Thursday, April 6, 2017

Madison Ballet Springs into Spring with "Primavera"

                             Las Cuatro, Quirk front and center   © SKepecs 2017
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Primavera, last weekend (March 31 – April 1) at the Bartell, marked the end of an uneven season. But by far, this was the best of it.  The company lost more than half of its dancers last year during a financial crisis, and it needs more time to bring newer hires up to par.  But the organization has some spectacular seasoned dancers, and the Primavera program was interesting and varied.  I attended Friday night.
The highlight, for me, was a pair of neoclassical pas de deux, both choreographed by artistic director W. Earle Smith.  Much has been written, both positive and negative, about Balanchine’s famous axiom “ballet is woman.”  In the twentieth century master’s pas de deux the ballerina is always the star, though she often appears to be passive, an object both controlled and revealed by her male partner.  This is an illusion, of course, since being partnered demands phenomenal amounts of strength, control, and fearlessness.  Nevertheless, in the twenty first century the gender politics of pas de deux would relegate the artform to the dustbins of history, if not for this: we watch sports to see fit, trained athletes perform feats our lumbering selves can only dream of.  A good pas de deux is a sport of sorts, but when you add the grace and artistry of ballet done well, the effect is nearly transcendental.  Smith’s two pas de deux on the Primavera program achieved that elusive end. 
The short, slow, elegant pas from his 2011 “Palladio,” this time set on Annika Reikersdorfer and newcomer Adam Bloodgood, opened the show. Lithe, light Reikersdorfer is a perfectionist with a musician’s sensibilities; she luxuriated in every nuance of the score.  Bloodgood’s partnering was strong and understated.  He lifted her in pas de chat; she floated across space, extending her legs into second and landing in arabesque.  She leaned, deeply off balance, into his arms, one pointe-shod foot on the ground, the other crossed in fifth and resting on top; he swiveled her around like a gentle breeze.  
The other – the premiere of Smith’s Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, which he’s long wanted to choreograph, was a joyful romp, set on Bloodgood and Madison Ballet reigning queen Shannon Quirk.  
Romeo and Juliet pas © SKepecs 2017
Here the partnering was bolder, and where Palladio is cool as a cucumber, the Romeo and Juliet pas demanded top acting chops. There’s an interesting dichotomy here – these are supremely confident dancers, but the whole piece is charged with tender, shy sweetness.  In real life Quirk is worldly, and blessed with a wry sense of humor. But as Juliet, hair loose, soft white dress flowing, she was 18 and in love. Bloodgood lifted her high overhead, swept her into a fish, tossed her onto his shoulder, swirled and flipped her.  She flew into a mid-height, lifted and carried grand jeté, opening slowly into infinite extension while sailing, radiant, across the stage.

Internal Divide © SKepecs 2017
The Romeo and Juliet pas was followed by a stark departure – UW-Madison Dance Department professor Marlene Skog’s “Internal Divide,” a repertory piece of postmodern ballet set on Quirk, hair still loose, pointe shoes on.  The striking contrast with the Juliet role spotlighted Quirk’s remarkable versatility.  “Internal Divide” is a staccato, angular, temper tantrum of a dance – a feat of core strength in which, as its name implies, the dancer’s body appears to be possessed by opposing impulses.  Quirk flailed, spun, marched; she spidered along the floor, then sprung, extended, to her feet. Sometimes an arm or a leg initiated the movement – a staple in the Dance Department’s postmodernist vocabulary.  There were flic-flac turns, straight out of ballet but done with flexed feet.
I wondered, since Skog’s subtly invoked environmental crises in dance before, if her inspiration this time was – well, political.  It represents everything, she told me, laughing. But her original point of departure for this piece was folía, an Iberian Renaissance dance of insanity (folía essentially translates from Portugese or Spanish as “folly”).

Puck variation © SKepecs 2017
Also on the bill were three excerpts from Peter Anastos’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Madison Ballet performed in full in 2004 and 2011. Puck’s bravura woodsprite variation, with its  cabrioles, grand soubresauts and gargouillades, was a perfect fit for Jackson Warring, who looks like he was born for jester roles. Kelanie Murphy, who’s come into her own as a soloist at the end of her second season with the company, looked like she had a touch of opening night jitters in the fairy variation, though what really dampened the dance was the inconsistent corps. But Murphy sparkled in her silly pas de deux with Bottom (Andrew Erickson), the bumbling weaver turned into a donkey by the mischievous Puck.  

