Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dance Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Overture Hall

by Susan Kepecs
Tuesday night’s concert by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was like a litmus test to see whether twentieth century American modern dance has a future a decade-plus into the twenty-first. How to approach the legacy of this artform now that its master choreographers are gone has been a matter of great debate.  Martha Graham’s company plies revived works in the name of teaching a new generation some dance history.  A concert of restored works by multimedia pioneer Alwin Nikolais, the Ririe-Woodbury Nikolais Dance Project, seen at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2007, was nostalgic but weary.  And Merce Cunningham’s company took its final bows at New York’s Park Avenue Armory on New Year’s eve, 2011.  Only the Ailey company, among the great pioneers, has moved on under new directorship and with a substantial repertory of works by choreographers who’ve emerged since the master’s passing.  Last fall, Robert Battle – never an Ailey dancer, but a frequent company collaborator over the years – took the reins from Judith Jameison, who succeeded Ailey shortly before his death in 1989.  Tuesday night was the first opportunity I’ve had to see the company under Battle’s artistic direction.   
But the program was a mixed bag, dotted with disappointments.  The first piece, “Streams,” a minor but long Ailey piece from 1970 – a lushly lit leotard work with an electronic score and the sleekly angular vocabulary that was a hallmark of modern dance in that decade  (attitudes on supporting legs with bent knees, leg extensions in second position, leaps that land in falls) – was an odd selection.  It lacks entirely the powerful African-American identity of Ailey’s major works like “Revelations” (1960), “The River” (1970, a collaboration with Duke Ellington), or “Cry” (1971), the dance that made Judith Jameison a star.  In general “Streams” looked good.  But given the fabled strength of Ailey dancers, the occasional shaky standing legs supporting the arabesques on which much of the piece was built constituted a subtle flaw that could have been avoided with an extra touch of turnout.
Also on the bill were two pieces by Battle, neither of which I loved, and neither of which I’d seen before though both were made for the Ailey company in the ‘90s, under Jameison’s direction. “Takedeme” (1999) featured soloist Megan Jakel in a red top and fringed pants, doing what we used to call “sound theory” in Alwin Nikolais’ improv class in the 1960s.  Jakel’s rapid-fire jumps and poses, framed in a spotlight circle, looked precisely the way the soundtrack – Sheila Chandra’s “Speaking in Tongues II” – sounds.  The Chandra piece lends itself perfectly to this kind of choreography; Li Chiao Ping uses it to similar effect in her wacky holiday show, The Knotcracker.
Of Battle’s works I preferred “The Hunt” (2001), a tribal, drum-driven dance for six men in long, black split skirts lined in red satin that flared, flamelike, as the performers lept or spun, often in unison.  Heavily spiked with belly-to-belly jumps (backs arched, knees bent), flat-footed up-and-down jumps like little levitations, and wrenching upper torso contractions, the piece, with its spirit posession finale of frenzied yelling, jumping and falling, was the epitome of what New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella calls “muscle ballet.”   
The tensions and jazzlike structure of “Urban Folk Dance,” a 1990 rejection / attraction jitterbug for two couples by the late Ulysses Dove, were captivating.  It's worth noting that Dove studied at UW-Milwaukee in the late ‘60s with the Kirov’s Xenia Chlistwa (with whom more than a few of Tuesday night’s audience members also studied, either there or in Madison) before joining the Ailey company in 1973. Dove’s piece made stark contrast with “Journey,” a soft woman-spirit solo choregraphed by another late Ailey dancer, Joyce Trisler, and performed Tuesday night by Sarah Daley, one of the youngest dancers in the current company. 
But the soulful “Revelations” remains by far this company’s piece de resistance.  A dance-literate friend who accompanied me to the concert had never seen the master’s choreographic crown jewel; surprisingly, at least to me, she found it dated and ordinary. I’ve seen “Revelations,” an extremely painterly work loosely based on the choreographer’s own African-American childhood in Texas in the 1930s, many times, and I always find it lush and beautiful.  For me, the experience is akin to returning to the Uffizi for the Boticellis – an enriching act that’s worth repeat visits over the years.  Still, like the Boticellis, “Revelations” is now a museum piece. American modern dance, I’m afraid, is heading into history.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gran Baile at Great Hall -- the Much-Anticipated Return of Sierra Maestra

