Saturday, April 28, 2018

Dance Theater of Harlem Comes to Overture Hall

Company photo by Rachel Neville
Dance Theater of Harlem, the venerable ballet company founded in the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell, takes the stage at Overture Hall on May 8.  The company’s mission has always been to show that ballet, despite its origins in the lily-white royal courts of the European Renaissance, is not limited to people with hides of light-toned pigmentation. 
You need to know two things about DTH. First, Balanchine crossed the color line choreographically in the 1950s, when NYCB was new. In 1955 Mitchell partnered Balanchine’s fourth wife, the very white Tanaquil LeClercq, in Western Symphony. In 1957, Balanchine, breaking free of the aesthetics of European ballet, created the daring, starkly modernist, Stravinsky-scored
Agon pas de deux on Mitchell and another of his great, fair-complected muses, Diana Adams.  Later, he  made the role of Puck for Mitchell in his Midsummer Night’s Dream.  
And second, while ballet companies face financial roadblocks all too often, DTH is a marvel of survival. The company went under in 2004 (though its school stayed open).  But a decade later it roared back to life, under the artistic direction of Virginia Johnson, a DTH principal in its earlier incarnation and the founding editor of Pointe Magazine. 
DTH’s active repertory, like its dancers, is very diverse. On the bill are Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie and Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth pas de deux; Madison Ballet performed Valse and a similar Wheeldon pas in its Rise program early in April, making for serendipitous comparison.  Also on DTH’s program is Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss, by the late Ulysses Dove, who studied at the UW-Madison Dance Department decades ago with my old teacher Xenia Chlistowa; Dove became an Ailey principal and then a reknowned choreographer, with works in the repertories of ABT and NYCB.  And we’ll see Vessels, by the eclectic choreographer and Harlem native Darrell Grand Moultrie, who’s created works for Beyoncé and Savion Glover, just to toss out a couple of names, and whose ballets have been set on major companies far and wide.
Harlem-born Christopher McDaniel, 27, who came up throuth the ranks of the DTH School, left during the company’s hiatus, and just recently returned, took an interview call from me last week.

CulturalOyster: These days all companies have to take the DTH model seriously, for two reasons – diversity is the key to the future of ballet, both financially and artistically, and also, the survival of the artform depends on figuring out how ballet organizations can survive over the long haul.  So let me start by asking you a little about your own long history with DTH.  According to your website you trained at DTH School under Mitchell, and then you became a company member on season contract through 2010.  After that you danced with Los Angeles Ballet, then Ballet San Antonio.  And now you’re back at DTH. How are your personal history and DTH’s history entwined?


McDaniel:  I first saw ballet I was eight and my school went on a fieldtrip to see DTH.  I’d been doing some praise dancing in church with my cousin and when I saw ballet for the first time I thought wow, that’s what I want to do. The assistant principal at my school set up an audition for me a few years later and I got into the DTH school in 2001, when I was eleven.  I trained with Arthur Mitchell and others and then in 2004 a financial crisis hit the company.  I got off bus to go to studio one day and we were told it as closed and there were no more classes.  I went back home. I was heartbroken.
That year they reopened the school and I went back, but it was a struggle. A lot of the students had gone to Ailey or [NYCB’s] School of American Ballet, but at that point I was only thirteen and I didn’t know you could do that.  I didn’t know enough about the dance world outside of DTH – I thought I had to wait.  But the school it was only closed for six months or so because there was a huge outcry in the city and people pulled funds together to get the school back up. But by then a lot of really strong teachers had left so it was a huge shift.
DTH was all I really wanted but I left the school for a while, I got into LaGuardia High School for the Arts as a dance major when I was a sophomore and I did Boston Ballet’s summer program.  But in 2008 I came back.  I was asked to join the DTH Ensemble that was created to stand in the gap for the company.  It was sort of like a studio company – it was a professional touring ensemble but not at the level of the old company – we had some of the old repertory but we didn’t have a New York season, it was all done on the road at smaller theaters and it was just a small group of us. 
I was in the Ensemble for two years and during that time Arthur Mitchell retired and Virginia Johnson came on as artistic director.  The idea was to reinvent the company within a few years.  But at that point I was ready to go somewhere where they were doing a bigger repertory.  I was very into Balanchine.  Historically DTH did a lot of Balanchine, but the Ensemble did none.  So I reached out to Los Angeles Ballet and got an audition.  I danced there five seasons and then I was at Ballet San Antonio for two seasons and then I went to a company in Charleston, South Carolina [the fledgeling American National Ballet].  But that company didn’t make it so I went back to DTH in October, 2017, and right away we went on tour to Eastern Europe.