Up all Night (Murphy, Bloodgood) © SKepecs 2017
Up All Night (Warring, Erickson) © SKepecs 2017
Murphy again proved herself a star, dancing in a red dress on a tabletop in “Up All Night,” a premiere by local musical theater choreographer Cindy Severt.  Severt made great use of ballet-trained dancers and the rock n’ roll they carry around inside themselves in this spunky jitterbug of a crowdpleaser piece. “Up All Night” was a little show in itself, with a lotta swing and a strong narrative about a cocktail waitress longing for showbiz fame. It featured Kristen Hammer (as the waitress) with Warring and Erickson as her suitors – plus Murphy and Bloodgood as a pair of bona fide celebs who dropped into the joint for a little jive time.

If there’s an echo of Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free in “Up All Night” – at least in the bar, and the bop – the program’s finale, Smith’s 28-minute repertory ballet Las Cuatro, evoked Martha Graham.  Certainly not in the sense of Graham’staunch anti-ballet stance – Las Cuatro is pure neoclassical ballet with an escuela bolera tang on a tango base (Astor Piazolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas).  Las Cuatro is an expression of sultry brio, not (as in Graham) Jungian angst.  But Las Cuatro has commonalities with Graham’s modernist works, particularly “Steps in the Street” (1936), which Kanopy performed so magically at Overture’s tenth anniversary event in 2014. 
Las Cuatro © SKepecs 2017
      Before I get carried away, let me say that I don’t think Smith was thinking of Graham, or “Steps in the Street,” when he choreographed Las Cuatro.  But perhaps the parallels are the result of the great universal unconscious, which Graham herself believed in. We’re living in politically stressful times, and “Steps” was Graham’s response to the tensions of the lead-up to World War II, in particular the Spanish Civil War. Her intent wasn’t Latin, but Spain was woven into her concept.  The score for Graham’s piece, by American modernist composer Wallingford Riegger, is no tango, but like Piazolla’s work it’s percussive and complex.  Graham’s “Steps in the Street” features a corps of 11 women, often moving in unison, their shifting, complex patterns punctuated by a soloist; Smith’s Las Cuatro has a corps of 11 (eight women, in red; three black-clad men), its shifting, complex patterns often done in unison and punctuated by Quirk. Even some of Smith’s gestures – women marching forward, arms raised before them at 45 degree angles; the way their soft long skirts, draped over working legs in arabesque, formed bell shapes – are Graham-like in both vocabulary and intensity. 
I found this comparison as fascinating as Las Cuatro itself, with its Latin rhythms, its Spanish embellishments – foot flicking, hand claps, the women manipulating those long red skirts like bullfighters’ capes.  Sometimes pointe shoes served as percussion accompaniment.  The corps packed the stage and filled the eye with constantly shifting movement.  The women formed a pair of diagonal lines; the men, one at a time, lept high into the air between them. Two women stepped up into pique arabesque as three more returned to faille, Quirk in the lead. 
I loved the complexity and drama of this piece. In some ways it’s quite a departure for Smith – not overtly jazzy or Balanchine-esque, and much more emotional that anything I’ve seen from him before – though it sticks to his prime tenet of choreography, “dance is music made visible,” which he takes from Balanchine.  That said, I do have two complaints. Las Cuatro is a bit long and slightly repetitive – it could be edited back a bit. And the corps – uneven all season – was still that way at the end.    
                                   Las Cuatro © SKepecs 2017 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Season is Changing: Madison Ballet Brings Primavera to the Bartell

