Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Dance Preview: Jessica Lang Dance at Shannon Hall

Jessica Lang Dance performing The Calling (excerpt from Splendid Isolation II).  
Dancer K. Kimura.  Photo by Sharon Bradford
If you read The New York Times’ Arts section or the frontmatter in The New Yorker you know there’s a whole lot going on in the big city dance world. Not much of it makes its way to this flyover town; in the last 365 days the only big-time non-local dance performances to come through are the rerun of Momix’s tepid full length production Opus Cactus and Christopher Wheeldon’s brilliant Broadway spectacle American in Paris – both have broad popular appeal, and both occurred at Overture Hall.  The Wisconsin Union Theater takes more programming risks, and on Saturday, March 17, you can catch a straightforward evening of dance repertory works by New York’s it-girl of choreography, Jessica Lang.  It’s an opportunity dance lovers shouldn’t overlook. 
Lang, now in her early 40s, graduated from Juilliard’s Dance Division and began her professional career as a dancer in Twyla Tharp’s Tharp! company in the late 1990s – a path she gave up early to focus on choreography.  She quickly became a prolific freelance choreographer, making works for renowned companies including American Ballet Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Joffrey Ballet.  In 2011 she founded Jessica Lang Dance (JLD).
Lang’s works aren’t pure ballet, though they’re imbued with classical sensibilities and she sometimes uses pointework. You could call them contemporary dance, but there’s a term that doesn’t mean much!  Let’s just call them dance, the way musicians who pull together multiple related twenty-first century influences just call what they do music.  Lang’s dances move, and they’re extraordinarily visual.  There are five of them on the Madison program – a very varied set that includes a 2006 piece she made for Ailey II, The Calling; a 2016 work about war commissioned by Des Moines Performing Arts, Thousand Yard Stare (created for JLD), and a pair of dances from 2017, glow and Her Road, the former commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow and both created for JLD. 
I interviewed Lang on the phone early this week; she was rushed and a bit brusque.  Twyla Tharp does interviews like that!  So I started there.

CulturalOyster: The thing everyone knows about your background is that you were in Twyla Tharp’s company in the ‘90s, and that’s what started your career out of college.  How much of an influence was she on your work?

Lang: I think in the beginning I was more connected to her process – I really wasn’t thinking too much about her choreography influencing mine.  It was more about who she was and what her career was that influenced me.

CulturalOyster: What about your pre-Tharp days – I know you went to Juilliard, but were you a teenage bunhead?

Lang: No! Yes, I was a dancer!  I trained in ballet but I knew I wasn’t going to be a ballet dancer.  I also had a background in jazz and tap and competition.  I wanted to go to college for dance and my teacher, Joe Lanteri, was teaching jazz at Juilliard.  He encouraged me to apply there. 

CulturalOyster: Dance writers love to compare you to Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, and there are some ex-Morris dancers in your company.  But specifically what is it about those two that echoes in your work? 

Lang: I think it’s probably that we use music that has melody and we dance to it.  That seems like a bizarre idea but I tend to be blunt and straightforward.  I hear music and rhythm and I create to that.

CulturalOyster: Who or what else influences your art?

Lang: All of my teachers at Juilliard.  But at this point in my career I don’t go to see dance and get inspired to make a dance – I do the opposite.  Anything in the world can inspire me and as a result I can make a dance to that – to music, to architecture …

CulturalOyster: You were an itinerant choreographer before you founded your own company, and you still make works for other companies on the side.  How has having a permanent home changed you?  

Lang: I think the difference is in the dancers – the company was started because I really wanted the ability to work consistently with the same group of dancers.  I wasn’t getting that working with outside companies. I think I make my best work on the dancers I know the best.  That’s true for anyone. Having my own organization allows me to develop new insights that I can use outside and vice-versa. 
How do I have time to do both?  It’s a balance. But my primary focus is very much on my own company.

