Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Best of 2011

by Susan Kepecs

The economic crisis endures and bad behavior’s on the rise, but in a weird way it’s been an exhilirating year, filled with great performances and Republican bungles.  Despite December’s snowless, chilly damp (yes, Virginia, that’s a sign of global warming), a cautious optimism warms my weary old bones. The 99% has finally risen up – hallelujah! – and the elephants are knee deep in their own spoor. What's more, if this year in the arts is any clue there's a lot to look forward to in 2012. Budgets bulldozed in the three-year crunch might have meant a near-beer season, but the best events of 2011 were sparklier than Dom Perignon.
                                                                       SKepecs © 2011
The plentitude of progressive performances in inspired opposition to the wackos of Fitzwalkerstan occupies the pinnacle of my list – hundreds of thousands of protesters carrying wildly creative signs, a glorious profusion of political song (the gutsy, tenacious Solidarity Singers), and exquisitely executed works of political parade art flaunting Mad City’s smarts and sense of fun.
                                                                                          SKepecs © 2011
The energy of the peoples’ movement seeped into our lives all over town.  At the Cardinal Bar, Tony Castañeda and his Latin jazz outfit closed their regular Sunday night gigs (now only on the last and first weekends of the month) with a slick take on Cal Tjader’s guajira bugalú “Wachi Wara,” reinventing the two word title / chorus as “Recall Walker.”  It’s a perfect fit, and the audience loves to belt it out.
Also at the Cardinal Bar: a glorious jam session memorial (Oct. 23) for the late guitarist Marcos González, a leader on the local reggae / roots / tropical / funk scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  González, who you’ll remember as Tony Brown’s lead guitarist and founder of the Waves, died of cancer this fall in Mexico, where he’d lived the last 30 years.  Primitive Culture’s David Hecht organized the homage and anchored the lead guitar slot through much of the evening.  Musicians from far and wide gathered to celebrate González’ life, including his brother, drummer Arno González, who currently lives in California and who, along with Tony Castañeda, was an original member of Olmeca, Madison’s first Latin band. Tony Brown came in from Iowa.  Sax master Bob Corbit and conguero James “Pie” Cowan were there, plus Castañeda, keyboardist David Stoler and a cornucopia of other players whose bands overlap in time and space. Partial lineups from the Tony Brown Band, the Roots, the Waves, Olmeca, Primitive Culture, the Kingtown Rockers and the Gibraltar Rockets came and left the stage like time-traveling shamans, weaving past and present into whole cloth and joining the deceased and the living at this gathering of the tribe.
The Ernán López Nussa trio’s sinuous, Havana-born danzón jazz at the Cardinal (Aug. 28)* was the year’s most overlooked event – López Nussa’s not well-known in the States, and his sparking performance was under-attended.  But Cardinal proprietor Ricardo González deserves big accolades for taking the risk of whisking top shelf non-local jazz out from under the proscenium arch and bringing it back to the nightclub scene, where it belongs. 
Still, some fine playing happens in formal theater settings.  Terence Blanchard and his accomplished young quintet served up sizzling post-bop and Miles-style fusion at the Wisconsin Union Theater (Oct. 21)*.  These edgy, mid-‘60s – early ‘70s styles may not make a big comeback, but for boomer jazz fans like me they’re a very satisfying antidote to the soft samba and hip-hop bop that’s marked the start of the new millenium.
Dianne Reeves (Union Theater, April 8), a giant of jazz song, swapped the poppier interpretations she’s favored in previous concerts for flat-out old-fashioned, straight-ahead swing.  It was thrilling to hear her unleash those supple pipes on sheer improvisation, substituting scat for lyrics.  Only Reeves could silkify the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” so suavely, and songs like “Social Call” and “Stormy Weather” haven’t sounded this smoky in years.
Sweet Honey in the Rock’s show, steeped in the tradition of the black church and shimmering with solidarity (Union Theater, Oct. 7), was sensational, but one special song overshadowed the rest.  Carol Maillard’s solo, “I’m Goin’ Home One Sweet Day,” was the sort of rafter-raising, soul-clapping gospel that’s got the power to make you give it all up and praise the spirit, even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like me.
The brilliance of hoofer Savion Glover’s SoLe Sanctuary (Union Theater, Nov. 13)* was tarnished at times by relentlessly speedy percussiveness, but Glover and performance partner Marshall Davis, dancing joyfully to “Resolution” off John Coltrane’s seminal Love Supreme, belongs in the ranks of the year’s best.
The lineup for the Madison World Music Festival, sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Theater with stages on the Union Terrace and at the Willy St. Fair (Sept. 15-17),* was one of the best in the eight-year history of this bighearted, free for the public event.  I learned something about global interconnections from every band I caught.  But Blitz the Ambassador (Sept. 16, on the Terrace), from Ghana and New York, blew me away with his inspired mix of Afrobeat, old-school soul and hip hop, rich with references to the lions of the African diaspora.  Bring this band back!
At the other end of the spectrum, Madison Opera stepped out of its traditional box at Overture’s Playhouse (Feb. 4-16) with a cleverly staged performance of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s satirical, anticapitalist Threepenny Opera.  The timing of this smartly updated production – the downtrodden masses marched with signs that said “I was outsourced” or “I was downsized” – couldn’t have been more fortuitous, coinciding with the announcement of Walker’s “budget repair bill.”  The whole package was a work of art, from the impressively flexible sets to the eight-piece jazz combo led by Maestro John Demain at the piano, witnessed through a window at the back of the set and resembling a lit-up Joseph Cornell box.  American Players Theater veteran Tracy Michelle Arnold, possessed with well-honed talent for both drama and song, was outstanding as the prostitute Jenny Diver, the role Lotte Lenya made famous.
New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay hated Remember Me, David Parsons’ collaboration with the East Village Opera Company, when it played at the Joyce in 2010.  But I loved this sexy love story ballet, built on a clever sequence of opera’s greatest hits done with driving backbeat, which I saw at Overture’s Capitol Theater (Feb. 23).  Parsons’ barefoot ballet base, adorned with hyperextended upper backs and oddly angled limbs and spiced with imaginative partnering, looked fresh, and the whole concoction, from the suggestive lighting to the interactions between dancers and vocalists, was emotionally and visually charged. 
                                  SKepecs © 2011
Last but not least, Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker (Overture Hall, Dec. 16-24)* topped off the company’s best year yet.  I don’t say this lightly – I’ll take almost any ballet over the sappy Christmas chestnut, and I’ve never been bowled over by the local production.  I was sure the company had reached its peak to date with Midsummer Night’s Dream (Capitol Theater, March 19-20), but I was wrong.  Peter Anastos’ fluffy little work looked fine, but the choreography really was too simple for the company Madison Ballet’s become.  Artistic director W. Earle Smith’s very traditional yet slightly quirky Nutcracker, with its Snow and Sugarplum pas de deux and its abundant divertissements, is choreographically much meatier, a fact that’s escaped me until now.  This year the soloists were so polished, and Marguerite Luksik in the principal Snow / Sugarplum role so bright and precise, that the magic hidden in this overworked ballet happened spontaneously.  It’s not just me – leaving the theater I overheard the audience giving it rave reviews.  It was so good, in fact, that I saw it twice. 

