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. 

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