                                                     Las Cuatro in rehearsal  © SKepecs 2017
by Susan Kepecs
The days are lengthening, little green stalks poke up out of the ground, and the end of Madison Ballet’s 2016-17 season is upon us.  Next week – March 31 – April 1, at the Bartell – the company serves up a repertory show aptly called Primavera. The title’s taken from the program’s pièce de resistance, Las Cuatro, choreographed by artistic director W. Earle Smith to Astor Piazzola’s “Las cuatro estaciones porteñas,” known in English as the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. But more on Las Cuatro later.
In a lighthearted vein, the program features three excerpts from Peter Anastos’ blithe Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Anastos set in full on Madison Ballet in 2004 (the company performed the ballet again in 2011). From Midsummer Smith chose Titania’s Fairy Dance, with sparkly Kelanie Murphy as the Fairy Queen, reigning over a corps of six; Puck’s variation, a trickster’s bravura dance that sits perfectly on long-time company member Jackson Warring; and the pas de deux for Titania and the bumbling Bottom (danced by Andrew Erickson), the weaver who Puck’s turned into a donkey. 
In rehearsal, Smith gives good-humored direction: “On the penché, drop your head,” he tells Murphy.  “You’re Titania – you can do whatever you want!  You’re the queen!”  He turns to Erickson. “Don’t bounce too much on the prances,” he says – “the ears [on the donkey head] are designed to bounce, so if you bounce too much they’re gonna fall off!” 
Local musical theater choreographer Cindy Severt premieres a fluffy, fun-to-dance piece in a completely different vein, “Up All Night.” It’s a jazzy, jitterbuggy work that uses most of the company and features Kristen Hammer and newcomer Adam Bloodgood, along with Warring and Murphy. It doesn’t bear much stylistic resemblance to Balanchine’s neoclassical ballet-based works of musical theater, but the approach fits into a broader conceptualization of Balanchine that meshes with Smith’s vision for the company.  It’s a great chance for the dancers to stretch out in another genre, he says. 
The rest of the program is more serious. Smith’s new Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, which follows the Midsummer excerpts on the program, rounds out his nod to the Bard.  It’s a big, bold, neoclassical allegro, filled with sweeping turns and daring, high lifts.  And it’s set, of course, on reigning Madison Ballet queen Shannon Quirk, partnered by Bloodgood.  It’s a strenuous piece, and after the runthrough I watched the two were huffing and puffing from exertion.
“I’ve always wanted to do the balcony scene from that ballet,” Smith says.  “It’s one of Prokofiev’s signature pieces – it’s exquisite music.  I’ve seen it done very light – Romeo just runs around the stage, very flowy-shmoey, so I decided to put more dancing in mine – it’s very hard partnering.”   
Also on the program is the luxurious, lush-lined, adagio pas de deux from Smith’s Palladio, much reworked from its 2011 premiere for a new generation of dancers (Annika Reikersdorfer and Bloodgood perform it in this concert).  Palladio’s hard in its simplicity, and Romeo is hard in execution,” Smith says.  “With Palladio I was really going for movement that complements the music, whereas in the Romeo choreography the partnering defines the music.  For me, it’s two very different approaches to choreographing a pas de deux.”
The Romeo and Juliet pas is followed, in program order, by a stark departure, “Internal Divide,” a new work choreographed by UW-Madison Dance Department prof Marlene Skog and set on the utterly versatile Quirk. It’s an angular temper tantrum of a dance that demands a powerhouse performer of extraordinary capabilities, and looks daunting to do – Quirk spun and flailed across the studio floor as if literally being blown apart by hidden forces.
Las Cuatro, which premiers in this program, and also ends it, has four movements – “Verano,” “Otoño,” “Invierno,” and “Primavera” – set on the full company. Watching it you can feel
Las Cuatro, rehearsal  © SKepecs 2017
Smith’s delight at working with Piazzola’s tango accent, which lends itself to his flair for syncopation and his trademark neoclassical, slightly jazzy, music-made-visible approach. But it’s also, in some ways, a departure for him – there’s an edge of Latin sabor here that’s new, and the work’s varied structure is bigger, fuller, richer in power and movement than many of his other repertory ballets.
What was the inspiration for Las Cuatro?  “I was drawn immediately to the music,” he says – just the passion and the sexiness of it. It’s full of emotion. I wanted to choreograph a meaty piece.  It’s 28 minutes long, and there’s a lot in it choreographically – adagios, allegros, petite allegros, lots of changing combinations of dancers. In it, I’ve gone from solos to pas de deux and pas de trois to – whatever nine is.  Pas de neuf.”

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Get Ready for Some Gospel and Blues

Ruthie Foster  
Heritage Blues Orchestra
A double dose of delight comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall next Thursday night (March 9) – Austin-based gospel goddess Ruthie Foster, and New York City’s Heritage Blues Orchestra.  Both are masters of  a black-church centered, old-school, guitar-based sound that occupies a wide space between gospel and blues and swings easily along the urban / rural continuum.  Both record for indie labels (the HBO on Chicago-based Raisin’ Music, Foster on Austin’s Blue Corn).  Both have reaped big-time blues awards, and both got Grammy nominations for Best Blues Album in 2013 (though the golden megaphone in that category went to Crescent City icon Dr. John that year).
Both the HBO and Foster play real, true, straight-up music – but that’s not to say these acts are two peas in a pod. The HBO’s players have had long careers on their own, but as group they have just one album to date, And Still I Rise (2012).  Foster has nine, I think, including her brand new (March 2017) release, Joy Comes Back.  The HBO has Atlantic seaboard roots – the group comes in various configurations, and I don’t know how many players are coming to Madison, but its backbone is Bill Sims, Jr., originally from Georgia (guitars and vocals), Big Apple-born songstress Chaney Sims (Bill’s daughter), and New Jersey native Junior Mack (guitars, vocals).  There’s a lotta Lone Star in Foster, who grew up in Gause, a tiny southeast Texas town. The HBO leans more toward lean, from-the-heart, pre-‘60s blues; Foster’s more eclectic, and more gospel than blues. 
There’s no headliner in this show – it’s being promoted as an even-Steven double bill, with two separate sets and a collaborative tune or two.  I ended up only interviewing Foster, which feels a little lopsided. But here’s what she had to say when I reached her, at home in Texas, on the phone a couple of weeks ago:

CulturalOyster: The bio on your website tells me you grew up in a family of gospel singers, in a small Texas town. Was everyone in your family in the choir? 