CulturalOyster: I spend a lot of time in the ballet world, and I’m always surprised at how many dancers, when they retire, leave dance entirely, or end up just teaching – not a lot of them become choreographers.  What was your trajectory from performing to dancemaking, and what is it that separates those who go on to create from the rest? 

Lang: I just didn’t want to dance. I went to Juilliard for dance and the experience was wonderful.  I got into Twyla’s company and the experience of being a professional dancer was wonderful.  But the touring, and performing the same works over and over – I didn’t like it.  I knew I wanted to create more and I looked at choreographers I admired, like Twyla – and I realized they all started creating when they were young.  They didn’t wait till the end of their dance career to start making dances.  So I thought I should start as young as possible.  I stopped dancing at 24, 25 – it’s been almost 20 years.  I have great respect for dancers; I recognize that just being a good dancer doesn’t mean you don’t have talent.  You can be both dancer and choreographer.  But dancing and choreography are different artforms.  We have to have people who create the material, and we have to have others who make it shine.

CulturalOyster: What’s your process – how do you work with your dancers when you’re creating a piece?

Lang: There’s an exploration at the beginning – we improvise and develop material in different ways, and then I start to craft it. The process is the same for an outside commission or with my company, but with the company the relationship is much tighter – it’s much more difficult to show up for a week on Monday and create a work on dancers you don’t know.   

CulturalOyster: I always want to know how dancers train – if you’re in Jessica Lang Dance, what’s company class like?

Lang: It’s ballet. Sometimes we do a modern class but we do more ballet than modern, and a bit of what we call LANGuage – a creative exploration that connects dancers before rehearsal.  My dancers are all highly trained, technically.

CulturalOyster: One last question – looking at the video clips of the works on the Madison bill, I’m struck by three recurring currents in your work – one is highly visual, in the painterly sense, the sculptural sense – the startling color in glow, the way the dancers work with those black collapsable objects in Lyric Pieces, the stunningly sculptural single image in The Calling.  Another is drama – your works, emotionally, are at the other end of the spectrum from, say, Balanchine’s Concerto Barroco. But still – and this is the third thing – despite the drama, there’s what Balanchine called music made visible, which comes through even in Thousand Yard Stare – just from the video clip you can see how it’s evocative of war, with the fatigues and the strobes, but at the same time through the magic of the Beethoven score it’s pure dance.  When you create a work, do you start with these three things – the visual, emotional, and movement components – and see how you can weave them together?

Lang: No, not consciously.  I think that’s who I am, and I’m glad that’s perceived.  Music is very important to me; craft is very important.  With visual art – I feel very moved by objects, and collaboration with visual artists and architects is important, it’s something I pursue.  The emotion behind the work is just – I am an emotional person.  I react to the world with that kind of intense feeling, so I think that comes through in my work as a result. 

___________________________________________________interview by SK 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Cécile McLorin Salvant to Swing at Shannon Hall

