Monday, September 27, 2010

¡A Bailar!

photo by Cheryl Mann

 By Susan Kepecs

Last time Ballet Hispanico was here – at Overture’s predecessor, the Civic Center, in 2003 – the venerable old New York company looked worn out.  But the country’s most famous Latin dance performance troupe comes back to Madison (to the Union Theater this time) on Saturday, Oct. 2, with a new lease on life.  Eduardo Vilaro, a principal dancer with Ballet Hispanico in the ‘90s before he founded Chicago’s lovely Latin company, Luna Negra, in 1999, returned to the Big Apple last year to take the reins from retiring artistic director Tina Ramírez.
Vilaro, who left his native Cuba at the age of 6, a decade after the Cuban Revolution, grew up in New York and has family there.  It was time to go home, he says.  “I started something new in Chicago, and it was a tough decision, but I left Luna Negra with wings to fly.  Ballet Hispanico offered me the opportunity to work with more resources and to have more impact.  I decided to go for it while I still have the energy to take on a challenge.  Also, my moving back to New York opened the door for another Latino choreographer in Chicago [Spanish dancemaker Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, who has history with both Luna Negra and the Windy City’s best-known contemporary company, Hubbard Street Dance] to develop.”
Vilaro’s vision, he says, isn’t to change Ballet Hispanico, but to strengthen it.  He’s turning the organization into a dance resource center with a strong educational component and links to Latin dance outfits across the country “so we can help each other, because Latin culture is all about family.” 
And he’s creating the psychological space Latina/o choreographers need to create important new work.  A lot of Latin dance performance (with the exception of that by folkloric companies like Ballet Folklórico México) strikes me as either spiffed-up ballroom or contemporary / modern dance without much of a Latin edge. Vilaro himself is a hell of a dancemaker, and one of the few Latin American choreographers in the U.S. ever to create a seamless blend of Latin style and formal dance idioms.  It’ll take much more of this for dance performance in the U.S. to look like the national population.  Though most of the four repertory works on Saturday night’s program have Latin themes, only one – and it’s not one of Vilaro’s – was made by a Latin choreographer.
Vilaro’s own dances should start showing up in Ballet Hispanico’s repertory soon.  “I’m not quite there yet,” he says.  “You get into a new place and it takes a year to get yourself set up.  I had a lot on my agenda and wanted to impart my vision to the organization first.  But it’s coming – I’m finally starting to plan my own creative work in the context of Ballet Hispanico.”
Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to discover how the pieces we’ll see – most have received mixed reviews over the years – fare under Vilaro’s direction.  Given his natural enthusiasm, I’m hoping they’ll look fresh.  
These dances, as a package, commemorate Ballet Hispanico’s 40th anniversary, and represent distinct stages of its history.  As the evening progresses, Vilaro says, the mood goes from raw to dancey to somber to celebratory.  In honor of the Mexican bicentennial (despite the fact that Mexico has little to celebrate right now), the first piece is “Tres Cantos,” a 1975 ode to Aztecs and Spanish conquistadors by the late, legendary African-American choreographer Talley Beatty.  Vilaro danced in this work himself during his earlier Ballet Hispanico days, but says he chose it for this program mostly because he wanted to bring the sound of Mexican composers – Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas – to the stage.
“Tres Bailes,” set to a tango score, is a contemporary ballet from the late 1990s choreographed by Jean Emile, whose dance resumé includes Alvin Ailey, Nederalands Dans Theater,  La Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid and Cirque du Soliel. 
“Farewell” was choreographed in 1992 by the late Christopher Gillis, a dancer with the Paul Taylor Company in the 1970s.  “It’s a beautiful duet,” Vilaro says, “and one I used to perform.”
The finale, “Club Havana,” from 2000 – the company’s current signature piece – is by Cuba-born choreographer Pedro Ruíz.  “It captures the magic of Cuba in the ‘40s,” Vilaro says.  “You’ll love it.  It’s just beautiful.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival, Chapter 7

