Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best of 2010

By Susan Kepecs

As we close out the first decade of the new millineum with multiple unwinnable wars, a repressive transnational political economy, and emerging environmental catastrophe – not to mention the TeaPublicans poised to take over the state (and the lower body of the federal legislature) next week – the survival of the performing arts is touching testimony to the strength of the human spirit.  Not everything I saw this year was great, but here’s my list of this year’s pearls.
There’s no real order here – no “top of the list.”  But I’ll start with Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, Overture’s Capitol Theater, Nov. 11, since it packed a personal wallop.  The drug war’s spiraling violence can’t kill Mexico’s vibrant culture – even the cultish narcocultura is unmistakably Mexican – but the ramped up dangers south of the border impose exile on anyone who loves the place but doesn’t absolutely have to be there.  Luckily, Los Angeles-based Los Camperos, at the top of the mariachi tradition in the States, returned to Madison after a four year absence.  Overture’s outreach needs improvement – los paisanos were in the house, but I was surprised La Movida’s Luis Montoto wasn’t invited (as he was in 2006) to present the band.  Still, the music was so glorious I had to choke back tears while belting out, with all the other exiles in the audience, the chorsuses of the great mariachi anthems – “Volver,” “Cielito Lindo,” and of course, “El Rey.”
Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, Wisconsin Union Theater, Feb. 6.  King’s dancers are among the world’s best, and his remarkable artistry, stretching the physical and metaphysical boundaries of ballet, links the global 21st century to the many-layered ancient past.  The two long pieces he brought this year – in both, ensemble dances were interspersed with pas de deux – showcased distinct aspects of King’s sensibilities.  “Signs and Wonders,” originally choreographed for Dance Theater of Harlem, was stocked with bold moves and set to traditional African chants.  The enigmatic, luminous “Dust and Light” had a lofty score woven from Corelli’s baroque concerti and Poulenc’s sacred motets.  Almost opposites on the surface, both works transcended time and space.  Throughout, King achieved a serendipitous synergy between light, energy and imagery (onstage) and a kinesthetic response (in the audience) that was almost spooky, and left me breathless.
El rey del piano, Eddie Palmieri, with his Latin Jazz Septet, Wisconsin Union Theater, Nov. 5.  The band sailed through two sets of the Maestro’s compositions, including “Crew,” a showy new mambo, and “Slowvizor,” a funky cha cha cha off his groundbreaking 1994 album Palmas, plus Tito Puente’s “Picadillo” in homage to the late mambo king.  At 74 Palmieri still rips on the keys, growling into the mike, but he leaves plenty of space for his collaborators to stretch out.  The long, sinuous grooves that prevailed, driven by Palmieri’s regular rhythm section (Little Johnny Rivero on congas, José Claussel on timbales, Orlando Vega on bongos), were lavishly embellished with trumpeter Brian Lynch’s agile hard bop chops, Curtis Luques’ brawny bass solos and newcomer Louis Fouché’s gently blues-infused alto sax.
The Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, Overture’s Capitol Theater, April 29.  A slate of straight-ahead masters – pianist Kenny Barron, violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Russell Malone and vocalist Kurt Elling – put on a tight and generous, though conservative show.  I wanted more solos from Barron, and more bop.  But the radiant exchanges between Barron, Carter and Malone on Barron’s joyful composition “Calypso,” and Barron and Carter quoting everything from “America the Beautiful” to Bach in their playful take on “Georgia on My Mind,” were worth the extravagant ticket price.
Nrityagram Indian Dance Ensemble, Wisconsin Union Theater, March 6.  This was the best event no one attended this year.  The tiny audience was embarrasing, but the show was sumptuous.  The company – really a holistic dance community dedicated to Odissi, a classical, supremely sensuous style that was banned under British rule but revived in the 1950s from ancient temple sculptures – brings an utterly contemporary, theatrical sensibility to this lyrical ancient form.  The five dances on the program, rich with rhythmic complexity and technical precision, were framed in extraordinary ambiences of light and color. 
                                                                    Andrew Weeks 2010
Madison Ballet’s Cinderella, Overture Hall, March 13-14.  Three years after going professional, the company hit its stride with this sparkling production. Artistic director W. Earle Smith’s confident choreography fit his strong, bright dancers like a glove.  And the company, solidified by its previous seasons, achieved a distinctive unity based on neoclassical vocabulary and a slightly syncopated musicality.  Madison, just a cow town with a big university when I first came here 45 years ago, finally has a bona fide ballet company, and a Balanchine-based one at that.  To me, that’s the mark of a real city.
Li Chiao Ping’s Knotcracker, Overture’s Promenade Hall, Dec. 3-5.  Balletomane that I am, I loved this clever postmodern holiday show for the way it knocked down every possible preconceived notion about the art of dance.  Li’s tongue-in-cheek deconstructions of formal ballet conventions were charming and smart, and the mix of professional and community dancers, including seniors and the physically differently abled, pitted a populist message against ballet’s rarified world.
                                                                              SKepecs 2010
Mad City conga king Tony Castañeda’s exuberant Latin Jazz Septet – catch this band at its home base, Sunday nights at the Cardinal Bar – is always evolving.  Lately, I’ve noticed repertory tweaks.  Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader tunes still prevail, but the band’s swapped out some of its staple cha cha cha and boogaloo grooves for more wide open mambos, plus some clave-based takes on slinky straight ahead standards.  Don’t get me wrong – this band has always delivered dazzling mambos, and it hasn’t lost its cha cha cha chops.  But the slight shift accomodates the mighty musicianship these players (besides Castañeda, the current lineup consists of David Stoler on keys, Henry Behm on bass, Anders Svanoe on sax, Darren Sterud on trombone, Charlie Wagner on trumpet and Kyle Traska on timbales) bring to the table, making more space for sizzling improvisations.  This is great Latin jazz, both mesmerizing and bailable, and you can dig it where it belongs – in a hip urban nightclub instead of under the proscenium arch. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Madison Ballet's Nutcracker: Gorgeous, with a few Glitches

