We sat down in a quiet observatory room with the most subtle orchestrations playing in the background, only heard through the panel of glass that we could watch the dancers through. Kayla was fresh out of rehearsal for one of their final performances of the season that they are performing at the TPAC this week. Her hair was perfectly pulled back, dressed in all black, and she was only wearing socks on her (probably very tired) feet.
Kayla Rowser is a principal dancer with the Nashville Ballet and has spent twelve years dancing with them. She began her dance journey as many young girls do, at the age of four with some tiny Capezio ballet slippers and a hair bow, but unlike many of those little girls, she became a true, professional ballerina. I sat down with her to find out a bit more about her journey, but more specifically to allow her to elaborate on her experience as Lucy, in Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux. The ballet was created by Paul Vasterling, was inspired by a collection of poems, written by Caroline Randall Williams and was put to music by Caroline Gibbons. In a nutshell (that doesn’t do the book any justice), Lucy Negro, Redux elaborates on the relationship Shakespeare had with a woman he referred to as the Dark Lady. While he never explicitly stated her appearance, it is believed by some in the literature world that this Dark Lady wasn’t simply mysterious and had dark eyes, but was a woman of color.
Jami-lyn: If you had an intro a few sentences long, what would it be?
Kayla: My name is Kayla Rowser, and I am in my 12th season here with Nashville Ballet. This is the second company I’ve been in, and my career has just really taken off since being here in Nashville. It’s crazy to think of where I started 12 years ago, and the things I get to do now. I’m just really fortunate to be in a city that engages the arts and supports ballet so much.
JL: Why Nashville? Why Nashville Ballet?
KR: I fell in love with Nashville when I came here. I, of course, moved here for the ballet company. Just the city itself has changed so much in the 12 years I’ve been here… oh my goodness so much. It’s just so wonderful and there’s so much to do. It’s a fun place to live when friends come to visit. Friends plan trips to come to see performances I’m in, and then extend their trips because it’s such a cool city. So I’m really fortunate I’m able to live in a city where people are not only excited to come to see what I do, but I can also show them the place I’ve essentially grown up. We’re also doing such exciting work here at Nashville Ballet. We are reaching audiences we hadn’t when I first started working here. So getting to do that and having all of these fun collaborative projects coming in is really what keeps me going, and I’m glad to be able to do that.
JL: Now onto Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux. When you found out Mr. Vasterling had the idea to turn this book of poetry into a ballet, what were your initial thoughts?
KR: Ultimately, I hadn’t heard of the book or the author, and now I have this beautiful relationship with a poet. When I realized the title character, Lucy is a black woman, I thought, oh my goodness. This is something that never even occurred to me this would happen in my career. I’m just telling stories, and a lot of the time they’re just fairy tales. Let’s say I’m dancing the role of Odette in Swan Lake. I’m the swan queen who just happens to be an African American Swan. The character itself doesn’t demand the essence of who I am. To be able to tell a story of one particular black woman. To be able to have that added element to make it really, really personal. Her story, her feeling almost disenfranchised, taken advantage of, not seen, her worthiness wasn’t seen, she wasn’t seen as beautiful. But she believed all of those things. It was a really draining experience. It was emotional in a way no other role has been for me.
JL: How do you connect with Lucy? Who is she to you?
KR: I feel like I’m still thinking about who Lucy is and what she means to me. What she means in a dance sense is one thing, but what she means to me is Kayla Rowser, black woman. Not just Kayla Rowser, black ballerina.
“She is strength; She is unbreakable and unshakeable, and unapologetically herself.”
– Kayla Rowser
And that’s just something that I want to be. I feel that I have grown into that; the older I get the more comfortable I am in my own skin. For me, I think Lucy is someone that knows her worth and knows that she deserves love, just like anyone else. We’re all connected. For me, Lucy is a symbol of peace, and kind of where I hope we can get the world to be.
JL: From the preparation to the performance, what were some of the highlights of this process?
KR: Oh my goodness, I received so much love from my coworkers during the process, so that was something really beautiful. Getting to dance with Amani Saylor, who is in the company now, is the first time I’ve had another black woman in the company with me. There is no way I would have been able to get through those six weeks without her. Just being able to know someone else understood what it felt like to hear some of those words in the poetry over, and over, and over, daily that some people may have not really understood what they meant. Caroline’s way with words is so beautiful, and to know that Amani was there was really powerful for me. Also, the first day we did a run through in the studio, Rhiannon Giddens, Caroline was here, and me…just knowing the three of us were the focal point for a big project like that was huge. All three of us are black women in predominantly white spaces. Caroline in poetry, Rhiannon in her genre of music, and me in classical ballet and here we are putting on something huge. And opening night as far as performance. I was very present, but I also felt out of body. I was able to watch myself enjoying the moment, but I was also able to feel myself enjoying the moment. I will remember that opening night forever.
JL: In one word, describe your journey as Lucy.
KR: This one is so hard. Empowering. I thought that I had felt that I had a sense of self. I turned 30 last Fall and it finally felt really good to be in my own skin. If anyone doesn’t like it, that’s okay. But once we did this ballet, I felt even more that way. I didn’t want my voice to be included, but I knew my voice had to be included in this project because ultimately, I am Lucy.
“Ultimately, I am Lucy.”
– Kayla Rowser
My late afternoon at Nashville Ballet ended with a glimpse of a rehearsal for their upcoming performance at TPAC. I wouldn’t be bluffing if I said I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. If you’re able, buy some tickets. You won’t regret it, I promise. This show is running April 26th through April 28th.