by Susan Kepecs
I’m not as good at keeping up these days as I used to be.  One late Tuesday afternoon last summer while waiting for Ben Sidran to crank up the groove for the second set of his weekly warm weather salon for secular humanists, arch democrats and freethinkers, I found myself holding court at a little round table in the Cardinal Ballroom at what’s now known as Nomad World Pub, complaining about the state of jazz today among the up-and-coming generation.  It’s so academic, so lacking in soul and grit! 
“Ah,” said a friend, “then you don’t know about Cécile McLorin Salvant!” I didn’t. But now we all get a chance to catch up with what’s happenin’ in jazz, because McLorin Salvant plays the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall next Thursday, March 8. 
The high song priestesses of an earlier era made their music from the bitterness of racism, sweetened with the honey of the black church. Unlike them, McLorin Salvant comes from a family of successful professionals and her musical foundations are classical voice and piano. At eighteen she went to France – her father is Haitian, her mother is French – to study classical voice at a conservatory in Aix-en-Provence while digging into political science and law on the side. There she tumbled into jazz by accident, say those who know, when her mother discovered a class in jazz singing on the curriculum and talked her into taking it.  To her surprise, she fell in love.  In 2010 she won the Thelonious Monk competition (while diligently studying law) and then, like almost all jazz musicians of her generation, she she ended up doing time in the academy, at the School of Jazz at the New School in Manhattan. 
Today at 28 she’s a phenom, with four albums out and armloads of awards including the Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Album – twice (in 2015 and 2017).  She’s also got a few wonderful drawings (I think they’re in ink) scattered around the internet – there are a few on her own website, and they're worth looking up.
Most writers who’ve scored interviews with McLorin (I didn’t, though I tried for weeks), like Fred Kaplan, who writes for Slate and The New Yorker and who profiled her in the May 22, 2017 issue of the latter, portray her as studious and sort of proper. But jazz pianist Ethan Iverson, until recently of The Bad Plus, got her to open up and really talk about who she is today and how she got there for a piece that’s posted on his blog, Do The M@th.  It’s a great interview; let me refer you to that.
Having not interviewed McLorin Salvant, and having not yet seen her in performance, all I can tell you is that what distinguishes her from many in her generation is easy to pinpoint. What she lacks in old-school grit she makes up for in quality.  She swings her superbly malleable set of pipes through a vast repertory of jazz and blues standards with stylistic flexibility and emotional range that recalls the Great Ladies.  She’s enormously expressive, bringing to light again the emotional depths of songs long left behind. But what makes McLorin Salvant a singer for our times, according to The Nation’s music critic David Hadju – this you can’t tell from a YouTube video – is a sly but penetrating feminism she lays over those wrenching old songs, born in a weighted epoch of high misogyny. Hallelujah for that.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

American in Paris, in Madison

Maddox (Jerry) and Walsh (Lise) photo by Matthew Murphy 2017
The 2015 Broadway musical American in Paris, directed and choreographed by balletworld superstar Christopher Wheeldon, won a slew of awards the year of its debut, including – no surprise – the Tony for best choreography.  The show closed on the Great White Way in the fall of 2016; its US tour was launched at the same time. The touring production (now nearing the end of its run) lands at Overture Hall on February 26 (through March 4). 
What’s exciting about this show – and precisely what makes it a departure from other Broadway tours – is, of course, the choreography.  Wheeldon trained at London’s Royal Ballet and joined New York City Ballet as a dancer in the early 1990s. There he emerged as a whiz kid of dancemaking, becoming NYCB’s resident choreographer in 2001. Since then he’s created twenty ballets for City Ballet and many more for the Royal and just about every other major company you can think of. 
The rights to perform a Wheeldon work are a feather in the cap of any regional company, so it’s worth noting that there’s a Wheeldon pas de deux on Madison Ballet’s next repertory program, “Rise,” at Overture’s Capitol Theater (March 30-31).
American in Paris is Wheeldon’s first Broadway production, and rumor has it he was hesitant to take it on. But in historical perspective it’s a logical progression.  NYCB is practically synonymous with the late, great master of twentieth century neoclassical choreography George Balanchine, who loved American popular culture and choreographed works for a number of Hollywood movies and Broadway shows, most famously the ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” for Rogers and Hart’s 1936 musical On Your Toes, a story about a stripper and a hoofer; the original production starred Balanchine’s first wife, Tamara Geva, with song-and-dance man Ray Bolger – the Scarecrow in the movie Wizard of Oz. 
Jerome Robbins, whose legendary ballet-plus-musical theater career was inextricably tied up with Balanchine and NYCB, was the king of Golden Age Broadway dance – the brilliant choreography in West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof (to give just a short list) is his.
In all of those productions, and in fact, always, the movie has followed the show – but Wheeldon turned that formula on its head, taking Vicente Minnelli’s famous 1951 movie starring the Gershwins’ much-loved score plus Gene Kelly (as the American, Jerry) and Leslie Caron (as the French gal, Lise), as his point of departure; if the movie was mostly a tap vehicle for Kelly, Wheeldon’s story is rendered almost entirely in ballet.
His original cast featured former NYCB principal Robert Fairchild, who departed just last fall after dividing his time between the company and the show to pursue new opportunities in musical theater, and Leanne Cope, who Wheeldon plucked from the Royal’s corps de ballet because he’d heard she could sing. The original stars almost never do the tours, but it’s impossible to imagine Wheeldon giving these roles to anyone who doesn’t have what it takes.  In Madison we’ll see Mcgee Maddox, former National Ballet of Canada principal as Jerry, and former Joffrey soloist Allison Walsh as Lise.
I wanted more details, so I caught up with the show’s dance captain and resident dance supervisor Christopher Howard by phone last week. Here’s what he had to say:

