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.  

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.