by Susan Kepecs
I’ve been so excited about the Million Signatures, and so bummed out about the Packers’ loss to the Giants last Sunday, that I almost forgot about the performing arts this week. But when the snow started to fly and the thermometer hit zero I locked myself inside with the websites for the city’s main performing arts palaces. After poring over what’s on tap, I’ve compiled my ticket picks.
Among the several opportunities to see dance performance, only Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Overture Hall, March 27) is on my list. The Ailey company will look somewhat different than it did last time it was here, at the old Madison Civic Center in 2002. Artistic director Judith Jameison, who took the reins from Ailey in 1989, right before he died of AIDS, retired last year. Her hand-picked successor, Robert Battle, is controversial – never a member of the company, he’s an outsider of sorts, though he choreographed several works for it while Jameison was at the helm. Battle has brought in nine new dancers, plus a number of new repertory works – though there’s no new choreography on the pre-announced Madison program. By audience demand Ailey’s “Revelations,” modern dance’s greatest hit, is on the bill for every stop in the 2012 North American Tour, which begins in February. The rest of the program changes up; in Madison it includes a lesser Ailey work from the 1970s, “Streams,” and two pieces Battle made for the company’s male dancers, “Takedeme” (1999) and “The Hunt” (2001). I haven’t seen either of these works, but The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella – by far the best dance writer in the country – depicts them as heavy-handed muscle ballet. I suspect this will not be my favorite Ailey company performance, but it’s an important one. The reviews of Battle’s first season have been mixed, though he’s only beginning to reveal his hand. What he does in the next few years will reveal whether modern dance, a twentieth-century innovation, has a future. Among the greats, Merce Cunningham’s company has closed up shop; Martha Graham’s has become a mere legacy troupe. Paul Taylor is still in command, though he’s 80-some years old. Only the Ailey company, always bold, is striking out in a new direction.
From the bounteous music options, I’ll take five. In the ‘60s, pianist Herbie Hancock (Overture Hall, March 15) was (along with Horace Silver) the potentate of hardbop piano. The hippie jazz freaks of Miffland were head over heels in love with him; we wore the vinyl rings off his greatest hits, “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island” and “Maiden Voyage;” all three are permanently etched in my memory banks. In the ‘70s Hancock followed Miles Davis, with whom he played while becoming a leader in his own right, down the fusion rabbit hole. In the decades that followed, Hancock experimented with pop and hip hop and ended up with a pair of schlocky albums stacked with guest stars like Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, Chaka Kahn and Juanes – River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007), an ode to Joni Mitchell (who appears on the album, which somehow won a Grammy), and The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock Records, 2010). So why is Hancock on my list? Chalk it up to old times’ sake, plus advertising – the video clip posted on Overture’s website, which I think is from 2006, shows the veteran hardbopper playing, yes, “Cantaloupe Island.” His band for this event is TBA, and there’s no telling what tunes he’ll choose, but there’s no doubt he can still just play jazz, when he’s so inclined.
On the other hand, the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (Wisconsin Union Theater, Feb. 4) – the very sophisticated Monday night house band at Manhattan’s eponymous West Village club – has always played honest-to-god jazz. This big band, with its 15 heavy-hitting players, was born in ’66 of the fortuitous collaboration between two forward-looking orchestral jazz giants: trumpeter and composer / arranger Thad Jones, who’d been a soloist with swing king Count Basie, and drummer Mel Lewis, who honed his chops in Stan Kenton’s jazz orchestra. The VJO brought big band jazz straight into the postbop epoch, and despite huge changes in the times and personnel, it’s still true to its own brand of big band swing.
The wacky, whip-smart, genre-busting jazz fusion band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones stops in Mad City (Union Theater, March 1) on its much-touted reunion tour. Banjo master Fleck and the Wooten brothers (“Futureman,” inventor of the drumitar, and virtuoso bassist Victor) have been together since the band’s very first gig on PBS in 1988, but this is the first time they’ve played with pianist / harmonicist Howard Levy since 1992. There’s a new album, Rocket Science (E1 Records, 2011), to go with the tour, though the promo lit implies the band’ll mix new tunes with hits from the three albums they made before Levy split.
Nigerian saxophonist / vocalist Seun Kuti and his high-energy brass and percussion rich big band Egypt 80 (Wisconsin Union Theater, April 12) blew the roof off the WUT on their US debut tour in June, 2007. Kuti told me in an interview then that he’s not as wild as his father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late, legendary king of Afrobeat and revolutionary politics. Maybe not, but like Fela, Seun is the consummate activist, taking the stage in support of myriad African causes. This month he's been in the midst of the Occupy Nigeria movement, performing his take-no-prisoners political songs onstage in Lagos during mass protests against the end of the fuel subsidies that help keep prices down for the underpaid masses – President Goodluck Jonathan’s concession to deregulation demanded by the IMF. A week into the protests Jonathan restored part of the subsidy, but count on Kuti to keep up the good fight.
I saved the best – my personal favorite – for last. When the going gets tough, as it will when state GOP challenges to the Recall signatures plus all those right wing corporate-funded ads aimed at the national presidential race heat up, we get the orishas’ blessings, right on time. Straight from Havana, Sierra Maestra – the group that rescued Cuban son from the dustbins of prerevolutionary history in the 1970s and has carried la musica forward ever since – plays Memorial Union’s Great Hall on March 23. I’m listening to their latest CD, Sonando Ya (2010, SASA Music), right now. It takes me to my happy place, despite the freezing fog outside. Yo soy sonera de corazón – I live to dance to Cuban son. You will, too. Aché.