Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Look at Madison Ballet's 2017-18 Season

Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson last season in General Hambrick's 2+3
© Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s 2017-18 season is an exercise in time travel.  Artistic director W. Earle Smith leads audiences through the artform’s past, present, and future over the course of just four shows.  Packed into this ambitious calendar are traditional nineteenth century classics, archetypes of early twentieth century avant-garde, neoclassical confections heavily influenced by the mid-century American works of George Balanchine, a pas de deux by red-hot choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (a first for this company), and pieces by pointe postmodernists of several stripes.
The company will be bigger this year than last. All of last season’s dancers, including power pair Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson, return.  Three new company members bring solid professional resumes to the table – Bri George, who comes to the company from Ballet Arizona, Elisabeth Malanga, from Pennsylvania Ballet, and Kaleigh Shock, from Nevada Ballet Theater. Three new apprentices round out the corps: Mary Elizabeth Bastian and Doria Warden, who come with extensive pre-professional experience elsewhere, plus homegirl Cecilia Monroy, who came up through the ranks of the School of Madison Ballet and performed onstage with the company all last season. 
Adding six women should help overcome a long-standing issue for this company. Traditional, full-length story ballets like The Nutcracker rely on having a large corps – think “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.”  In the past, Smith’s had to stretch the corps with upper level students, some of whom haven’t been quite up to the challenge. “What’s going to change Nutcracker this year,” Smith says, “is that with an expanded company you’ll see a rich, full corps.”

Except for this upgrade, Nutcracker (Dec. 9-26, Overture Hall) is likely to hold few surprises.  But three challenging repertory programs promise to be real revelations – about the artform, about the choreographers whose works are represented, and about the dancers.  First up this year is a program titled Push (Oct. 20-21, at the Bartell).  “For me,” Smith says, “repertory evenings typically have been about new works, usually edgy and athletic ones.  On this program I’m pushing the repertory concept into new territory.  There’ll be four pas de deux that are quintessential classical ballet.”  
Madison Ballet, known for its Balanchine-based (neoclassical) and contemporary repertory, has done true classical work only once before – the adagio from the White Swan pas de deux (from Marius Petipa’s 1895 Swan Lake) was on the program for the Repertory II concert in spring, 2015. The four pas de deux on the Push program – most will be excerpts from the full grand pas you’d see if these ballets were performed full-length – are fascinating choices because they traverse the full history of classical ballet. One is the sexy, glittery Black Swan pas from Swan Lake, which looked to the past with its darkly romantic story line, and into what was then the future with its rigorous classical dance technique. Petipa’s most famous work is the ultimate example of the formalized, fin-de-siecle evolution of the artform, which remains the basis of ballet as we know it today.
Also on the bill is the pas de deux from Act II of Petipa’s Giselle (1880, revived for the Imperial Russian Ballet from a work that premiered in Paris in 1841). Petipa’s Giselle pre-dates Swan Lake by just 15 years, but his Giselle choreography retains many of the soft, romantic gestures of the ballet's earlier incarnation. Ultimately the stylistic contrast the audience will see in the Push performance depends on how Smith reconstructs these dances, but at heart the Giselle pas is a glance back in time to the aesthetic of premodern ballet.
Adding another layer to this parfait of pre-Balanchine ballet is Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose, choreographed in 1911 for impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (which, though its origins were Russian, was based in Paris). Fokine, who had studied with Petipa, was a man of his time – an experimentalist involved in the birth of modernism, along with American dance pioneers Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn; European composers from Debussy to Stravinsky; breakaway painters like Matisse and Picasso. Le Spectre de la Rose, one of the first modernist ballets, is neo-romantic rather than classical, and starring, in the original production, legendary mad genius Vaslav Nijinsky as a bravura-dancing rose.
The fourth pre-Balanchine pas de deux on the Push program is “Diana and Acetaeon,” a 1935 showcase of classical technique by Soviet choreographer Agripina Vaganova, who perfected and standardized the Russian ballet technique that originated with Petipa.
Of course, no Madison Ballet repertory program would be complete without neoclassical works steeped in the Balanchine tradition.  To that end there’s a new piece by frequent guest choreographer General Hambrick, who’s a wizard at blending Balanchine with Alvin Ailey-isms, to an early nineteenth century score by French composer / violinist Pierre Rode. “This is interesting just in the fact that for Madison Ballet, General has used more contemporary composers in the past,” says Smith, whose own contribution to Push is Concerto Veneto, to Alessandro Marcello’s early eighteenth century Oboe Concerto in D Minor. Smith’s piece premiered in 2008, when Madison   Ballet, as a professional company, was brand-new. “I’m going to remount it and expand it choreographically,” Smith says. “It’s very neoclassical, basically a leotard ballet in all white; it’s an exercise in movement and patterns and musicality.” 
Smith reconstructing Concerto Veneto in the studio
©SKepecs 2017