CulturalOyster: What brought you back to DTH?  

McDaniel: I always wanted to be a part of DTH.  Dancing in Los Angeles I developed a huge, eclectic repertory – I got to dance a lot of amazing roles. It was the same in San Antonio.  But I felt like I was missing home  My dream was to be a leading dancer at DTH.  So I’m definitely excited about returning.
At first it was nervewracking.  Virginia is one of the most intelligent women I know.  She didn’t say we’ve known you for years, come on back.  She had me come in and do the cattle call audition with over twenty-five other dancers. It was scary, I’m not gonna lie.  It was like im 27 years old, I can’t do a cattle call!  Some of the dancers have been in the company since it was reestablished.  I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in – I thought maybe I’d developed a different style of movement.  I had to start back from ground zero and prove I deserved to be part of the company.  But it worked out the way it was supposed to.  I feel like I’ve earned the right to proclaim that I’m a DTH dancer.


CulturalOyster: Your bio says you’ve been an SAB fellow in the diversity program.  You know a lot about the history of diversity I ballet, so you’re a great person to ask – how has Mitchell’s original mission for DTH been carried through, and how has it changed?


McDaniel: the other day Virginia said something really brilliant that I wrote down – she said ballet is about the human spirit rising to excellence and that belongs to everyone.  That resonated with me because most young  people – well, not always, it’s mainly girls – want to be a ballerina, and then even now there’s this moment when they don’t see one who looks like them. 
There’s definitely a new wave of diversity all across the country, but people forget that DTH has been doing it for almost fifty years.  It’s a phase now, everyone’s on the diversity bandwagon and it’s great and we’re grateful.  But people need to understand the history before diversity became the best new hashtag.  I think the fact that diversity seems new is due to the long hiatus we had.  For ten years DTH wasn’t seen on major stages so there was the thought that there were no black dancers.  So it’s easy to misconstrue the history or give someone else credit for being the first and that’s just not OK.  DTH has always had dancers of all ethnicities and body types – Mr. Mitchell made it a point to diversify the company.  
In terms of the mission its still mostly the same, but what’s different is that we no longer have to prove that the African American body can do ballet, that fallacy has been put to rest.  Now what Virginia wants to do is show that ballet can be seen in a different way, it can be a present-day artform that supports the diversity mission.  If you want to promote diversity you have to have diversity in the repertory.  You can’t have all works that were choreographed for black bodies or done to black music.  Some if it has to be not specific, some of it has to be contemporary, some has to be neoclassical – we want to show that ballet belongs to all people.

CulturalOyster: What will we see you do in this program?

McDaniel: We haven’t gotten our casting yet so I don’t know, but I’m normall in Moultrie’s Vessels.  It has an amazing contemporary sensibility.  Moultrie grew up in Harlem and a lot of his approach calls on being human.  He’ll stop in the middle of a rehearsal and say “don’t do it like a dancer, do it like a human!”  It’s a very, very musical piece in four movements, and it has gorgeous costumes. 


           __________________________________________________ interview by SK

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Until the Last Curtain Falls

Quirk and Massey, Mina variation © Kat Stiennon 2018
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet – and let me clarify that I’m talking about the company of professional dancers on season contract, not the School of Madison Ballet – died as it had lived, with uneven choreography, evidence that some pieces were better rehearsed than others, and dancing that was mostly strong, occasionally superb.  For all practical purposes, Rise, at the Capitol Theater last weekend (March 30-31), was the company’s last show.  Yes, there are plans for the School to put on a holiday Nutcracker with students and pickup guest artists – but that’s a different kind of company entirely from the one that brought Rise to the stage.
The Rise bill – artistic director W. Earle Smith’s retirement retrospective – featured six of his works, plus one by Balanchine and one by Christopher Wheeldon, one of the definitive choreographers of the early twenty-first century.  The Balanchine, and also the Wheeldon, were set on Madison Ballet by Balanchine Trust repetiteur Michele Gifford, who’s set a number of Balanchine’s ballets on the company in recent years.
Many of the program’s highlights are attributable to the company’s reigning queen, Shannon Quirk.  She was glorious, partnered by Shea Johnson, in the pas de deux excerpted from Wheeldon’s The American, to the melodic, melancholy second movement of Dvork’s String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96.  Just the look of this pas is stunningly modern – Quirk in a yellow dress, her hair down and simply tied back; Johnson in white top and gray tights; the backdrop lit cobalt. Wheeldon has created new partnering possibilities here, the ballerina expanding and contracting through a series of daring and unusual lifts.  Quirk and Johnson, whose onstage chemistry is legendary, reveal the American pas as a dance for lonely souls melded together by Dvorak and breath.
Wheeldon’s abstract portrait made surprising contrast with the narrative romance in the Mina variation from Smith’s 2013 steampunk rock n’ roll ballet Dracula (2013), which boasts a brilliant score by Madison composer / pianist Michael Massey. Massey played the Mina theme live onstage for the Rise performance. Quirk didn’t originate the Mina role, but she made it indelibly hers in 2015.  In this variation she awaits the arrival of her lover, Jonathan Harker, with baited breath.  The dance is a showcase of neoclassical ballet peppered with classic Smith-isms: arabesque turns, pique turns, soutinue into pique arabesque; faille, faille, lunge, chug; a manege of leaps. Set free from the bonds of pas de deux Quirk’s a marvel, light as a feather, syncopating rhythms, soaring through the air.
Yet another side of Quirk comes out in Smith’s jazz ballet Expressions, with its swingin’ score from the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Quirk appeared in the first and last of the four excerpts chosen for the Rise bill.  The fourth is a full-cast number; Quirk’s too striking to fade into the crowd, but she was soloist to a corps of four in the first, to the Harlem torch tune “Stormy Weather.”  She was all slink and strut, vamping like mad, batting her eyes, liquid – American in Paris-inspired.

