Monday, February 28, 2011

Madison Becomes Hotbed of Politics and Performing Arts

It always happens over the long haul.  When the established social, political and artistic order goes stale, places on the peripheries of the centers of power, having more flexibility, become hotbeds of innovation.  So it is that when Japan displaced America in the automobile industry, Silicon Valley arose to replace Detroit as the country’s economic engine.  And as the 21st century starts to reveal its character, mid-size cities may become the country's new cauldrons of creativity.  Certainly, Madison is emerging at last from the shadow of that great nearby 20th century city where I was born and raised, Chicago.  Definitively, the cow town with a university in “Wisc – where??” that I was somewhat embarassed about when I moved here four decades ago is gone.
Madison dominates the news cycle as the national leader in the new struggle for workers' rights, which is a whole damn lot to crow about.  But since this is an arts blog, what I want to point out is the synergistic growth of our local arts organizations.  We aren't Chicago, or New York, yet.  But in particular, it’s worth noting that Madison Opera’s Threepenny Opera (Overture’s Isthmus Playhouse, Feb. 4-13) was so innovative and brilliant it sold out consistently.  The company had to add extra performances.  And I happen to know we’re about to be socked with another piece of local performing arts wizardry.  In three weeks (on March 19-20, in Overture’s Capitol Theater), Madison Ballet performs a luscious production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Peter Anastos, noted ballet historian and founder of that famous troupe of men on pointe, Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo. 
As a balletomane and a dance reviewer, I couldn’t be more excited.  When Madison Ballet was just a pre-professional studio company it put on Midsummer twice, in the old Civic Center, in 2002 and 2004.  The production looked lovely on artistic director W. Earle Smith’s student dancers.  It’s going to absolutely sparkle on Smith’s professional company, which wraps up its fourth season with this show.  I don’t say that lightly.  I’ve been watching Madison Ballet’s progress carefully, and writing about it regularly.  In the innovative spirit that’s enveloping our city, Smith’s managed to transcend the economic straitjacket of the times.  Despite the very short seasons dictated by shrunken funds, he’s built a strong, cohesive company with a recognizable, Balanchine-based style.  The upcoming production of Midsummer should put Madison Ballet on the national map.  Watch this space for further updates, and my review.
                                                                                                               Susan Kepecs

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Madison Ballet Romances the Audience, Sometimes, in its Annual Valentine's Day Show