Foster: Almost everybody in the family – my cousins and all of that – at some point or another thay all had their day in the choir stand.

CulturalOyster: Did you sing at home too?

Foster: No, we didn’t, except for the songs we were getting ready for church. I did play piano, too, once and a while, next to my uncle, who was the key piano player at our church, but even that for the most part was just about the songs we were getting together for services.    

CulturalOyster: I’ve never been to Gause, but I have this image of a dusty little Texas town – was it a small church?
Foster: It was very much a small church, in between two major towns.  Gause is south of College Station and southwest of Bryan, and just short of the Brazos River.  Gause mostly has German and Czech culture, that’s the big deal there – a lot of the old fellas that would come by my grandmother’s house asking for my grandfather had German or Czech names.

CulturalOyster: When did you start playing the guitar?

Foster: I picked up the guitar around the same time as the piano, but the guitar became my key instrument.  My grandmother and my mother insisted I start with the piano because it was a “church instrument,” quote, unquote.  But they didn’t mind if I played guitar a little bit.  It made traveling around to other churches a lot easier.  I’d go out and play the same hymns we sang at my church with piano, but I played them on the guitar.  One of the things you do as a guest artist in another church is they give tribute to the church you’re from, so my church didn’t mind that I was going around representing them in other churches.
But I have to add that playing the guitar as a young person had another side to it, too. I didn’t just want to do traditional hymns.  The guitar gave me a chance to learn more contemporary gospel – I got to play songs by contemporary gospel composers like Andraé Crouch and Dorothy Norwood.
The thing is, old-style gospel was definitely piano-based, those old hymns like “Old Rugged Cross” and “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior.”  Contemporary gospel for me at that time was, like, a lot of the local all-male groups that would show up with just a guitar player and three or four guys singing.  These guys would play all over Texas.  There are some records – my grandmother kept a few.

CulturalOyster: I bet they didn’t get much distribution!

Foster: You can bet on that!  But that was the sound I wanted – I wanted to be a guitar player.  I loved piano, but I could see where guitar brought a whole new level of energy to the church.  And plus, we lived next door to a holyness preacher and his wife and kids.  He took the time to work with me on guitar.  I could hear him playing in his kitchen and he’d let me come over and play with my little tiny guitar.  He’d help me out with rhythm – you have to have a pretty good chucka-chucha-chucka with all of those voices behind you!  And that’s why I’m a pretty solid rhythm player to this day.

CulturalOyster: The basic truth about you that I can pick up on from what there is online is that you fit no molds – you’re your own woman all the way through.  What’s that meant for your career? 

Foster: Not being able to fit into one mold also means they can’t fit you into one area in the record store, which at least back when that was relevant could make some trouble for people looking for gospel or blues or folk.  I do them all.  But in my personal life I think everybody has a little bit of blues in them, a little bit of gospel, a little bit of Aretha Franklin, a little Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  Folks here in Texas have a mix – I also grew up with a lot of conjunto music [the Tex-Mex accordion-based sound] and Czech music – when I was growing up we all went to Czech Fest in Waco, that was a great place to go eat and dance and have a good time.  I grew up with a lot of different types of music.  But I think gospel is my main line.  You can hear that in this new album that’s coming out this month – diction-wise and all I just let it all hang out.  On a lot of these tunes I just left it like it was, ‘cause that’s where I was while I was recording them. 

CulturalOyster: You just sort of answered this question, but it’s hard to pin down what you do in a few words.  How do you describe the central thread – the essential Ruthie Foster element that transcends genres, that runs through your music?

Foster: I think it is gospel, like I said, but inside of that it’s the trueness.  My trueness is that once you open up that gospel genre, it invites all the other genres to dance with it.  That’s the way I look at it.  I have gospel throughout my set list and I can go right into a Mavis Staples or a Son House from gospel, or I can go into Lucinda Williams – there’s something true about that, something really basic about what’s real for me.

CulturalOyster: The title of your new album, Joy Comes Back – what’s the story behind that?