* full review elsewhere on this blog

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Madison Ballet's Best Nutcracker Yet

Dance Review: Madison Ballet’s The Nutcracker, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 pm, Overture Hall
by Susan Kepecs

Nutcrackers are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike.  Madison Ballet’s very traditional version has trended up over the years, but two details made the ballet I saw Sunday afternoon stand out.  The lavish sets and costumes, purchased by artistic director W. Earle Smith in 2004 for Overture’s opening season, seemed far too extravagant then.  But the company’s finally grown into them, and now they supply spectacular production values.  The sets for New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, telecast on PBS last week, looked pale in comparison.  And while Madison Ballet doesn’t have starpower principals like Megan Fairchild and Ashley Bouder, it does have Marguerite Luksik, in the principal role that blends Snow Queen and Sugarplum Fairy into the sole character of Clara, grown up.
This is Luksik’s second year in the demanding part.  In 2010 her Snow was luscious, but the quality of her performance slipped slightly in the second act.  This year was different – Luksik, gracefully partnered by Brian Roethlisberger, whose last appearance with Madison Ballet was in Nutcracker 2003, turned in a pitch-perfect, superbly confident performance from start to finish.  She floated into her lifts, her footwork sparkled, her turns were crisp, her lines elegant.  Best of all she often elongated her phrases, creating a very neoclassical kind of kinesthethc tension by dancing a luxuriant split-second behind the music.
        I expected Luksik's brilliance after her impressive performance as Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream last spring, but the solidity of the rest of the show surprised me.  The Act I party scene – in any Nutcracker, not just Madison Ballet’s – always makes me wish Tchiakovsky’s magnificent score were attached to a better ballet.  The Stahlbaum’s 2011 holiday gala on the Overture Hall stage was no exception, but the company did a notably better job with it than usual.  In the young Clara role Maja Peterson, a Level 3B student at the School of Madison Ballet, displayed balletic chops well beyond those of her predecessors.  For Madison actor Sam White, in his third year as the slightly creepy magician Drosselmeyer, the art of presenting in the ballet idiom finally clicked; that’s key, since without a strong Drosselmeyer the story falls apart.  And Jacob Brooks blessed the soldier doll dance with impressive stage presence plus athletic triple pirouettes, cabrioles and tours en l’air. 
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker has finally blossomed, but the rats have been tops since the start.  The way they leap, kick and scratch in their grizzly rat suits is just plain from-the-heart funny, year after year.  No matter how much I may think I never want to see another Nutcracker, the rats, and Smith’s lush, slightly idiosyncratic neoclassical choreography for the Snow corps, always captivate me.  This year’s Snow corps, composed of advanced ballet students and professional company members, looked, for the most part, nicely unified.  But Rachelle Butler and Genevieve Custer-Weeks, who’ve been with Madison Ballet since the very beginning, stood out for their sumptious phrasing -- a distinction that was repeated in the Flowers corps in Act II.
The divertissements hit a few small snags.  This is the second year Smith’s done the Merliton dance, usually staged for two or three, as a solo.  Jennifer Holoubek, in her first appearance with the company, handled the piece well technically, but the sparkle she needed to meet the real challenge of this substantial dance was missing.  In spots I craved more brio from Brooks, who looked slightly uncomfortable when partnering Katy Frederick in the Spanish dance, which fit her like a glove, and when taking his bows.
Nevertheless, Brooks’ Russian variation was bold.  He bounded repeatedly into second position split jumps and whipped off a tricky string of cabrioles and tours en l’air that finished in front attitude, to the audience’s delight.  The Arabian pas was seamlessly sensual; tall, limber Shannon Quirk snaked seductively around partner Phillip Ollenburg.  Advanced School of Madison Ballet students Jon Stewart, Dierdre Turner and Marcella Van Kan turned in a terrific Thai dance.  And Megan Horton revisited the Dewdrop role in the Waltz of the Flowers, which she performed in 2009.  Horton is wispy, wide-eyed and graceful.  Her turns weren’t always perfect, but the way she sailed her grand pas de chats and grand jetés, festooning them with fabulously articulate arms, made her a joy to watch.