CulturalOyster: Please tell me a little about you as a dancer, for starters.  Is ballet your primary dance language?  Where did you train?

Howard: So the bulk of my training was at Joffrey New York – I studied there for two years after I got my undergrad degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo in music theater and dance.  After the Joffrey School I danced with Dayton Ballet in Ohio for one season, and then I went back to New York and signed up to dance on a cruise ship.  That led to doing Broadway tours – American in Paris is my third big touring show.  I was in Billy Elliot two years and then I did three on the new tour of Phantom of the Opera.

CulturalOyster: So tell me about what you do with American in Paris.

Howard: I’m dance captain and resident dance supervisor on this tour, and also a swing in the show, so I do managerial stuff – running rehearsals, teaching new company members the choreography, fixing things in general – and I’m also in the show from time to time.  I fill in for most of  the men in the ensemble when they’re sick or injured or on vacacation.  I also understudy principal roles. I actually cover nine ensemble roles and one principal, the part of Henri [an aspiring entertainer].

CulturalOyster: How did you get started in Broadway productions?

Howard: My roots are in Broadway.  I didn’t start dancing till I was 18.  I grew up as a singer/actor – I knew that’s what I wanted to pursue.  But in college I figured I needed a few dance steps to get good roles, and then I realized that I wanted to be a true dancer. 

CulturalOyster: Have you worked personally with Christopher Wheeldon? 

Howard: Yes, many times. He comes to the tour a lot to check up on us, and he was instrumental in setting the show on the new company when we started this tour.

CulturalOyster: What’s he like to work with?

Howard: He’s really lovely to work with.  What’s fascinating about him as a choreographer is that he takes great pride in his work but he’s very open and willing to adjust steps for dancer’s bodies, so they can perform and look their best as long as what they do still tells the same story.  He’s just a great storyteller through his choreography. 

CulturalOyster: I haven’t seen the show but from what I’ve heard the choreography is done almost entirely in ballet.  That’s different than the movie – I mean, Gene Kelly’s tap dancing is the standout there.  Are there tap numbers at all in the show?  What did Wheeldon do with them?

Howard: We actually still have one major tap number – “Stairway to Paradise.”  It’s in the second act and it’s always a showstopper.  It really has Wheeldon’s style – it’s refined, it has the lines, it’s ballet – but it’s also full-fledged tap.

CulturalOyster: What’s your personal favorite part of this show? 

Howard: I think my favorite part is being part of the experience.  And Wheeldon is such a great storyteller – he’s changed the way we perceive musicals.  He’s really used the dancers and the medium of dance to tell the story.  In the past, dance was sort of superfulous – we sing and act, not dance, to tell the story and create the character development.  So Chris is brilliant in using his dancers and movement to tell the story, in ways we haven’t seen before.  He’s really reshaping the way musicals will be done in the future. 
But it’s not all ballet – there’s a lot of classical ballet but also the tap number; there’s jazz dance, and there’s Gershwin’s incredible music – and there’s the story itself.  And the lighting is so stunning. This show has something for everyone, whether you’re a dancer or not.
 ___________________________________ interview by SK

