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. 

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