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s “Evening of Romance” in Overture’s Capitol Theater last Saturday (Feb. 12) – a repertory show featuring four new works by artistic director W. Earle Smith – was notable for how much this four year old professional company’s grown lately.  The hard work of training together over time has paid off handsomely.  Technical unity and group rapport were in evidence throughout.  Madison Ballet’s become a smooth, well-trained unit that can turn out nearly flawless performances, which bodes very well for the company’s future.
That said, “Evening of Romance,” like most repertory shows, was a mixed bag.  The first piece, “Rhythm, Where Are You?” was a suite of ensemble dances, duets, trios and quartets, performed before a giant video screen showing footage (restored and compiled by Timothy Tomano) of Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Cole Porter and other greats from the era of big band swing.  The movement onstage wasn’t ballet, but it was definitely rooted in ballet technique.  It echoed rather than replicated the dance steps of the ‘30s and ‘40s, a strategy that worked.  The big group numbers were colorful, and there were highlights: Jacob Brooks danced a good old-fashioned jazzy spat with Michelle Tucker, who’s starting to shine in her second season with the company.  A balletic solo with a touch of soft shoe (in pointe shoes) by veteran company member Jennifer Tierney was flirty and joyful.
But the video screen was set so high on the back wall my field of vision was split between the dancers and the film.  And despite the dancers’ smooth performance, the choreography was repetitive and uniformly jivey.  Some virtuoso airborne steps added to this mix would have broken the monotony and knit screen and stage together in interesting ways while providing visual and rhythmic counterpoint to the overarching dips and jitterbug language of swing. 
The second piece, “Rain,” a solo for company veteran Genevieve Custer-Weeks with composer / pianist Michael Massey playing a concert grand live onstage, was billed as a dance “inspired by the childlike joy of skipping through puddles on a rainy afternoon.”  But the long dark pink dance dress Custer-Weeks wore, with its unfortunate empire waist, was more frumpy than youthful, and “Rain” was as wistful as it was joyful.  Repeatedly, Custer-Weeks pushed away from the piano, danced a combination, and then returned to stand still, facing the instrument rather than the audience, as if lost in nostalgia.  The dance itself was a repetitive series of pique arabesques and chaine turns that crossed the stage on the diagonal or in an arc.  On any other dancer this work would have looked dull, but Custer-Weeks found freedom in its simple patterns, pushing through the notes with elastic musicality and revealing nuances that made an otherwise unmemorable piece mesmerizing.
“Palladio,” the only pure neoclassical work on the program, was a complex short ballet with a very traditional structure.  The presto movement opened with four women (Megan Horton, Molly Luksik, Madelaine Boyce and Yu Suzuki) in white tutus, moving in and out of unison against dark blue backlight.  A staccato series of releves on pointe in échappé, fourth, and fifth position, adorned with bent-elbowed, expressive wristed, Balanchine-style port de bras, was broken by a lyrical solo from Tierney.  Swift shifts between Tierney and the corps followed, all involving very fast petit allegro footwork.
In the adagio pas de deux that followed, Tierney, seemingly weightless, was ably partnered by Bryan Cunningham.  This pair has been dancing together since the company went pro, and their confidence in each other was palpable.  Tierney floated into lifted pas de chats, then landed on pointe in arabesque or folded back dreamily over Cunningham’s arm.  The corps joined Tierney and Cunningham for the third, allegretti movement, which mirrored the relentless petit allegro of the first.
I have profound respect for “Palladio,” both as a piece of choreography and as it was danced.  Petit allegro is the hardest element of the ballet vocabulary, and this long, difficult piece required endless endurance.  Madison Ballet couldn’t have carried off a work like this even a year ago, but it looked quite beautiful Saturday night.  Still, it’s grand allegro, with its sweeping leaps, that usually draws gasps from the audience.  I would have liked to see “Palladio” balanced by a second, freer work in the classical canon; I often wonder why Smith, whose masterful grand allegro combinations are the highlight of his company classes, so rarely lets this side of himself loose in his stage choreography.
“Expressions,” a suite of dances to tunes from Madison jazz diva Jan Wheaton’s eponymous 2005 album, with Wheaton and her trio live onstage, was originally choreographed for the company’s 2009 Evening of Romance show – the one that was cancelled in the economic aftermath of the Crash of ’08.  I saw a studio performance of this work two Februaries ago, and I’ve been dying to see it onstage ever since.  I wasn’t disappointed.  “Expressions” was the program’s high point.
Wheaton was a treat, jiving and flaunting a feather boa while emceeing the show, introducing her trio – Matan Rubenstein on piano, John Christensen on bass and Rodrigo Villanueva on drums – and the dancers for each ballet-based, jazzy piece. 
The dancers – women in short black fringed dresses and fishnet tights, men in black jazz pants and shirts – sat at nightclub tables set around the bare stage.  The choreography was similar to that of “Rhythm, Where Are You?,” though the dances in “Expressions” were better and more ballety.  My one complaint is that “Expressions” would have looked fresher if “Rhythm” hadn’t been on the same bill.
I liked everything about “Expressions.”  Custer-Weeks was jazzy, stretchy, free and spontaneous in her solo to “Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man of Mine.”  Cunningham and Phillip Ollenburg, who’s new this year, served up a spunky, high-energy contest of skill in the ballet-jazz idiom to “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” each challenging the other to do bigger, better cabrioles, kick-leaps and pirouettes.  The lush “Don’t Explain” gave Yu Suzuki, Anna Counts and Juliana Lehman a chance to flaunt their classical chops, albeit with jazz attitude. Custer-Weeks, Megan Horton, Rachel Butler and Molly Luksik strutted their stuff in “Stormy Weather,” shimmying hips and whipping off flirty, foot-flicking turns.  And Tierney’s “One Note Samba,” a showcase for her natural coquettish, creampuffy style, was the program’s piece de resistance.
The finale was a festival of jazzy ballet, the company pirouetting, jumping and kicking in unison, with groups of dancers emerging to show off contrasting strings of steps. “That was really fun,” Wheaton said, “let’s do it one more time!”  And they did. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Little Sunday Night Mambo Jazz

