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."