By Susan Kepecs

Music, the universal language, can bridge all kinds of cultural divides.  So it follows that the Wisconsin Union Theater-sponsored Madison World Music Festival is a unifying force, and boy, can we use that right now.  I don’t expect any Mama Grizzlies to show up, but the Tea Party might learn to transcend its xenophobia if its goofy throngs attended this event instead of following Glenn Beck to the National Mall.  The seventh annual MWMF features a brilliant lineup of African, Afro-Caribean and Afro-Latin bands, plus a few eclectic surprises.  I’m offering a handful of relevant observations, below, but for the full schedule of events and locations – times and stages change depending on the weather – go back to the WUT website
The wingnuts could use some attitude adjustment, and Dja Rara, a  Brooklyn-based Haitian parade band (see the Green Room blog for more) just might do the trick.  Back in January, after the western end of the island of Hispaniola was devastated in a major earthquake, TV evangelist Pat Roberton told Fox Noise that Haiti’s African slaves had liberated themselves from French colonial rule in 1791 by making a pact with the devil.  Evidently Satan set up the temblor to call in his chips.  But Dja Rara’s rhythms represent the gods of the African diaspora.  Under MWMF auspices the band hits diverse spots around town before performing at the fest’s main stages – the Memorial Union on Friday and Willy St. on Saturday. 
From the Spanish-speaking end of Hispaniola – the Dominican Republic – comes Joan Soriano, the rising star of Afro-Dominican bachata who tells his story in Adam Taub’s new documentary film, “El Duque de Bachata.”  Bachata, born in the 20th century, blends rural Afro-Dominican dance music with the sinuous rhythms of Cuban bolero and son.  There’s a whole school of slicked up, watered down 21st century bachata that doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m a salsera at heart anyway, but my hips can’t resist Soriano’s percussive guitar playing and gritty, old school style.  Since Soriano’s sure to send everyone into bachata delirium, his act’s the perfect festival finale Saturday night.
But bailando bachata’s an opportunity we almost missed, thanks to our nation’s immigration paranoia.  Right before Labor Day, Union Theater marketing director / MWMF artistic selection chair Esty Dinur got a panic email from Soriano’s manager saying the American ambassador in the Dominican Republic was about to deny band members their visas, since he didn’t believe they were bona fide artists. They ended up having to perform for embassy officials to prove their legitimacy.
Another performer who was on the original bill – Pietra Montecorvino, a glamorous Italian songstress / actress with a spellbinding, urban, take no prisoners voice – was denied her visa altogether.  “Living in the European Union with its open borders and governments that support cultural exchanges, her agent didn’t appreciate how immensely complicated it is to get into the U.S.,” Dinur says.  The agent dragged his heels, and by the time the application process got started it was too late to buck the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy.
While we don’t get a dazzling Italian diva, we do get Barbara Furtuna, an all male a capella quartet from the once-Genoese Mediterranean island of Corsica, ceded to France in the 1760 Treaty of Versailles.  Barbara Furtuna means “cruel fate” in Corsu; it’s the title of a traditional resistance anthem about 18th century Corsican freedom fighters exiled after trying to overthrow French rule.  That may sound like obscure history, and yes, Corsican polyphonic song has medieval roots.  But this quartet sounds absolutely ambrosial.  Its second album, In Santa Pace – a mix of long-loved songs plus the group’s own compositions – is as soulful as African-American gospel and calming like an offering for world peace.
When it comes to pushing peace, Kenge Kenge – musical masters from Kenya’s Luo tribe whose traditional tunes have a light Afropop edge – kill the competition.  Like Kenge Kenge, Obama’s father was Luo – a fact that led right wing megaphones Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich just last week to spew out the notion that the President rules the country “according to the anticolonialist dreams of a Luo tribesman.”  If only that were true!  Check out Kenge Kenge’s pre-2008 election video, “Obama for Change”
and imagine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gettin’ down to this tune in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House.  If that can't change the world situation, nothing will. 
The rest of the three-day program’s like a global summit on cultural diversity.  The most exotic ensemble on this year’s bill is Ordo Sakhna – nomadic, storyteller musicians from the Silk Route crossroads of Kyrgyzstan. 
Three hot young bands – two from the U.S. and one from Romania – create 21st century global sounds from diverse perspectives.  La Santa Cecilia, from Los Angeles, a band with Mexican sensibilities and instrumentation, throws everything from Miles Davis, Klezmer and the Beatles into its mix, though Latin American influence prevails.  The Sway Machinery, out of New York, bills its hard-driving mix of klezmer, Afropop and blues as “post-cantorial.”  And from Romania comes Mahala Rai Banda, mixing traitional Gypsy tunes and Roma pop with reggae and other genres.  Their latest CD, Ghetto Blasters, is a chart buster.
And then there’s Cimarrón, from the grassy eastern plains of Colombia’s Orinoco Basin.  This has been cattle country since the Spaniards set up shop in the 16th century, but today the region also hosts paramilitary violence, narcotraffic and transnational oil extraction.  Miraculously, joropo, the joyful, percussive, harp, guitar and maracas-driven dance music born of indigenous, Spanish and African traditions in the colonial crucible of these livestock lands, survives.  Cimarrón – seven virtuosos who showcase the syncopated, foot-stomping sound around the world – is my personal bet for best of the fest.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Picking Tickets