As usual, I was at the Cardinal Bar Sunday night to catch the Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Sextet.  But where were you, my still-hip fellow first-wave boomers?  The Cardinal may be best-known as a disco dance club, but on Sundays it draws a small, mellow, devoted crowd of jazz club regulars.  The scene is comfortably intimate, but on a night like this the Cardinal should be packed with like-minded folks.  If you’re looking for a little mambo jazz and a dance or two you’re missing out on a very fine thing. 
       I thought about this when I wrote my previous post – the one on Gaelic Storm.  That band started out playing Sunday night pub gigs, too.  They hit the jackpot with James Cameron’s epic ship flick Titanic, and now they’re a huge box-office deal.  The TCLJS has yet to find its Titanic, but take it from this old jazz writer – it’s as good as any big-name Latin jazz band out there.  If you listen closely to WORT’s Saturday afternoon Latin music show “La Junta” when Cardinal owner Ricardo Gonzalez is spinning discs you’ll hear cuts from Castañeda’s two albums, Mambo o Muerte and Viva el Cardinal, flowing right into the mix with tunes by Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente.
       Yes, I know Monday morning’s just a shot away, but Castañeda’s gig is early, with two live sets, at 8:30 and 10.  DJ Ken Horn plays Cuban son and salsa in between (and afterwards).  And it’s worth the effort – I swear, the three hours I spend at the Cardinal on Sunday nights are what keeps me young.  I’m always home before midnight, anyway, which is this old boomer’s bedtime. 
      Readers, this is one Sunday night ship that shouldn’t sink.  Please get out and support this Madison institution.  If you go, please drop a comment on my blog and let me know how you liked it – and if you don’t go, let me know why not!
                                                                                                         Susan Kepecs


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Union Theater’s World Stage Series Gets Set for St. Paddy’s

                                                              photo by Kevin Gilbert

by Susan Kepecs

Here’s your chance to get warmed up for St. Patrick’s Day – Gaelic Storm, at the pinnacle of pan-Celtic pop, whips up a tornado at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Sat., Feb. 19.  Once a humble bar band playing weekend gigs at O’Brien’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica, CA., Gaelic Storm catapulted to international success by serving up traditional Irish dance tunes as the Titanic went down in James Cameron’s eponymous 1997 movie.  The whirlwind band has blown away Milwaukee’s Irish Fest a time or ten and rocked the rafters at the Majestic, the Stoughton Opera House, and other venues in the vicinity, but this is its first appearance ever on the Union Theater stage.

The band’s seen some personnel shakeups over the years, though lead singer / accordionist Patrick Murphy (a native of Cork, he’s the only born Irishman in the bunch) and guitarist Steve Twigger, who’s English, have fronted the outfit since its start.  The rest of the current lineup includes fiddler Jesse Burns, who’s also English, drummer Ryan Lacey, who grew up in California but drank in Irish culture by the pint over a four-year resident stint, and bagpiper Pete Purvis, who hails from Canada. 

I had a chance to talk to Twigger about the band’s evolution the other day.  Here’s what I found out:

Q: What led to the classic Irish storytelling that goes on during your sets?

A: When I met Patrick, I was playing in rock bands and he’d been doing backroom pub gigs.  I was in a transitional period in my life.  He and I would party out at my house – we’d have 25-30 people just sitting around telling stories and passing the guitar around.  That’s a very old-fashioned way of entertaining yourselves.  There were copious amounts of beer that went along with it, of course.  And that’s the true story of how the band got started. 