Except for Vaganova, all of the choreographers on the Push program are men. The second repertory concert of the season, She (Feb. 2-3, at the Bartell), turns that gender bias on its head. “To give historical context to this program,” says Smith, “we’re doing Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces.” 
Nijinska – sister of Nijinsky, and, like him, a member of Ballets Russes – became a choreographer for that company after Fokine. Les Noces (1923) – with a Stravinsky score and a Russian peasant wedding theme – was one of her first ballets.  “The Stravinsky / Balanchine relationship makes this piece a natural for us,” Smith says.  “And I also danced it, as as choreographed by Paul Mejia, at Texas Ballet Theatre (formerly Fort Worth – Dallas Ballet) back in the late ‘80s. I’m going to restage Nijinska’s choreography myself, and bring it into the modern era.”
Four female dancemakers working today will contribute works to this program. One is Nikki Hefko, whose performance career spans classical, neoclassical, and contemporary repertory with Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she danced for for a number of years, and with Madison Ballet, during the company’s first few professional seasons (she was Madison Ballet’s Peter Pan in 2008).  Hefko is now the artistic director of the New Orleans School of Ballet, and she runs her own company, Nikki Hefko & Dancers. The New York Times has run several articles on the general lack of women choreographers in ballet, but Hefko has been choreographing ballet repertory for nearly a decade. A versatile choreographer, she set her frothy little neoclassical frolic, “Mandolin Amble,” to Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C, on Madison Ballet in 2014.  In another vein, her acclaimed 2012 pas de deux “myself when I’m real,” to the Charlie Mingus tune of that name, is very fluid and athletic.
            Also contributing a piece to the She program is Chicago / New York choreographer Jacqueline Stewart, who, like General Hambrick, is a frequent guest at Madison Ballet. Her quirky dances run from extremely angular un-ballets to a quasi-balletic contemporary oevre that bears comparison to early Hubbard Street pieces.
            New to Madison Ballet is jazz/tap dancer / choreographer Katherine Kramer, who’s recently settled in the Madison area. Kramer has an impressive resumé going back to the ‘70s, when she studied with ace hoofers Brenda Bufalino and “heelology” virtuoso Ralph Brown. “Kramer’s background is tap, but I don’t want to categorize the work she’s doing for us,” says Smith.  “She’s setting a piece on the company called “Bow,” which she’s already done and which she wants to explore further. This is the first time she’s set her work on a professional ballet company.”
Also new is Windy City choreographer Stephanie Martínez, who danced with River North Dance Chicago and the now-defunct but once wonderful company Luna Negra.  She started choreographing in 2008, when she created, with fellow Luna Negra dancer Francisco Aviña, a piece called “AviMar” for that company’s tenth anniversary show.  Since then, Martínez’ success has snowballed.  She’s setting a piece on Madison Ballet called “Non e Normale,” which Joffrey Ballet Chicago commissioned from her in 2015. 

The third and final repertory show of the season is Rise (March 30-31, Capitol Theater, Overture Center).  “It’ll be nice to be back on a larger stage for a repertory evening,” says Smith.  “It’ll run from expansive, large cast works to pas de deux – there’s nothing like an intimate pas on a large stage to bring out all the emotion in the dance.” 
Three repertory ballets by Smith are on this bill. One Waltz is a new work. “I’ve choreographed waltzes throughout my career,” Smith says, “but I’ve never done a full waltz ballet – so what I want to do is take what I’ve done over the years and bring it all together, give the pieces some continuity, and make an evening of it.  It’ll be women in long white waltz gowns with opera-length gloves and stylized hair with feathers and jewels – and men in white tuxes.”
Smith’s also bringing back two of his earlier ballets.  One is Nuoto (“Swimming”), which premiered in the spring of 2015. There’s a lot of humor in this lighthearted little neoclassical work adorned with the jazzy little accoutrements Smith loves and costumed in 1930s swimwear.
The other is Rhythm, Where Are You? (2011) – a suite of ensemble dances, duets, trios and   “I’m in awe of Tim’s footage,” Smith says of the inspiration for this piece.  “Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers – it’s where Michael Jackson got all of his moves.” 
quartets, performed before a giant video screen showing footage (restored and compiled by Timothy Tomano) of Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Cole Porter and other greats from the era of big band swing.
Featured on the Rise bill will be Wheeldon’s “The American” pas de deux. The timing couldn’t be better, since Wheeldon’s Tony award-winning musical, American in Paris, plays Overture Hall a month earlier (Feb. 27-March 4).  The Wheeldon pas – which doesn’t come from the musical – will be set on Madison Ballet by Michelle Gifford, who’s danced this piece herself (with Shea Johnson) for Avant Chamber Ballet in Dallas.  A repetiteur for the Balanchine Trust, Gifford has set several Balanchine works on Madison Ballet in recent years.

A little romp from Nuoto © SKepecs 2015





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!
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                   interview by SK