Foster: I took a little time off from recording, it was about three years between this CD and the last one.  I needed time to reflect and be home with my family, and I was coming out of an eight year relationship and learning how to co-parent a five year old.  It wasn’t a smooth transition, I’ll leave it at that.  I had a lot of things going on in my personal life that I needed to focus on, so music wasn’t the most important thing.  I needed to get my life back on track and get myself settled.  I was in between places for a while, and trying to tour – so going back into the studio was a way to find the foundation I was missing.  Music was a way to make that jump and a way to heal from all that.  I’m still healing, so this is my most personal record since Phenomenal [The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, Blue Corn 2007]).  It’s funny how life just comes around and teaches you the same thing over and over again, but you know, I’m makin’ good music from it! 
One of the things I love about what I do, I sit at the CD table on tour and I get to hear how my music has been a part of people’s lives.  I think this is an album that’ll do that – with every one of the songs on it, you get to see where I was and what I’ve learned.  And I get to talk about it – to share a little bit of my own journey – till the next CD!
The message in the title in this one is that good things are headed your way no matter how bad it may seem.  It’s about setting your intent – you have to remember that joy comes back, there’s always something good coming.  I’ve been blessed to have a little daughter who reminds me every day that joy is something real.  A kid’ll do that to you, take you out of yourself. 

CulturalOyster: You’re playing Madison on March 9, right before Joy’s official release date. Will you mostly (or exclusively) do tunes off that album? 

Foster: It’ll be a mix – I haven’t made the set list yet, but it’ll be some songs off Joy and some from my other albums.

CulturalOyster: Who are your backup players on this tour? 

Foster: I have a regular drummer, Samantha Banks.  My bass player is Larry Fulcher – he plays with Taj Mahal, he’s in the Phantom Blues Band [Majal’s backup outfit].  I’m the guitar player – we’re  coming to Madison as a trio, that’s pretty much how I travel on these tours, though when I can afford it I have a keyboard player and another guitar player I work with.

CulturalOyster: You’re doing a double bill with the Heritage Blues Orchestra, which seems like a good fit, though I don’t know a lot about them – what can you tell me?

Foster: Bill Sims Jr. was the catalyst for starting it.  I met him years ago in New York when I was with Atlantic Records and we played the same clubs in that area.  The Heritage Blues Orchestra didn’t exist then, but I saw them at a festival in Poland a while back.  And we were both nominated for a Grammy a few years ago, that was cool, taking pics together in Los Angeles for that.  I haven’t played with them before, and I don’t know how this show is set up, but we’ll see what happens!

CulturalOyster: You tour a lot – Madison comes kind of early in a big US tour, and you were in Europe last year, according to your website.  What do you like to do when you aren’t performing?

Foster: I like to nest! I just bought a house on my own last summer and proceeded to be on tour a lot since then, so when I’m not touring I like being at home and hangin’ out with my frineds and having a chance to go out to listen to music.  Terri Hendrix – she’s a Texas songwriter – lives near me, and we get together and have some dinner and talk about what we love and don’t love about being on tour.  I like to be a good friend and be accesible to my friends.  I like to hear what’s up with their lives.  It’s easier for most of them to follow me – my life is on a website!
                   interview by SK

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pilobolus' Shadowland: a Creative Coup