Before that I’d been in bands that did showcase gigs every two weeks – we rehearsed four times a week to get ready for that, and I was sick of it.  I just wanted to play and have the music happen.  So we got up onstage [at O’Brien’s] unrehearsed and made it up as we went along.  We’d play the same music every week and the same people would come to hear it. We’d do the same song 200 times, but it was always different because of somebody’s reaction to it, or because of what had happened that day with one of us, or what was in the news. We reacted spontaneously to the people and events around us – the music was almost incidental.  It’s same process today.  Go put on the CD if you want to hear one of our songs exactly as you heard it last time.  We’re very organic – every live show is gonna be different.

Q:  How did your appearance in Titanic change the band’s trajectory?

A: We weren’t teenagers who’d just had their first beer – we’d already been around the block.  So we were very careful and conscious of what was happening.  After the movie the phone was ringing off the hook, but we’d set out to play music purely for the fun of it.  We turned down many offers because we didn’t want anything to take away that pure joy.  Those Sunday evenings at the pub were so magical – we refused to let anything ruin that.  When we signed the contract for the movie – it wasn’t a lot of money, by the way – we stood our ground and insisted that they had to fly us back to L.A. for our regular gigs.  That was where our purity came from.  So when we had the chance to hit the road we said “we’re only gonna do this if it scales up our sound.” 

And it has.  We’ve improved our craft over time, but we’re the same band.  Of course, we don’t do the Sunday night gigs any more – in fact we hardly ever do pubs now.  We pop into O’Brien’s or some other small venue every now and then and it’s fun – you’re right there, practically standing on people’s tables, but it’s mayhem. 

You miss some of that life and you don’t miss some of it.  But what’s gone is replaced by bigger and better elements – more great people, more energy, more stories.  And that all translates into our music.  We’ve seen it before.  The Rolling Stones are still out there touring in their 60s because it’s such a kick to be a catalyst to somebody else’s good time.

Q: Early on when you played Irish Fest in Milwaukee it was clear you were a party band.  You partied hard onstage.  How has that aspect of your show changed over the 16 years you’ve been doing this?

A: Behind the scenes there’s a lot of professionalism to what we do now.  Other bands that think of us as party guys are shocked to find out about our work ethic.  The comedians we all love practice their spontaneity, you know, and it’s the same with us.  I love it that people want to party with us all night, but we do work very hard.

Q: Given the personnel changes the band’s gone through, how do you maintain the high quality of your performances?

A: I’ve often said that personnel change is an opportunity to go to the next level – it’s a shot in the arm.  All our players have been fantastic and each brought new strengths to the lineup.  I’m a very optimistic person and I like to move forward.  I find musicians all over the place, and the more we get our name out the easier it is.  The big change for us was when the first drummer left – he’s 67 and he’d been on the road for years and it was time for him to go home.  But I set about finding a new one – I went to all the drumming schools in the country and asked for their most talented grads and that’s how we found Ryan.

Q: Here’s a followup – how do changes in personnel influence the directions the band’s taken, from really traditional to the pan-Celtic pop-rock sound you seem to favor lately?

A: There’s always been some of both.  I’ve been with Gaelic Storm from the start, and my influence is wide.  I listen to more rock in general than Celtic.  My background was rock, I started playing in a rock band in 1976.  We were doing everything from Led Zeppelin to Rod Stewart back then.  So I’ve been an influence on what we play, and Ryan the drummer had a background in rock as well, though he played a lot of traditional music when he was living in Ireland.  We all bring our enjoyment of different forms of music to the table.  I think music in general has become more eclectic in the last 15 years – it’s less compartmentalized than it used to be.  There’s this wonderful cross-breeding now, and we’re just part of that.  It’s the convergence everybody’s been talking about for years – finally, here it is.