by Susan Kepecs

September, 1997, was a month of momentous events. The world wept, watching Princess Di’s funeral at Westminster Abbey; NASA landed a global surveyor on Mars, the first mission to the red planet in 18 years; Steve Jobs, who left Apple in 1985, returned to the company he co-founded 1976; a violent earthquake shook Umbria, Italy, crumbling the vaulted ceiling of Assisi's Basilica of San Francisco, and with it Giotto’s ethereal frescoes.  And son cubano – the musical heart and soul of the big island from the 1920s to the ‘50s – busted out from behind the blockade and took the U.S. by storm.  The album Buena Vista Social Club, recorded in Havana by Ry Cooder and World Circuit Records producer Steve Gold, was released to rave reviews.  And another Cuban son outfit, Sierra Maestra, played the Club Tavern in Middleton, Wisconsin.  I wasn’t there.  Just back from a frivolous trip to Umbria I was doing penance, locked away in the stacks at Memorial Library to appease my dissertation deities.  Cardinal Bar owner Ricardo Gonzalez, who introduced Cuban music to Madison in the 1970s and with whom I had a Cuban salsa band in the early ‘80s, wasn’t there either – he was in Texas, attending to family matters.  So for González, and for me, and for all you other son (or salsa) smitten souls out there, this Friday night, March 23, is a momentous occasion.  After the long hiatus imposed by W. Bush’s post-9/11 visa blockade on Cuban artists, Sierra Maestra finally returns to Madison for a bodacious baile at UW Memorial Union’s Great Hall.
Yes, you can salsa dance to it, but son is not salsa.  Salsa is a U.S. invention that put Latin rhythms on the disco floors of New York at the end of the 1960s and is still super caliente.  In fact, son montuno, a jazzed-up, urban form of Cuban son originated in ‘40s Havana by the great Arsenio Rodríguez, is the strongest and deepest of salsa’s roots.  
But son – even son montuno – is old-school.  While the Buena Vista phenomenon, augmented with Wim Wenders’ (1999) dreamy documentary about Cuba’s great old soneros – the ones on the Buena Vista albums, including Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González and Compay Segundo – went international, Cuba’s youth culture was going wild for a new sound – fast, rhythmically unpredictable, rap-influenced timba.  
Today the Buena Vista boom is over.  Almost all of the old soneros are dead.  And the musicians of Sierra Maestra, who come from a younger generation, are heroes. There would be no more son if they hadn’t rescued the genre from the dustbins of pre-revolutionary history. The 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution wreaked havoc on the music industry.  Many musicians fled to the U.S.; the old-time soneros left on the island faded into obscurity.  By the late 1960s a new, politically-themed, government-approved singer-songwriter style of music, la nueva trova, emerged.
At the same time, rebellious Cuban youth took gigantic risks, listening to American rock and jazz fusion, officially prohibited – Castro called it the enemy’s music – but accessible on the radio via Miami.  The band Irakere, begun in ’73 by Chucho Valdés, today one of the world’s greatest Afro-Cuban jazz pianists, created a groundbreaking mix of dance-worthy jazz fusion that coexisted with la nueva trova because, as Paquito D’Rivera once told me, “Fidel knows nothing about music.  He prefers sports.” 
And then, in 1976, a group of students at the University of Havana decided to play son.  They called their band Sierra Maestra, after the mountain range in eastern Cuba where both son and the Revolution were born.  Juan de Marcos González, who grew up next door to Compay Segundo (and who sought out the old-time soneros, introducing them to Cooder for the Buena Vista project), was a founding member.  “People thought son was old folks’ music,” Marcos told me some years back when I interviewed him in Havana, “but because we were at the university we were able to influence our generation.  They got to like son.”
Marcos, who plays the trés, a double-strung Cuban rhythm guitar, went on to lead the Afro-Cuban All Stars, whose first album was part of the Buena Vista series.  That always-evolving big band last played Madison (Overture Hall) in March, 2009.  Meanwhile Sierra Maestra keeps on keepin’ on, playing traditional son in its many-splendored varieties.  Today, five members of the original nine are still with the outfit.
How has the group changed over the years? Eduardo Himely (bass) and Alejandro Suárez (percussion), both with Sierra Maestra since the beginning, fielded that question and a few more, from Havana via email:

CulturalOyster: How has the group evolved?

Himely: Besides Alejandro and me, the original members who are still with us are Carlos Puisseax (güiro), Virgilio Valdés (vocals, maracas) and Luis Barzaga (vocals, clave).  Our newer members are Emilio Ramos (trés), Eduardo Rico (congas, bongos, cowbell), Jesus Bello (vocals) and Yelfris Valdés (trumpet).  I think the personnel can change, but not the project’s central objective.  On that we’ve been firm – we play son.  Of course there are modern influences in our sound – despite trying to faithfully reproduce themes from the 1920s and ‘30s in the 1970s, the result is a bit distinct from what you would have heard earlier in the century.  Sierra Maestra’s never been afraid to use genres or instruimental formats that aren’t exactly classical.  On some of our songs we use electric instruments; we’ve been known to do jazz fusions and Afro-Cuban descargas that aren’t strictly son.

CulturalOyster: Like the descarga “Anabacoa,” on Tibiri Tabara (World Circuit, 1997) or “Sangre Negra,” on your 2010 (SASA Music) album Sonando Ya, which was nominated for Best Traditional Tropical Album at the Latin Grammies that year. 

Himely:  Yes. Our willingness to play outside the box has helped us achieve our own sound, which can be very difficult when you’re dedicated to playing a certain type of music.   

CulturalOyster: Son cubano has a lot of variation, and a long history.  Tell me about that.

