|Shea Johnson rehearses Valse Fantasie © SKepecs 2018|
by Susan Kepecs
You can see Madison Ballet’s final repertory show, Rise, at Overture’s Capitol Theater on March 30-31. “Rise” is a bit of a misnomer, on Easter weekend, since there’s nothing whatsoever that’s churchy about the show – and also because after Rise, Madison Ballet – despite its artistic success – goes down the rabbit hole. For reasons that must be more complex than the string theory of the universe, this so-called growing, thriving city is losing its ballet company, at least for the forseeable future.
Since W. Earle Smith became the company’s artistic director in 2001 I haven’t missed a single show, and I’ve never failed to write about one. My archives are full of previews and reviews that tell the story of how the organization went from being nothing more than a community Nutcracker with pickup guest principals to a pre-professional studio company (again with guest principals) to the stylish professional company it is today, as good as any regional Amercan ballet company, with seventeen strong dancers on season contract. It’s been fascinating to watch the a long, tough road it took to get to this point, spiked with hills and valleys and cursed with a few spooky detours.
Smith’s retirement after Rise, which he announced in October, is, if not the end, at least a very major roadblock. The current company dancers, who’ve been auditioning all over the world lately, are moving on. What follows Rise, I’ve been told, loops back to the very beginning – to a pickup Nut, and some hopes of rebuilding eventually.
The Rise program offers a nostalgic trip through Smith’s choreographic portfolio. “It wasn’t planned that way,” he says. “Basically it was set last summer, before I decided to step down. And then around the end of January I decided to completely redo it, as the result of dancers and staff and board members and audience members really wanting me to do an evening of my best stuff. So after thinking about it, I thought – hey, why not.”
On the bill is the “Caccini Pas de Deux,” which Smith choreographed in 2008 on then-company member (now assistant ballet master) Rachelle Butler and former Madison Ballet dancer Bryan Cunningham. Smith has revisited this pas several times; now he’s set it on Kaleigh Schock and Damien Johnson, who looked so luscious together in the Mingus Dances pas by New Orleans-based choreographer (and original Madison Ballet company member) Nikki Heffko in this February’s repertory show of works by women, She.
There’ll be excerpts from several of Smith’s longer ballets, including Groovy, his ode to ‘60s bubblegum hits, which premiered in the spring of 2014; his lighthearted beachy romp, Nuoto, from 2015; the third movement of last spring’s dramatic Piazzola piece, Las Cuatro. Also featured on the Rise bill are four movements from Smith’s slinky 2011 jazz ballet Expressions, plus five dances from his 2013 full-length steampunk rock n’ roll story ballet Dracula, including the sexy “Brides” pas de quatre (featuring Kelanie Murphy, Michela King and Bri George, with Damien Johnson as Dracula) and the ensemble dance “Minions.” Annika Reikersdorfer inherits the Lucy variation from that ballet, and the one and only Shannon Quirk reprises the Mina variation, from the role she made indelibly hers in 2015.
|Smith coaches the dancers in "Brides" © SKepecs 2018|
“There were three reasons why I chose what I chose,” Smith says. “Either it was a dancer favorite, an audience favorite, or my favorite – or a combination of those. For instance Groovy is definitely a dancer and an audience favorite. I chose the Caccini pas because it’s one of my favorites – it has a lot of personal meaning for me. I choreographed it after my Italian grandmother’s death, and it’s to the Italian Ave María. It’s evolved quite a bit since 2008. And Dracula is an everyone favorite. Mike Massey [who composed the score for Smith’s vampire ballet] is playing Mina’s variation live, which means the world – the rest of the Dracula excerpts will be done to the recording. But Mike and I spent so many years working on Dracula – and the Mina piece is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. It’s really a perfect end to my career at Madison Ballet to share the stage with Mike on a piece that’s one of my career highlights, and to have Shannon dance it – she’s been with me longer than any other dancer currently in the company."
Also on the bill are two very appropriate works that are not by Smith. One is Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie, with permission from the Balanchine Trust and staged by Balanchine repetiteur Michele Gifford. Valse was the first Balanchine ballet the company acquired the rights to perform, for a repertory show in the spring of 2013. It makes an excellent bookend to the professional years of Smith’s company. The pas de deux at the heart of the work is set this time on the polished, graceful George and ballet celeb Shea Johnson.
There’s also the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s The American, again staged by Gifford and set on – who else? – Quirk and (Shea) Johnson. This is a big feather in Madison Ballet’s cap – the mark of, yes, a rising company – because of Wheeldon’s international celebrity as a twenty-first century ballet choreographer. It is not an excerpt from his spectacular Broadway ballet American in Paris, which played here last month – it’s an earlier work, set to Dvorak, and it’s a chance to see a different side of this major living choreographer.
“The fact that Michele Gifford set the Wheeldon pas and the Balanchine piece again is very apropos,” says Smith. “I feel so honored to share the stage with her – she’s a dear friend. She’s loved working with Madison Ballet, and she’s made a huge contribution to the organization by helping nurture the dancers and by bringing her knowledge a bit of a different perspective on ballet to the studio.
So I feel like I’m ending the season – and my career with Madison ballet – with all of my dear friends, who I will truly miss.”
 The School of Madison Ballet apparently will continue, and its students, along with ballet students from other academies in Dane County, will have opportunities to perform in Nutcracker alongside the guest artists.