be too 'period piece' and sound like 1920 ... because it's still happening now," says composer Jordan Hamlin.
Patterson chose Hamlin specifically for her classical background, combined with her ability to cross genres. The set of pieces she wrote for this ballet are her first ever compositions for dance.
Hamlin wrote 23 pieces total, leaning on her varied musical background. Each features a different instrumentation with various electronic effects and a combination of acoustic and synthesized instruments. Hamlin offered her simplest segment — an acoustic piano piece — at the last minute, potentially for a future project. But Patterson ended up choosing it for the pivotal mother-son scene in the ballet.
"It's funny to think that it was just a sketch, and now it's cemented," Hamlin said.
Patterson saw it as much more than a sketch. "It just rocked me, really in a comforting way. And I thought, 'Oh, that's so perfect for a mother-son duet.' "
Hamlin recorded this movement on a piano from the 1920s, but her harmonic language and almost minimalist rhythmic repetition is steeped in the 21st century. This juxtaposition of old and new throughout the piece could feel anachronistic, but instead it contributes to the sense of timelessness that Patterson cultivated in the choreography.
The work was co-commissioned by the League of Women Voters of Nashville, who said ballet has been a supportive outlet for women for generations.
72 Steps will premiere at the Frances Boyd Davis Theatre at Harpeth Hall on November 10 at 2 p.m., followed by a talk-back session with the artists.