No, Rise wasn’t all about Quirk.  The rest of the dances from Expressions were just as jubilant as “Stormy Weather.”  What I love most about this ballet is that the dancers do what they do best – they’re just dancing.  There’s a transcendental quality to this kind of piece – what’s going on under the procenium arch becomes real life, transporting the audience – like virtual reality – to a jazz club, where they, too, might be dancing as if nobody’s watching, spot on the beat and having the greatest time.
Jackson Warring and Jacob Ashley were hilarious in “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” – just two men jazz dancin’, joyful, flashing their feet.  With tons of attitude Warring and Ashley, who’ve been dancing together for years now, hit their stride in unison (back cabriole, grapevine, jitterbug), then challenged each other to show off their best steps: Warring’s dizzying multiple pirouettes; Ashley’s insane, air-slicing barrel turns. They exalted in each other’s triumphs with heartfelt high fives.
In “My Baby Just Cares for Me” Kristen Hammer (who’s danced this piece before), with Elisabeth Malanga and Catherine Rogers, were jazz princesses, gifting the audience with pizzazzy little prances on pointe, happy, two-fisted crazy-girl head shakes, and a big kiss blown to all at the end.
Expressions’ finale, “Almost Like Being in Love,” was therapeutic – all of the dancers out there flying across the stage in unison, having fun – a shout to the universe that this is still a company, at least till the curtain falls.   
The vivid third movement (“Invierno Porteño”) from Smith’s rich Piazzola ballet, Las Cuatro, is a choreographic coup.  It appeared second on the bill, but should have come first to set the audience on edge with its drama, its Latin sabor, its dynamic, shifting patterns, its startling colors (the women are like sorceresses, in red; the men, in black, like phantoms; the backdrop is cobalt).  There’s a striking segment with three pas de deux going on all at once, and an abundance of complex corps work throughout, the men leaping through lines of spinning women.
Smith set his 2008 “Caccini pas de deux” – another of his best efforts – on Kaleigh Schock and Damien Johnson, the company’s new “it” pair after their transfixing performance in Nikki Hefko’s Mingus-scored pas “Myself When I am Real” in this February’s repertory show, She, a program of works by women at the Bartell.  Schock, in a long white dress, was utterly ethereal, extending a leg far into space while laying back into Johnson’s arms or raising an arm to the heavens, trailing imaginary stars with her hand like a ghost in love as he carried her across the stage in a high cambre press lift.