by Susan Kepecs
I was primed to like Pilobolus’ Shadowland, at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall last Thursday night (Feb. 23), if only because it’s a dog story done in dance, and I’m a dancer dog person. But the production exceded my expectations by miles. I’d expected it to be slick and commercial – a bag of stunning technical tricks à la Momix, maybe. But Shadowland turned out to be much more than a steady flow of luxuriant images. Pilobolus has a wide-open concept of theater that lets everything hang out. In a word, as the company’s creative director, Mark Fucik, told me in a pre-show interview (, Pilobolus’ work is accessible. And that’s the truth from head to toe. Shadowland isn’t all done in shadow, but it’s staged so you can see, more or less, how its startlingly eloquent shadows are done. The process involves multiple screens, spots, flashlights, and tons of low-tech props (styrofoam lobsters!) that sit out onstage for the audience to see before and after the 80 minute show. And the story – dreamlike, simpatico, a feast of constant edge-of-your-seat action – leaves room for everyone to read in their own references.
In that story – which bears metaphorical resemblance to the perilous pre-adoption life history of my own beloved rescue pooch – a typical teenage girl (who we first see at home, lit from the front) is transformed (back-lit, behind the main screen) into a little prick-eared terrier. Dog Girl (Heather Jeane Favretto, whose grasp of dog behavior is phenomenal) runs away from home and experiences a string of dreamlike, mostly behind-the-screen, done-in-shadow adventures. She’s chased by crazed cooks wielding meat cleavers; she slays a fearsome dinosaur in a cave; she jumps off a cliff and finds herself deep undersea (a Spongebob Squarepants-like segment that reminds you the story was written by Steven Banks, that show’s lead writer); she falls in love with a centaur.
When Favretto’s behind the screen, she’s more dog than girl – sometimes dog from head to tail, others a girl with a terrier’s head. She’s touchingly, puppyishly curious. She snatches things, devilishly, from a pot-smoking cowboy who picks her up on the highway. Her ears flap happily in the wind as she rides shotgun in his pickup, window rolled down. Sometimes she travels alone; when she’s scared, she licks a paw and whines. When the screen rolls up and you see her without the snout and ears that shadowcasting let her make, she’s just a girl in a nightgown, but the dog’s still there; kidnapped by a front-lit sadistic circus with a whip-cracking dominatrix she jumps through hoops hesitantly, like a scared puppy, fists closed like paws.
Dog Girl’s dream is built on its shadow chase scenes, in which the dancers achieve spatial magic through sleights of movement and perspective created by manipulating light, props, and positioning behind the screen. The viewer perceives the field of action as being much larger than the proscenium arch stage on which it takes place.
Pilobolus’ dancers are people-shaped, not ballerina-shaped, which, like everything else about this production, renders it broadly accessible. But these are marvelously fluid and daring movers. Often, as if to underscore the idea that she’s floating in a transitional state of consciousness, other dancers carry Favretto, supine, through space, raising and lowering her as she arches and contracts like a wave-tossed jellyfish. In one front-of-screen passage she’s caught, repeatedly, mid-leap, by one of the men. Intercepting her trajectory creates a little rebound effect at the top of her arc that’s accentuated by her pedaling legs. It’s like she’s flying through space in slow motion.
The production’s lush, versatile score, by songwriter / film composer David Poe, changes moods to fit Shadowland’s shifting scenes, and sometimes has words that subtly push the plot. The end of the story finds Favretto safe at home, neither dog nor shadow. Delighted, she spins, arms out, head tossed back, to a haunting, minor-key melody with the allusive lyrics “if it gives you joy, it gives you joy, and you don’t have to explain it,” which I still can’t get out of my head.
That might have been enough, but then there was the coda. Pilobolus famously tailors Shadowland’s finale for every one of the hundreds of cities around the globe that the show’s played in since its 2009 debut. So I expected a nod – a shadow Capitol, maybe. But when the screen rolled down again Dog Girl was in Manhattan, a small silhouette among skyscrapers. She wolfed a street cart hot dog; she saw the Statue of Liberty, emblazoned with the words “refugees welcome” (the audience cheered). She rode the subway, danced in a nightclub. She jumped in another truck, with another guy, and cruised the Interstate (to lyrics that went “everywhere we go, we call it home”), finally landing in Wisconsin. And there was the shadow Capitol, beautifully done, Lady Rennebohm perched prominently on top. But that’s not all. Union Terrace chairs, Bucky Badger, and Bascom Hall’s east façade (yes, with Abe Lincoln in front) cast their shadows. So did a protest march; the cast carried signs that read “Protect Trans Students,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Thanks.” The marchers danced, and jumped for joy – and there was cheese. The audience roared.
There’s something enormously powerful, especially now, about seeing what you care about rendered in art. Shadowland caught it all and tossed it back at us, larger than life – humanity, dogdom, progressive values, our city. I’m not a crier, so I was surprised to find myself in tears as the house lights went up.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

An Interview with Mark Fucik, Creative Director of Pilobolus' Acclaimed "Shadowland"

                                                            © Ian Douglas, courtesy of Pilobolus
The first time I ever saw the dance company Pilobolus was at the Wisconsin Union Theater, way back near the beginning – it was 1975, and the company was in its fourth year.  “Pilobolus,” biologically speaking, is a genus of fungi that grow on, well, cow poop – perhaps an odd name for a dance troupe, but I clearly remember thinking that Pilobolus was the best thing I’d ever seen.  I’d taken some classes with multimedia modern dance master Alwin Nikolais, and I was astounded at the way Pilobolus used the very Nikolaisian concept of a group of dancers as a single living organism. But Pilobolus’ version was better – a new, pure form of modern dance with startling agility, blessedly free from the trappings of sets and costumes.  I’ve seen Pilobolus various times since, though it never again captured my imagination the way it did that first time.  That said, I haven’t seen Shadowland, a multimedia dance theater piece that premiered in 2009 (in collaboration with Steven Banks, lead writer for the clever animated TV show Spongebob Squarepants, and singer-songwriter / film composer David Poe).  Shadowland, an international hit, comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on Feb. 23. 
Pilobolus has won its share of awards, and also done its share of TV commercials – in fact, Shadowland evolved from a Hyundai ad done as shadow play. Today Shadowland, which toured Europe for nearly a decade before coming home to play in the states, has a sequel – Shadowland 2: The New Adventure, which premiered recently in Germany.  All of this seemed too slick for my bohemian, anticapitalist taste – and yet, after watching a dozen or so YouTube extracts I’m pretty much prepared to fall in love with this narrative, full-length dance theater piece, with its central character, Dog Girl – a girl who’s transformed partly into a puppy.  So, OK, I’ll admit it – the shadow dance pup looks a lot like the goofy little terrier genius who lives with me and owns my heart.
I also got to talk to Shadowland creative director Mark Fucik about the show a couple of weeks ago.  Fucik – personable and enthusiastic on the phone – let me in on some of what goes on behind this incredibly complex show.  After that conversation, I’m even more excited to see it. 