By Susan Kepecs

Don’t tell me the recession’s over!  In the good old days, before the economy crashed, the performing arts plates at the city’s big theaters were piled high – almost every week I found more than one sumptuous morsel on my menu.  Despite the brand-new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research claiming the downturn ended in June, 2009, this fall at the theater follows last year’s pattern.  Overture, flailing in its financial fix, sticks close to the mainstream, and while the Union Theater offers tasty treats, its 2010-2011 season’s small. 
Here’s what’s going to lure me out as the days turn colder.  I’m starting the season with the best bargain in town – the Wisconsin Union Theater’s always exuberant Madison World Music Festival (Thurs., Sept. 23 – Sat. Sept. 25).  This year’s fest features a full-fledged feast of African, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean genres ranging from rootsy to global-poppy, plus a few treats from Europe and the U.S., and it’s free!  Check the schedule on the mother ship, the WUT website:  -- and I’ll post my picks in a day or two, after I finish digesting the banquet of sample CDs that’s piled on my desk.
Next up on my agenda is Ballet Hispanico (WUT, Oct. 2).  The venerable New York troupe looked tired last time it was in town, in 2003.  But its new artistic director, Eduardo Vilaro, who formerly headed Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater, is just what the doctor ordered.  I haven’t yet seen the company under his leadership, but Vilaro’s a standout dancemaker.  I’m disappointed that none of his works are on the bill, but even so, my expectations are high.
On Oct. 8, legendary folk singer and progressive political champion Joan Baez plays the Union Theater.  Baez, who first performed at WUT in 1962, is approaching her 70th birthday.  Sure, her voice has aged, but she still packs the sterling authenticity she started out with when old boomers like me were young and innocent.  We’re still waiting for the day when the state of the world reflects the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome,” but the faithful will surely gather at this event to pay homage to the message.
And oh, my stars, master composer / pianist Eddie Palmieri, the Sun of Latin Music, brings his mambo-ized, post-bop edged, smokin’ Latin jazz back to the Wisconsin Union Theater (Nov. 5), following a five year absence.  The lineup (sax player TBA) includes the talented young bassman Luques Curtis, Milwaukee-born Bryan Lynch on trumpet, plus Nuyorican rhythm kings José Claussell on timbales, Little Johnny Rivero on congas and bongocero Orlando Vega.
Over at Overture, spring looks better than fall for dance, and I’ll report on that later.  But River North Dance Company (Capitol Theater, Nov. 20), a Chicago contemporary dance staple, finally replaces the endless string of annual performances by the Windy City’s other big-name company, Hubbard Street.  It’s not a huge change – River North’s choreography sometimes borders on cliché – but it’s a great opportunity to see what else is going on south of the state border, and the company’s dancers are stunningly trained in the modern-cum-jazz idiom. 
Real mariachis are always on my wish list, but for the last couple of years Overture’s served up mariachi lite instead.  So I’m delighted that Los Angeles-based Mariachi Los Camperos – the group’s spirited holiday show at Overture Hall in December, 2006, brought the house down – returns this year on Nov. 11 (in the Capitol Theater).  La comunidad gets another opportunity to belt out the chorus on great mariachi standards like “Cielito Lindo,” “El Rey,” and “Volver.”  ¡Ay ay ay!
             Local troupes are toughing out the times, and in fact 2009-2010 was one of the best seasons ever for Mad City’s own performing arts scene.  I expect 2010-2011 to continue that trend.  There’ll be some surprises on the Latin music front this fall.  Look for my report on a brand-new band – Brazilian, with a twist – in the next few weeks. 
In dance, I’m curious to see what Kate Corby & Dancers – once a Chicago based interdisciplinary dance theater that’s been tied to Madison since Corby took a faculty position in the UW Dance Program two years ago – cook up in H’Doubler Performance Space on campus (Oct. 7-9). 
Li Chiao-Ping works magic with parodies of classical ballets.  Gó, a sort of Swan Lake in combat boots from years back, is one of her all-time top works.  So I’m intrigued by the announcement of her new full-length work, “Knotcracker,” coming up for the holiday season (Dec. 3-5, Overture’s Promenade Hall). 
And even though The Nutcracker is a sappy old ballet, and I think I've reviewed it at least a thousand times over the course of my arts writing career, Madison Ballet’s Christmastime production (Dec. 18-26, Overture Hall) is on my list – our city’s first bona fide professional ballet company, entering its fourth year, is very much on the rise, and that’s thrilling to see.
That’s my two cents worth.  But remember, there’s a comments box, below.  What are you looking forward to this fall?  