Monday, February 5, 2018

She: Sassy and Smart

                                                 Les Noces                  © Kat Stiennon 2018

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s repertory program of works by women choreographers, SHE, at the Bartell last weekend (Feb. 2-3), was almost entirely wonderful.  But the real gems in SHE were the dancers themselves.  For the first time, this company – like all companies, a mix of dancers moving up the chain from apprentices to seasoned veterans – really gelled. Madison Ballet finally became what it’s always wanted to be. Gone were the traces of unevenness and amateurism that marred performances in the past. Even though none of artistic director W. Earle Smith’s own works were on the program, SHE revealed the full fruits of his long labors, just as his retirement looms on the horion.
There’s been a lot of uncertainty at Madison Ballet since Smith's announcement in October, which feels wrong when growing, thriving Madison finally has a ballet company that’s full-fledged and poised to fly higher.  And the city deserves no less.  The citizens have finally fallen in love.  Nutcracker isn’t so much about ballet as it is about Christmas – people with little interest in the intricacies of the steps or the stars of the big companies show up at Overture Hall for the holiday monster, but a year or two back there were plenty of empty seats at the repertory shows. For SHE the house was packed, even for the snowy Saturday afternoon show that I attended.
The only fly in the ointment was “Bow,” a piece meant to evoke the sea by hoofer / movement educator Katherine Kramer, whose fluency in the language of ballet left much to be desired.  The women were on pointe, but they didn’t need to be.  Pointework by itself doesn’t define ballet – in Balanchine’s (1970) Elegie, for example, the women are barefoot, their hair worn loose, but the elegance and complexity of the movement, plus the flow of the dance itself, are unmistakably neoclassical.  “Bow,” a long, simple, often static work, consisted mostly of wave-like undulations that changed in intensity to fit a storm-to-sun narrative. This would be a good piece to set on UW-Madison dance majors, but it didn’t belong in a Madison Ballet repertory show.
Watching “Bow,” I wondered why Smith chose Kramer for this program while overlooking noted postmodern ballet choreographer and UW-Madison dance department professor Marlene Skog, who’s set several of her thoughty works on Madison Ballet in the past.  Perhaps Smith was aiming to bring in someone new instead, but he did bring back for the fourth time Chicago/New York urban/contemporary choreographer Jacqueline Stewart, whose quirky un-ballets make expert use of the neoclassical vocabulary and the dancers’ talents.
Stewart’s “Gait N Heel,” a premiere, was the best piece I’ve seen from her – it popped with color and action, though I have to complain about the sexploitation in the first movement.  Lithe,
Rogers, Johnson and Erickson, Gain N Heel
© Kat Stiennon 2018
loose-limbed Catherine Rogers, in a hot pink leotard, tossed her hair, pouted, and stalked around three men – Shea Johnson, Andrew Erickson and Jackson Warring – then climbed onto their laps and let them manipulate her, their fingers in her hair, her legs gesticulating in second position as the soundtrack whispered “I have a new crush...” A couple of times she pushed them away, or lept over them, but these acts weren’t nearly enough to shift the emotional dynamic.  Rogers was terrific in the role, and OK, I get it – we’re supposed to be mad about the objectification of women. But in the age of #MeToo and #Time’sUp, do we really need to see it onstage?
The rest of Stewart’s piece, a tango of sorts, was dynamic, contemporary, and edgy as hell.  Its message (there were lyrics: “these girls, these golden girls who sparkle…”) was sexualized, but also diffuse and abstract. Five women in very high heels (Bri George, Kristen Hammer, Elisabeth Malanga, Mia Sanchez, Doria Worden) and three (Shannon Quirk, Annika Reikersdorfer, and Rogers) on pointe strode and stomped like Amazons and danced in varying combinations with each other and with the  men.  At the end Quirk and Johnson turned a short, angular bravura pas to a T as the women in heels stalked their perimeter. I’m not sure what it meant, but it was fun to watch.