CulturalOyster: You have a long history with the company – how did you first come to Pilobolus, and what’s changed since you started?

Fucik: I’ve been with the company fifteen years.  I kind of fell into it.  I started dancing late – I was a theater major in college, at Rutgers, and I took some dance classes.  I met a visiting alum who was working with Pilobolus – she’d never seen me dance, but she said I should audition for the company.  When I saw what they did it blew me away – the amalgamation of theater with dance, and how you can tell such an incredible story with movement.
            The company’s always worked as a collective, but one thing that’s changed since I came is that we’re now bringing in more collaborators, and not just dance people – magicians and writers and musicians as well as outside choreographers.  We like to bring people in to see what we can innovate with their input. 

CulturalOyster: You’re listed as the creative director for Shadowland.  How does that work?  Since Pilobolus is organized as a collective, did everyone have a hand in the choreography?

Fucik: Yeah – our work is always made through collaborative effort. I’m the creative director of Shadowland now, which means I’m in charge of multiple tours and making sure every one is up to par – theater spaces are all different, so when things arrive on the road I troubleshoot.  I move things around to solve problems.  But I was one of the dancers in the original cast.  The vision was pushed forward in 2008 by one of the company’s founders, Robbie Barnett [now its charter artistic director], in collaboration with Steven Banks and David Poe and the dancers in that first group.  Poe was there in the studio, writing music as we danced.  We’d watch videos of what we did and he’d create music for the movement.  The work comes from all of us, through improvisation.  

CulturalOyster: Your dancers are very athletic, and very contemporary – what kind of training do you do as a company?

Fucik: One of the things that’s great about Pilobolus is that it was started by four guys without a dance background, which is why what we do reaches all audiences.  Our dancers come from all over – we look for people with great body awareness, for people who are intuitive. Sometimes they’re modern dancers, or martial arts practitioners, or sometimes they’re just just good movers who work with us and eventually get into the company.  
Nothing can prepare you for what Pilobolus asks you to do. We don’t do any particular technique – all of our training comes during the work, from rehearsing our pieces.  We rehearse 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, and if we’re not rehearsing a piece, we’re improvising.  You’re using your body the whole time, finding out how it moves with other people and through space. 

CulturalOyster: From the videos I’ve seen of Shadowland it’s clear that Pilobolus’  original, organic concept is still there, though the contexts of the choreography, at least in this case, are much more narrative, far less abstract.  On the heels of Shadowland’s great success, there’s a sequel – so in general, is the company moving away from repertory works and toward story productions?  

Fucik:  Not really.  Shadow was one thing we wanted to explore, and Shadowland 2 came about because we figured we were having success so lets make another one. But we’re still making pure, simple dance pieces.  We did a trio a couple of years ago, “On the Nature of Things,” that goes back to the basic roots of Pilobolus, the connection with other human beings – creating an organism and moving through space.  That’s always awed me about the company; it’s sacred, and we always come back to it.  Right now we’re in the swing of getting back to that – getting the company to think outside the box about what these human sculptures are and what they lead us to think and feel.

CulturalOyster: Getting back to Shadowland, rear projecting behind a scrim to make shadows is ancient technology, but making it work for a production like Shadowland involves all sorts of manipulations and movements that are different from dance, per se.  What kind of knowledge or training – besides movement skills – do your dancers need to do this kind of work?

Fucik: Everyone in Shadowland ends up learning new skills.  There’s a huge learning curve when you first get in front of the projector and start making shadows.  It’s not a straight trajectory – you have to learn to move in a way that reads as a two-dimensional image.  When I step into this light, what does it read like on screen?  What happens when we stack our bodies vertically, or horizontally?  What’s in the space between the projector and the screen?  Will this read as the head of a seahorse, or a lion?  You may work with someone 25 feet away to make one shadow onscreen.  One contorted body makes a weird shape by itself, but with other bodies it makes an elephant, or a horse.  You can’t prepare for that, you have to learn it on the job.  It takes a lot more than putting your hands together to form a bird.   