Friday, September 17, 2010

About Picking Pearls

By Susan Kepecs

In the age of slicked-up, dumbed-down cultural common denominators like “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars,” the more sophisticated performing arts need strong voices to stay in the public spotlight.  I’ve been speaking my piece on the arts for a long time.  I’ve published in various local, national and international media, but if you recognize my byline it’s probably because, during the last decade, as a freelance contributor to Madison’s alt weekly, Isthmus, I wrote regularly about dance of all sorts, jazz both Latin and straight ahead, Cuban son y rumba, Afropop, and the broader ever-shifting phenomenon we call world music.  I’ve covered popular bailes in the local Latino community, the socially conscious hip-hop of Youth Speaks and the UW-Madison’s First Wave initiative, plus other topics in need of more press.  While I regret the decline of print journalism, I’m thrilled to have this ticket to ride the new technology train.  I’m known for being opinionated, but I hope you are, too.  To survive, the arts desperately need engaged audiences.  So let’s talk.  There’s a comments box waiting for your words, below.

      Of course, there’s information and/or misinformation behind all opinions.  As an engaged reader, you have the right to evaluate mine.  So I’ll tell you a little about the sources that shape them.  I’m a first-wave boomer; I grew up in a musical family, on the south side of Chicago.  My mother was an opera singer who hoped I’d be a dancer.  I’ve spent huge chunks of my life dancing, though dance was never my career.  I have an MFA from the UW-Madison Art Department and a UW-Madison Ph.D. in anthropology.  On the heels of my undergraduate years in hippie Miffland, I did a stint as a cocktail waitress at a funky jazz club – a bastion of postbop and seedy characters in the Alphabet City segment of Manhattan’s East Village.  I’ve lived and worked in Latin America, and at the start of the ‘80s, long before the Latin music craze hit the U.S. (and thanks to both my pal Ricardo Gonzalez, owner of the Cardinal Bar, and the Mariel boatlift, which brought some 12,500 Cuban refugees to the U.S.), I had a Cuban salsa band right here in Madison.  I got my start as an arts writer then, too – for a couple of years I was a regular freelance contributor to the Wisconsin State Journal.

      I’ve seen some of the great performances of my life at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Among the amazing artists from my past with WUT, Joan Baez, Habib Koite, Eddie Palmieri and Dianne Reeves return this season, and I’ll report on them.  But this blog isn’t just about the Union Theater.  By starting a dialog about the performing arts I hope to promote the sifting and winnowing that’s at the historical heart of the University’s mission.  And by providing space for this project under University auspices, Union Theater cultural arts director Ralph Russo and marketing and communications director Esty Dinur are standing up for the freedom to pursue all angles, unconstrained by the commercial forces that shape so much of what’s left of journalism.  Russo says he hopes this blog, like its classical music companion, Jacob Stockinger’s The Well Tempered Ear, will “float all boats,” raising the profile of the performing arts across the community and beyond.

      So I’ll fish for pearls in the city’s fertile culture beds, from the performing arts palaces anchoring State Street (the Union Theater and the Overture Center) to the sundry smaller venues, festivals and studios that make Madison vibrant.  I may occasionally stray into related areas.  For example, radio’s on my radar – stations like La Movida, WPR, and of course, WORT, do heavy lifting when it comes to pushing the performing arts.

      I can’t promise to cover everything, or that I’ll post as often as my prolific colleague Jake over at the Ear.  There’ll probably be times when I won’t write for weeks.  But I’ll keep you posted on promising events, and I’ll always preview my top picks.  I’ll do post-show reviews, though some may be short.  I’ll be on the lookout for local surprises.  I’ll profile artists, review juicy CDs, and poll people in the community on pertinent topics.  I think linking the arts to broader concerns adds relevance, so you’ll often find my thoughts framed by current events.  And please, participate.  I’m happy to entertain your story suggestions, and eager to know what you think.