To add historical context to a program of women choreographers, Smith re-staged Bronislava Nijinska's (1923) Les Noces, with its relentlessly dramatic Stravinsky score.  It’s a powerhouse Bolshevik ballet, the modernist aesthetics of the Russian revolutionary avant-garde written in every move. Balanchine, and especially Martha Graham, were indebted to its new forms. 
In Smith’s re-staging Quirk and Johnson were the wedding couple, though the death-defying life-leaps they’re known for are absent in this ballet. In Les Noces, as in communism, the
                          Les Noces           © Kat Stiennon 2018
individual is (mostly) inseparable from the group (here the full company, plus two very advanced students from the School of Madison Ballet). Everyone’s essentially onstage all the time.  The ballet’s four movements are tribal, ritualistic, rhythmic.  The dancing is constant, the groups, shapes, and patterns through space ever-shifting, the counts wildly unpredictable. Arms sweep upwards over a thousand jumps in sixth position; little sideways bourées are punctuated with flicking feet; peasant steps mingle among pirouettes and saut de chats. The work demands strength, precision, and unwavering teamwork.  The company gave it all that, plus a lot of heart.
Les Noces was a triumph. 
For its sheer power, Les Noces should have been the finale. But the two works at the end of the bill were captivating in their own rights. First was “Mingus Dances,” a two-movement piece by New Orleans-based choreographer Nikki Hefko, whose deep neoclassical roots and bebop style were honed, at least in part, at Dance Theater of Harlem and Madison Ballet.  “Mingus Dances” played to both sides of that package.  It opened with revered bassman Charlie Mingus’s quiet, lush piano
D. Johnson and Schock  © Kat Stiennon 2018
improvisation “Myself When I Am Real,” which has a measure of swing but tilts toward toward modern classicism.  To this inspired score Hefko made a luxurious neoclassical adagio / andante pas de deux with short solo variations, which she set on Kaleigh Schock and Damien Johnson – powerful dancers making their debut as Madison Ballet soloists in this piece. They were perfectly matched and utterly transfixing together, investing the dance with all the tender emotional nuances of Mingus’s song.
Murphy in "Mingus Dances"  © Kat Stiennon 2018
And then suddenly there was Pepper Adams’ famous baritone sax line that opens Mingus’s “Moanin,” off his legendary 1959 Blues and Roots album, and Mary Bastian pranced in swingin’ ahead of a line of women – Reikersdorfer, Rogers, Michaela King, Mia Sanchez, and Kelanie Murphy – wearing short black dance dresses and reveling in the sound, digging hips and shoulders into their jivey moves.  Murphy’s solo was the standout here.  Grinning and delighted with herself she lept and spun, pushing through space – woman, dancing.
While Hefko’s piece was reminiscent of Balanchine on Broadway,  Stephanie Martínez’ “Non è Normale,” originally commissioned by Joffrey Ballet Chicago in 2015 and set for this show on
Quirk and ensemble, "Non è Normale" © Kat Stiennon 2018
eleven of Madison Ballet’s dancers, was angular, percussive, gestural, contemporary. Mylar-sliver skirts (on the women) and tights (on the men) caught the light, charging the atmosphere with visual electric buzz. The first segment was filled with  shifting patterns. Three men joined a line of women, morphing the movement into multiple pas de deux with changing partners.  At one point Erickson dipped Elisabeth Malanga into a deep penché and then zipped her into the air for an Italian pas de chat, that little kick at the end coming through like an electric shock.  There was a lovely pas de trois for Quirk with both Johnsons (Shea and Damien), who swept her high into the air.
Suddenly – like the break in Hefko’s piece – the flow stopped short and Murphy scored again, this time with Jackson Warring in the spunkiest little jitterbug ever. He slapped her butt, she kicked
Non è Normale © Kat Stiennon 2018
him in the chest, then wrapped her legs around his waist and pumped her fist in the air in triumph as he whirled her around.
The ensemble flow resumed, with a whole string of new patterns that rested smartly on the steps in the first two movements.