Parts of the rest of Rise were a bit of a letdown after the consistent excellence of She just two months ago.  The program opened with Balanchine’s 1967 Valse-Fantaisie.  It’s the second time Madison Ballet’s done this work. For Rise it featured Bri George with Shea Johnson; in the corps of four were Annika Reikersdorfer, Kelanie Murphy, Schock, and Quirk.  Valse-Fantaisie is a pretty piece, very formal and more classical than neoclassical except for its emphasis on constant movement. The corps, for the most part, was tight, and Johnson reveled in his love of ballet, spinning sextuple pirouettes, sailing cabrioles and brises through space.  But he was not ideally matched with George, whose cool temprament slowed her down – her long limbs tended to lag slightly behind the music.
Three excerpts from Smith’s fluffy, over-lit bathing suit show Nuoto, which followed the Wheeldon pas, were like falling to earth after floating in clouds.  Nuoto is colorful but clunky.  It’s largely reliant on unison corps work, its neoclassical vocabulary laden with cutesy, skippy, divey moves that don’t do justice to the dancers who have to perform them.  There’s a little slapstick interlude for two men – in this iteration of Nuoto, Andrew Erickson and Jackson Warring – about being buck naked behind a towel. It’s not dance at all, aside from some little gallops and chasses; the audience laughed heartily, but I was annoyed.
Also on the bill were five excerpts from Groovy, Smith’s ode to ‘60s bubblegum tunes and something of a signature piece for Madison Ballet; since its premiere in the spring of 2014 it has, inexplicably, been performed more times than any of Smith’s other works, on in-state tours and in repertory shows at the Bartell.  Smith also picked a Groovy dance, “Sugar Pie” (the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”) for Overture’s tenth anniversary show, American Kaleidoscope, in 2014; its simple, repetitive, unrelenting unison did little to show off what the company’s dancers can do and stacked up poorly against Kanopy’s formidable performance of Martha Graham’s 1936 Steps on the Street.  Groovy’s only saving grace in Rise was Murphy, whose acting chops are equal to her ample dancing skill – she was a dynamic force in these bland pieces, getting’ down, gettin’ – well, groovy.
Nuoto and Groovy have nothing at all on Expressions and Las Cuatro; Smith’s choreographic portfolio would have been much better represented if he’d chosen to skip the first two and instead do the latter ones in their entirety for his retirement show.

Excerpts from Dracula (including the Mina variation) ended the evening. Except for “Mina” they were done to the recording, made with Massey’s full band during the process of creating the original production. Dracula, the undead ballet, is full of life, and there were some showstoppers here. 
Smith set the Lucy variation in “Lovers” on Annika Reikersdorfer, who, next to Quirk, has been the company’s leading soloist for the last three years.  It’s casting against type, and it was  Smith’s gift to this young dancer who came up through the ranks of the School of Madison Ballet. From the beginning, Reikersdorfer – a perfectionist who became a soloist when she was still in high school – internalized Balanchine’s emphasis on musicality rather than theatricality. Dancing the Lucy variation forced her to break out of that box, to flirt and smile onstage, revealing hidden versatility.  Her perfectionism didn’t suffer as a result– we still got to see those perfect pas de chats, that precise pointework, and eight fouette turns with a triple at the end.
Reikersdorfer (Lucy); Warring, Ashley, Erickson  © Kat Stiennon 2018
Warring, Ashley, and Erickson – Lucy’s pursuing lovers – were a little out of sync with each other, especially Ashley.  But Erickson, a classicist at heart, threw himself into this punk role with unexpected passion. He sailed his leaps, unleashed come-hither shoulders; his air guitar playing was deliciously sardonic.
The “Brides” pas de quatre -- one of Dracula’s best dances – is a slinking, lascivious orgy with exaggerated neoclassical lines and the look of Denishawn porn, though on pointe.  Three desire-driven vampirettes (Murphy, George, and Michaela King) in fin de siècle dance dresses compete for the attentions of a blood-starved Dracula (Damien Johnson).  All three women possess the remarkable flexibility sex with the Count might require, but George and King looked like they’d rather be in Valse-Fantaisie.  Only Murphy – the only one of the three who’s been in the full-length show and done “Brides” before – was truly vampiric, licking imaginary blood from her hands with gusto, hissing and grinning.
The Dracula series – and Rise itself – ended with “Minions,” one of that ballet’s two large corps numbers.  It’s a wild firecracker, and visually stunning; ten dancers in wide red satin skirts move in unison, spinning, leaping, rolling over on the floor to Massey’s pounding score.  Out of context, “Minions” is abstract – it has the feel of bats (the men have batty tattoos on their bare chests, flight-like contractions are built into the steps, and the skirts move like wings), but it lacks the concrete narrative drive of the Mina variation, “Lovers,” and “Brides.”  Though Expressions’ rollicking finish might have been better, “Minions” made a good finale.
        Many in the audience, and everyone onstage, spilled tears as the dancers – most of whom will probably never perform in Madison again – took their final bows.  Perhaps down the road a bit the phoenix will – rise – and this city will again have a real ballet company with that certain unity of line and spirit that comes from working and partying together for months, or years, on end.  Most cities with arts and culinary scenes have relatively stable professional ballet companies – not just major centers like New York, Miami, Seattle, or San Francisco, but smaller ones, too, like Duluth, Dayton, Salt Lake City. The fact that Madison, for all its hifalutin’ image of itself, can’t sustain such a key component of the performing arts reveals the flyover country cow town that still lurks beneath its updated veneer. 
Last Curtain  3 photos © SKepecs 2018
                                               


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Rise and Demise: Madison Ballet's Last Rep, for Now



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.[1]
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.”





[1] 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.