Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Madison Ballet's Midsummer Night's Dream Delivers

       Titania (foreground) and Puck.  Photo by Andrew Weeks 

by Susan Kepecs  
Peter Anastos’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, a blithe bit of fluff, wrapped up Madison Ballet’s fourth season (March 19-20 in Overture's Capitol Theater) with a bang.  Anastos’ ballet isn’t perfect.  I longed to see more from Titania’s lovely fairy corps, and in several spots slapstick acting upstaged dance.  The frequent tugs of war between the two jinxed couples in particular could have used some judicious editing, and a more balletic approach to humor would have played up the considerable chops these dancers possess, especially the limber Yu Suzuki (who also works with Chicago’s Elements Contemporary Ballet), in the Helena role.
Madison Ballet isn’t perfect, either.  While artistic director W. Earle Smith has assembled 17 strong dancers and stamped his rhythm-savvy Balanchine style on all of them, which lends unity to their individual strengths, the company’s other productions this year didn’t escape with clean slates.  But it was hard to find fault with this performance of Anastos’ 90-minute caprice.
In 2004, when Madison Ballet was still a pre-professional studio company, Anastos himself set the Titania role on Genevieve Custer Weeks, who often flew in for soloist roles while also dancing with now-defunct Oakland Ballet.  Last weekend a more mature Custer Weeks, in total possession of the part, took buoyant pleasure in its simple variations, pushing luxuriously through the music, syncopating a waltz or stretching an arabesque on pointe a breath beyond the beat.  Her acting-while-dancing skills are sharp, too – her gemlike little pas with the bumbling Bottom (played to the hilt by Zachary Guthier), hexed into a donkey by the wood sprite Puck shone with sincere humor.   
Joseph Copley, who joined Madison Ballet last year – he also works with San Francisco’s Margaret Jenkens Dance Company –  was an utter hoot as Oberon, parading around in a bright blue mohawk and long purple capes.  Copley, who’s blessed with both stage presence and striking technique, whipped off cabrioles, tour jetes, tours en l’air and a coupe jete menege with no break, and embroidered his entrechat quatres and brise voles with épaulement.  Even just standing, his back to the audience as he commanded his tiny fairies (drawn from studios across Dane County, including Madison Ballet) to dance, he was impressively expressive.
The wedding grand pas classique was gratifyingly full of movement.  The Royal Court corps and the two soloist couples flowed across the stage in kaleidoscopic combinations.  The regal, understated pas de deux was an ideal vehicle for Jennifer Tierney, an impeccable music box ballerina and a Madison Ballet soloist since the studio company days.  Tierney, solidly partnered by Gabriel Williams, floated in and out of his embrace, wheeling around in arabesque or rising weightlessly into low lifts.  At one point Williams kneeled; Tierney, balanced on pointe in deep penche arabesque, supported only by his upheld hands, lowered her head almost to the floor – a breathtakingly extended line.
A couple of amusing moments captured the essence of Shakespeare’s comedy without sacrificing the ballet canon.  Juliana Lehman, from Titania’s fairy corps, bounded onstage alone in a big pas de chat, eyes wide, only to be chased away by a hissing Puck.  Helena, fleeing the pursuing Lysander (Bryan Cunningham), disappeared stage left.  Cunningham flung himself into a wide échappé, pointed toward the wings – you could hear him thinking “Aha! There she is!” and lept after her.
             But it was Marguerite Luksik, as Puck, who stole the show, delivering her light, elastic, Pan-like variations, built from impish sixth position prances, low tours en l’air, pas de chats and bounding saut de chats, with sheer mischief.  That’s exactly how wood sprites would dance, if they were real. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Acoustic Africa Brings On the Spirits