CulturalOyster: What about your technical approach to shadow – this isn’t lantern-lit Balinese shadow puppetry!

Fucik:  What we do is an amalgamation of modern dance and live shadowmaking.  Our take on shadows is that the way we roll into them and make composite, moving images, is the technique’s beauty.  It’s not always the end shape that’s most important, it’s how you get from one point to another.  That’s the dancing – that’s what makes it mysterious and keeps people engaged and excited. 
But when we started making the piece we realized that just watching shadow all the time can get boring.  So we said let’s do what we do – let’s do some modern dance.  So it’s not just dancing behind the screen with a single light source.  Sometimes the dancers are behind the screen and then it’s rolled back and they’re using handheld screens or partial screens.  There are parts done mostly in front of the screen, with stage lighting, but other times the dancers are in charge of light as well as shadow – we use flashlights a lot.  We call the dancers shadowcasters.

CulturalOyster: Where does the Shadowland story come from?

Fucik: It found itself, through hours and hours of improv and seeing what we could do with shadow.  It became apparent that the shadows were two dimensional, like cartoons, so we looked at Japanese anime and then it hit us that we were telling a coming of age story, sort of like Alice in Wonderland, with a lesson to be learned.  And Steve Banks is a master storyteller – he came in and helped us find where the story went.  It turned out to be about a girl who is finding out who she is as a person; she has to go through “Shadowland” to find out what’s important to her. 

CulturalOyster: Lots of contemporary performing troupes are using the ancient Asian artform of shadow theater – maybe most famously Julie Taymor incorporated it into Lion King, but the company Momix, a Pilobolus offshoot, does it too. There’s obviously a mysterious power in using shadows to tell a story, but because of that power the shadow approach has a lot of commercial appeal, which Pilobolus famously exploits.  In fact your use of shadow got its start as a Hyundai commercial, right? 

Fucik: Yes – we used our bodies to make a car in silhouette. 

CulturalOyster: So I have to wonder – the original Pilobolus was so un-commercial in its approach – how does the overlap between high art and high capitalism impact the organization?

Fucik: We were approached to do the car commercial, and it was a challenge.  The company said hey, you guys have always been great at taking the human form and creating sculptures – so we made a car, and then we tried to push our thinking on what we can do with our bodies in terms of shadowcasting. 
And as every dance company will tell you, we’re all trying to make money to stay alive, especially with what we’re looking at for the next four years!  Endowments will be cut – we’re trying to stay afloat.  Doing commercials allows us to make the art we want to make.  Every dancer, every actor in New York can tell you you have to take the job that makes you money to do the works you want to do. 
But whether we’re doing TV ads or a theater piece, Pilobolus is incredibly accessible.  The movement we do comes from everyday life, we find it in improvisation with each other – and we keep that spirit of not trying to be so serious about our art that people leave the theater and say they didn’t get what they just saw. So we reach a lot of people, which is great. 

CulturalOyster: I’m blown away by what I’ve seen online of Dog Girl – there’s something so touching about it, and she looks so doggy – she can get that shadow to do just what my own dog does.  Is there just one dancer – according to your website, Heather Jean Favretto – who always does this role?  I get the sense that she’s totally into the story while she’s doing it.  Is she a dog person in real life?

Fucik: She didn’t originate the role, she’s the third generation of Dog Girl.  In fact, now we have two Dog Girls, though in Madison it’ll be Heather who does it.  It can be taught, but it takes a lot of practice and attention to detail – the way the dancers make the dog head and sustain it – it’s a lot of hard work.

CulturalOyster: Is Favretto a dog person in real life?

Fucik: She doesn’t own a dog!  She likes dogs, but you can’t have one if you’re always touring.  But like any good theater person you study a role, and if you’re Dog Girl you study little dogs.

CulturalOyster: Is it true or just a rumor that Shadowland ends with a coda that reflects each city the show goes to?  That’s a lot of extra work – how many cities, in total, has it played in?  Will you do something unique for Madison?

Fucik: Yes – for every city we take the time to craft a special thank you in our finale, so if you were to see us in one city and then in another you wouldn’t see the exact same ending you saw before.  We think it’s something audiences enjoy, and we enjoy doing it for them. 
As for the number of cities – the show opened in 2009 and now it’s 2017 – it’s been many, many cities and countries.  This is its first big US tour!  It’s traveled mostly outside the States – we did Germany, Australia, Asia, the Middle East – all before the States.

CulturalOyster: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want my readers to know?

Fucik: Just come open to experience anything – with Pilobolus you never know what you’re going to get.  We go from funny to serious to heartbreaking in a heartbeat.  Come ready to engage yourself.
                                                                                                      interview by SK