By Susan Kepecs

The sheer range of choreographic ingenuity exposed in New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay’s cross-country Nutcracker Chronicles – have you been following this? – is staggering.  His dispatches, from traditional productions – the Joffrey’s Nut, Moscow Ballet’s, Balanchine’s, by New York City Ballet – and the offbeat ones – hip hop Nuts, R-rated Nuts, Nuts set in the historical contexts of the cities in which they’re staged, Mark Morris’ famous ‘70s retro Hard Nut, the 15th Annual Black Nutcracker at Harlem’s Apollo Theater – paint a precise portrait of American diversity through the lens of a beloved Christmas classic.  Macaulay’s blog posts ( reveal the gorgeous, the glitches, what’s memorable, and what’s not, in every single one of these sundry productions.
Macaulay omits Madison, but I caught the 7:30 PM performance of Madison Ballet’s annual Nutcracker in Overture Hall on Sat., Dec. 18 (the casting shifts slightly from one show to the next and there are two matinees to go, on Christmas Eve at 1 PM and Dec. 26, at 2).  The production, which marks the fourth season since the company went professional, was slightly uneven, like Nuts nationwide.
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker, choreographed in the Balanchine tradition by artistic director W. Earle Smith, falls squarely in the traditional camp.  This is certainly the right approach for this company, in this city, in these times.  But my biggest beef – and I’ve said this before – is the humdrum party scene in Act I, in which little Clara receives a nutcracker doll as a holiday gift.  Unless your own little dance student is shining onstage there’s no real excitement, and the canned music the company’s used since the crash of ’08 exaggerates the problem.  Since we can’t hang our attention spans on a live interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score, only Gretchen Bourg’s hammy pantomime as the maid, plus the local celebs disguised as party parents – Mad City Police Department public information officer and former WISC-TV reporter Joel DeSpain and UW’s Wisconsin Union Director Mark Guthier this year – provided relief. 
Well, that and the dancing dolls.  Zachary Guthier, a Madison Ballet apprentice, merits mention for his crisp, clean Soldier Doll performance.  But this short burst of bona fide ballet is nowhere near enough to carry the whole scene, which is sorely in need of a new slant.
Guthier (Zachary, that is) swapped costumes to come right back out as the Rat King in Clara’s post-party midnight nightmare, with its zany battle between the rats and the toy soldiers.  The rats were terrific this year, kicking and leaping in their grizzly rat suits.  
At the end of this silly-spooky dream little Clara grows up and the nutcracker doll comes to life; the two celebrate their budding romance in the Snow pas de deux that follows.  This year Smith cast Molly Luksik and Bryan Cunningham in the protagonist roles – a challenge for Luksik, a fiery redhead who stole last year's show with her daredevil Russian dance.  Since her natural style is swift and brash I was amazed to see her pull out dreamy nuances in the Snow pas, floating into her lifts, swooping backwards into Cunningham’s arms and flipping birdlike into plush penchée arabesques, the lines of her extended limbs continued upward in the raised arc of Cunningham’s free arm.
Cunningham’s partnering was indeed pitch perfect, and he delivered a relaxed, fluid performance in his short variation.  But the pair slipped slightly in the second act.  The Sugarplum pas de deux, studded with fish dives and risky lifts, was confident, and Luksik, flaunting fancy footwork in the coda, sparkled.  But the creampuffy quality she brought to the Snow pas gave way, and Cunningham’s clean lines faded at his less than pointed feet during his nonetheless admirably airborne coupe jete menege.
The divertissements deserve a salute.  Katy Fredrick, subtly flicking her feet, brought a smidge of escuela bolera, suspiciously missing in previous years, to the Spanish dance.  Avichai Scher’s bravura chops brought cheers for his Russian dance, reprised from 2008.  Laura Rutledge, by herself, finessed the substantial Merlitons piece, which is usually staged for two or three.
In the performance I saw Madelyn Boyce had the demanding Dewdrop role in the Waltz of the Flowers.  Boyce is a lovely dancer, notable for her faultless musical phrasing and expressive neoclassical style, but she played the part too close to the chest – the Dewdrop requires the kind of give-it-all-up-for-the-audience glitter hometown favorite Genevieve Custer-Weeks used to bring to the part.
Small flaws and the party scene aside, though, I’ll admit it – this was Madison Ballet’s best Nutcracker yet.  The proof’s in how the audience sees it.  I walked outside after the show with an old friend whose daughter was in the youth company corps de ballet for the first Nut Smith directed when he took over in 1999.  At that time the production was simply a community affair, relying entirely on area ballet students except for the pair of big-name guest principals flown in for the Sugarplum pas.  “Earle came to Madison with a vision,” my friend said, meaning his plan to create a professional company equal to those of other mid-size cities, “and he’s realizing it.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Li Chiao-Ping's Knotcracker Knocks Sox Off