by Susan Kepecs
It always moves me when people, faced with adversity, make art.  There’s been a lot of that around here lately – the citizens of Wisconsin have been superlatively creative in the struggle against Dictator Walker.  But nowhere have our brothers and sisters survived more catastrophic political and economic assaults than in Africa.  Somehow, through slavery, colonialism, economic exploitation, environmental disasters and post-colonial strongmen, the spirits of the arts persevere.  Beyond a shadow of doubt, African musicians make some of the most magnificent music on earth.  Get ready to savor the sound on Thursday night, (March 10), when the 2011 Acoustic Africa tour takes the Wisconsin Union Theater stage.  This is music from the Orishas, a panacea for the Walker-weary blues. 
The Acoustic Africa tours (they’re semi-acoustic, really) sound more intimate and closer to the music’s traditional roots than heavily amplified Afrobeat / Afropop, though this softer sound is contemporary, with cutting edge, socially conscious lyrics.  The first Acoustic Africa tour, which played the Union Theater in the fall of 2006, featured Malian guitarist Habib Koite plus South Africa’s Vusi “The Voice” Mahlasela and Ivorian dancer / chanteuse newcomer Dobet Gnahore, who was such a hit she was asked back to Madison several times in rapid succession.
The second installment of Acoustic Africa is a guitar-based show, featuring three superstars, Koite, Afel Bocoum and Oliver Mtukudzi, who’ll perform individually and together in varying combinations. Each of these virtuosos brings several backup musicians from his own band to fill out the sound.  In addition to backup vocals, percussion and bass, these players add the lute-like West African n’goni, the Malian njarka fiddle, the Zimbabwean m’bira (thumb piano) and other instruments.

Of the three frontmen, Koite’s by far the best known in the States.  He’s played with US musicians as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and the avant garde Art Ensemble of Chicago.  Koite plays traditional music in non-traditional ways, usually on a nylon string, plugged-in acoustic guitar that he tunes like a kora or n’goni.  International flourishes acquired by listening to Jimi Hendrix albums and spending years playing club gigs in cosmopolitan Bamako, Mali’s capital, adorn his multi-ethnic approach to Malian music.  Koite’s a griot by birth – “I come from a family of traditional musicians,” he says.  “But I went to school – the National Institute of Arts – to study classical guitar.  When I started to create a style for myself I learned the regional musics of Mali so I could play for everybody in my country.  I wanted to use language and music and scales from the north, from the west, from the Sahel.  To you it probably sounds like one style, but Malian people know the regional differences in my songs.”
Afel Bocoum, also the son of musicians and the protégé of his uncle, Ali Farka Toure, the late king of Malian desert blues, has a gentle sound, steeped in the ambience of his ancestral town, Niafunké, in the semi-arid, agrarian Sahel on the Niger river.  Of the three stars on this tour Bocoum is the most traditional, though his lyrics address the contemporary social issues of his home turf.  In his music the Malian roots of the delta blues come through loud and clear.  Compare Bocoum to, say, a recording by Robert Johnson.  You can’t miss the echoes of Mali in 1930s Mississippi.  (Blogger isn't letting me post YouTube videos today, but you can easily find both of these artists, and in fact, all of the musicians I talk about in this post, on the web). 
Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, from Zimbabwe, created his own mix – “Tuku music,” a name his sons came up with – from the sounds of southern Africa. “Borders are created by a handful of divided people with special interests,” he says.  “The borders don’t matter.  Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa – the same tribes live in all those places, and their art overlaps.” 
The influences in Tuku music include Zimbabwe’s polyphonic m’bira, chimurenga (Zimbabwean social justice music), the swift Harare beat called jit and South African mbaquanga, itself a mix of Zulu jive, township jazz and Xhosa tribal twists.
Though they have very distinct styles, Koite, Bocoum and Mtukudzi wrote a song together for the tour.  It’s based on Malian Mandinga music and Shona sounds from Zimbabwe, and appropriately titled “MaliZim.” 
Mtukudzi, who says this is the first time he’s done a project with West African musicians, was delighted to find common musical ground.  “What surprised all of us when we wrote ‘MaliZim,’” he says, “was that despite the geographic distance we have rhythmic similarities.  We use those similarities in the song, but we also take different rhythms and mix them.  If you know what you’re looking for and have a good ear, when you listen to it you can say ‘oh, that’s Mandinga,’ or ‘that’s m’bira,’ but it all comes together very well.”

What’s notable, besides the music, is the determination of these players to live in their home countries when so many African musicians have set up shop in Paris or New York.  “Show business in Africa is done poorly,” says Koite.  “I completely understand why someone African would want to live in Europe where you can do the gig with a good sound system and get royalties for the albums people buy after your concerts.  You can bring money and hope back to Africa without living there.  But for me it’s important to stay in my country.  I’m really proud and happy that I can bring Malian culture to the world and then come back home.  If I can inspire the young people – I want them to ask themselves ‘why does he go and come back?’– if they go on to do the same, we all win.  Mali wins.  Africa wins.”