"Faux Pas"     photo by John Maniaci

by Susan Kepecs

Knotcracker, a new full length, two-act anti-ballet from Madison’s premier second-wave postmodern choreographer and UW Dance prof Li Chiao-Ping (in Overture's Promenade Hall last weekend, Dec. 3-5) was no Nutcracker knockoff.  Li’s holiday gift to the city was seriously original, and often hilarious – not an adjective anyone would apply to the nineteenth century holiday classic.
Though Li’s made funny dances before, much of her oeuvre is decidedly intellectual instead.  Knotcracker had broad audience appeal, in a very non-slick, un-commercial, from-the-heart way.  Personally I like edgy performances, but an occasional work that packs popular punch can only be good for postmodern dance in general, and for Li’s company in particular. 
Knotcracker mixed Li’s current professional company with community dancers, including seniors and the physically differently abled, most of whom have been working with Li for years.  The professional troupe isn’t the strongest Li’s had, since about half the dancers are new this season.  But the choreography fit them fine, and the community group has never looked better.  I was dismayed to find no notes about these brave non-pros in the program’s dancers’ biographies section.
For Knotcracker, Li took a cubist approach to a loose tale in which the protagonist, Little Miss Steps – a bit of a misfit in big red sneakers – is determined to dance.  We see her at the beginning and end of the program as a little girl (Kenna Titus), though the main story revolves around a young adult (company member Liz Sexe) who ultimately triumphs over the trials and tribulations of the bunhead, Pilates-toned, conformist dance world.
Seventeen short dances revealed clever facets of both the heroine’s story and the artificial chunks into which this thing we call dance is divided.  The story’s non-linear arrangement was highlighted with a fragmented score mixing classical composers – Mozart, Prokofiev, Strauss – with klezmer, Indipop and contemporary electronica by local musicians Patrick Reinholz, Matan Rubenstein and Ben Willis.
Yes, there were several Nutcracker references.  The most overt one opened the show.  Li, as Mother Ginger, a staple character in Nutcracker’s Act II, rolled in regally on a high platform and released horde of small children – young Little Miss Steps’ companions – from beneath her gigantic skirts.  Slightly subtler was “Tangle,” a sideways glance at the parents’ cotillion from Nut’s Act I.  The playful pairs piece for community and company performers, set to an infectious sound track by local klezmer band Yid Vicious, injected a soupçon of Chanukah into the lopsided sectarian season. 
Knotcracker, in fact, knocked the art of ballet jokes out of the park.  My favorite piece, “Faux Pas,” was a tongue in cheek, anti-classical pas de six reminiscent of “Go,” Li’s brilliant 1995 Swan Lake in combat boots.  In “Faux Pas,” dancers in clunky laceup pointe shoes and wildly deconstructed tutus danced a mix of Li’s unmistakable movement vocabulary and turned-in, knock kneed, flexed foot pique turns and penchee arabesques.  Of course, “Faux Pas” was part of the story, so when Little Miss Steps tried to join the ballerinas they hissed at her and stomped offstage.
Divertissements are little dances – diversions, or amusements – that interrupt the narratives of traditional story ballets.  In Nutcracker, the divertissements are balletic folkdances – Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabian – that break up Act II.   The Knotcracker program listed three divertissements, and the very idea of deconstructing this formal but inconsequential element of classical ballet tickled my funnybone.  No. 1, “Knot in Kansas,” was a high energy, shake-fisted boogie featuring Michael Ziemet, one of Li’s long-time community dancers.  In “Lumen Beings” dancers moved in the dark with flashlights in understated homage to certain works by multimedia dance theater maven and UW alum Tim Glenn or his late mentor, Alwin Nikolais.  No. 3, “Seeing I to I,” performed by the company in black tutus and bright bodices, was built of quintessential Li-isms.  But a fourth piece, “A World, A Part” – a looney-bin bit of fun in which Li’s community dancers spoke in tongues to Matan Rubenstein’s electronic score – fit the divertissement mold, too. 
Ballet wasn’t the only target for Li’s sharp-eyed wit.  In “eRacers” she set her sights on the Pilates craze, moving the storyline forward with a dance in which Little Miss Steps was rejected by a sorority of firm-up fanatics dressed identically in black pants and sunglasses, flaunting their pink and blue – eraser colored – Pilates mats.
Dances to utter absurdity – “A World, A Part,” and “Aqueducks,” in which “swimmers” in flapper-style bathing suits made Miss Steps smile by spouting real water as they mimed the crawl – filled the space between “eRacers” and the story’s four-installment denouement.  In the first of these, “Stamps of Approval” – a party of line and circle dances, full of spins, jumps and hand jives – Little Miss Steps finally cracked the knot, claiming her spot in the midst of the action.  In “Miss Steps Misses Steps No More,” she soloed happily.  “Playground – Reprise Surprise Oh Mys” featured community dancers’ bodies as playground equipment for the cast’s little kids plus a charming two-piece Chinese dragon, courtesy of the Zhong Yi Jung Fu Association, in a tender duet with young Little Miss Steps.  In “Esperanto Stomp,” the finale, everyone from community elders to little kids let loose, with both Little Miss Steps smack in the center. 
This long spate of relentless joy is, in fact, my only gripe.  I’d have broken it up, giving Little Miss Steps one last hurdle before the finale – a dangerous, clunky, anti-Sugarplummy pas de deux. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Madison Ballet's Big, Bright Season

By Susan Kepecs

If last spring’s luxuriant production of Cinderella is any clue, Madison Ballet is set to debut a stunning season.  It starts when the curtain goes up in Overture Hall on the first of five Nutcracker performances at 2 PM on Saturday, Dec. 18.
This production marks the company’s fourth year as a professional outfit, and to be frank, the first two seasons were uneven.  That’s no surprise, since no artistic venture as large and complex as a ballet company – which requires dancers to develop intuition about each other and to internalize the artistic director’s vision – comes ready-made.  But Madison Ballet’s artistic director, W. Earle Smith, who brings to the table beautiful Balanchine training and his own slightly quirky, syncopated musicality, has worked wonders with what began as a batch of dancers with diverse ballet backgrounds.  With Cinderella, the company finally gelled.  In my review I wrote that Madison finally has a bona fide ballet company – the stuff of a real city.
There’s no reason to suspect this success was a flash in the pan.  I like Nut – a Russian Victorian relic that morphed into an American Christmas ritual during the prosperous post-WWII period – less than Cinderella.  The holiday ballet never fails to bring out my inner Grinch.  But Nut has its magic moments, even for me.  Smith’s Balanchiney Snow scene is a lovely ballet blanc, reason enough to go even if you’ve already seen it several times. 
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker hasn’t seen radical change since Smith rechoreographed it when he launched the professional company in 2007 -- before that, the performance arm of the organization was a pre-professional studio company dependent on guest principals to dance the Sugarplum pas de deux.  But in every Nut there’s something new.  Smith tweaks his choreography every year, tailoring the solos, pas de deux and variations for specific dancers.  And this time around he’s taken a bold risk, casting against type, which adds a new edge to the performance.  “I have a lot of faith in my dancers,” he says.  “I know how far I can push them out of their box.”
Nutcracker, based on a story about a little girl and her Christmas doll, is partly a ballet for and by children – and this year’s Nut has the largest youth cast ever.  The young dancers come from schools all across Dane County.  Neither of the two little Claras, who alternate performances, is from the School of Madison Ballet.  “It’s not about who’s better, it’s just that I saw something I liked in these students, and that’s testimony to the open audition process,” Smith says.
Coming up in a post-holiday blink of an eye is “Evening of Romance” [Capitol Theater, Sat., Feb. 12], Madison Ballet’s Valentine to the city.  This repertory concert gives Smith a chance to stretch out and showcase his dancers without the constraints of a full-length, storybook production, and it offers the public an entirely different view of ballet.  Much of what’s in “Evening of Romance” originally was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2009, but the program became a casualty of the economic collapse.  A few days before the show was scheduled – the works well-rehearsed, the dancers ready – the bottom fell out of the budget.  The Capitol Theater performance was cancelled, but a small studio showing was so good it moved the audience to tears.
Two years on, with his company on a roll, Smith’s expanded this program, adding works I haven’t seen and pushing the choreographic envelope farther.  Acompanying the post-Balanchine neoclassical dances he’s prepared for this show there’ll be archival film footage from the big band era, plus live music onstage by longtime local singer / songwriter / pianist Michael Massey and the great Jan Wheaton, Mad City’s First Lady of Jazz, who'll do a set from her very swingin’ 2005 album Expressions of Love. 
Midsummer Night’s Dream [March 19-20, in the Capitol Theater] rounds out the season.  Though it’s a story ballet, it’s got a whole different aesthetic than the traditional workhorses of every company’s repertory, like Nutcracker, Cinderella and Swan Lake.  Balanchine once choreographed Shakespeare’s famous play about wedding mixups and midsummer forest sprites, but Smith bought the rights to the version done by Peter Anastos, a major US choreographer and ballet historian who’s best known as the founding director / choreographer of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo, that famous troupe of men on pointe. 
Midsummer, like all things Shakespearean, has so much substance,” Smith says – “acting, dancing, comedy, drama.  And Anastos is a great storyteller.  It’s really exciting to set someone else’s work.  I don’t always want to do my own choreography.  I want my company to have the diversity and training to do many styles and to carry off works by many different choreographers.  Versatility is what makes a company successful.  That takes well-trained, smart dancers, and I have them.”
Madison Ballet, back in its studio company days, performed Midsummer twice at the old Civic Center, today the Capitol Theater – in the spring of 2002, and again in 2004.  As a pre-professional production it was delightful, and it should look utterly fabulous on the fast-rising company Madison Ballet is today.
But if that’s not enough, there’s a little bit more.  “The dancers are taking to the streets,” Smith says.  “Look for them in surprise performances around town.  Sometimes, out of the blue, ballet just happens.”
The Nutcracker schedule (all shows are in Overture Hall) includes a single 7:30 PM evening performance, on Sat., Dec. 18.  You can catch a 2 PM matinee on Sat., Dec. 18 or Sun., Dec. 19.  There’s a 1 PM Christmas Eve show on Fri., Dec. 24, and a 2 PM matinee on Sun., Dec. 26.  “People need to get out of the house after being cooped up inside all day on Christmas,” says Smith.  “In my family we always used to go to the movies – but now there’s Nutcracker.  It's a perfect alternative."