Suárez: It’s very difficult to synthesize the evolution of son, the most popular and important genre of Cuban music.  Son was born in Oriente – the eastern part of the island – and according to most musicologists its closest relative is the changüi, a rhythm native to Guantánamo, on Cuba’s eastern edge.  By the end of the nineteenth century changüi had spread across the island, carried by the mambises [guerilla fighters] during the War of Independence.  As changüi, or early son, evolved, it adapted to the regional music played in different parts of Cuba. By the early twentieth century son appeared in the cities, in new formats – trios, quartets, septets. In the 1920s, with the advent of the phonograph, son started to be recorded, and it became popular in urban dance halls along with new foreign dance music like the Charleston.
The early small-format son bands usually were composed of the trés, six-string guitar, various percussion instruments and marimbula [a hollow wood box with metal tongues that sort of sounds like a string bass].  By the late 1930s musicians started experimenting, replacing the marimula with standup bass and introducing trumpet and piano.  In the 1940s son bands reached their maximum expression – the most famous was Arsenio Rodríguez’ band.  The bands of that decade added a second or even a third trumpet, tumbadoras [congas], and montunos [looping, syncopated piano vamps], to the delight of the dancers.  This format, the son montuno, remained popular against the new dances of the 1950s – the cha-cha-cha, the mambo, etc. 
Today the son montuno [mostly in the hands of Sierra Maestra] persists, with new shadings like the occasional addition of trombones and saxes.  And much to our satisfaction, you can still hear the original sound behind it, played on the trés, guitar, and bongó. 

CulturalOyster: Since the 1990s, everything in Cuba is timba, timba, timba.  If you want to go dancing in Havana, that’s what you get.  Here in the U.S., too, Latin youth flock to clubs to dance to timba.  In Cuba you only find son in the streets of Santiago, or by the Cathedral in la Habana Vieja, where the tourists go.  So I want to know – how is Sierra Maestra doing in Cuba?  Have you managed to inspire a new generation of soneros on the island?

Suárez: Like you say, almost everything on radio or TV in Cuba is timba.  In the ‘80s, when our band took off, a number of son groups came along, some more popular than others.  I can say that Sierra Maestra influenced the generation that followed us, keeping the word for the next generation.  I can mention names – Jóvenes Clásicos del Son, Septeto Turquino, el Son del Nené – though they’re not big-name groups.  Sierra Maestra hasn’t escaped relative obscurity, either, though we did a national tour last year to commemorate our thirty-fifth anniversary and were thrilled to discover that Sierra Maestra is very much loved and respected.  We weren’t able to do a mass event, say, playing in a public plaza, since we lack an adequate sound system, but the people still love our music. 

So there you have it.  As my friend Victoria Gutiérrez said to me one night a couple of months ago, sitting at the Cardinal’s bar talking about what’s happening in Cuban music in general and the upcoming Great Hall baile in particular, “Sierra Maestra – son el son.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mini Review: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Union Theater, Thurs., March 1

by Susan Kepecs
I wasn’t going to write a review, thanks to a bad back and doctor’s orders not to sit at the computer this week.  But three days after Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones played the Union Theater, I’m still obsessed.  “Sunset Road” (from the concert, but originally recorded on the band’s first, eponomyously titled 1990 Warner Brothers album) loops continuously through my head.  While trying to do other things I find myself surfing the web, hunting YouTube videos – none of which do justice to the sheer genius of this band live in performance. But here’s a goodie, shot in Prague in ’09, featuring the original Flecktones – Fleck himself, the banjo maestro; piano man / blues harpist Howard Levy (aka Skokie Slim), and the Wooten Brothers – bass boss Victor and the indomitable FutureMan, inventor of the amazing Drumitar:

For the Mad City show wildman bluegrass fiddler and frequent Flecktone collaborator Casey Driessen joined the quirky quartet on several tunes. 
The Flectones’ unique sound defies classification, so I’ll just call it jazz. Thursday night the band carried off some of the most simpatico improvisation you could ever hope to hear. These players are alchemists wielding a host of harmonic structures and a bag of tricky time signatures, melding genres you know well into sparkly new material.  Sure, it’s hip to mix styles these days, but it's the Flecktones who're blasting the phenomenon we call music into the future.  No wonder the title of the new Original Flecktones album (Entertainment One Music, 2011) is Rocket Science.
Here’s how the blastoff sounds, rendered in brief, inefficient words: Fleck’s fleet-fingered licks travel full-circle, welding bluegrass, bop, and hints of the banjo’s West African roots.  Levy tosses snippets of “On Wisconsin” and Bach Cantata No. 147 ("Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring") into a Chicago-style blues harp solo that sounds like a whole band all by itself; he plays a wry stride piano run, then stretches out on a Monk-like solo, sneaking in a sole montuno.  Wooten’s funky, funky slap bass synchs with a thousand heartbeats, weaving whole cloth from a diverse, full-house audience.  FutureMan dances out polyrhythms, Drumitar in hand, sitting on a cajón that sports a pair of metal castanets for added nuance.
And that's not all.  The Flecktones play more for the joy of it than for the money. They ran at least twenty minutes over the standard 90-minute show before tearing into their finale, a Flecktoned take on the Beverley Hillbillies theme. The crowd, cheering throughout the show, went wild. Two roaring standing ovations brought two rafter-raising encores.  That’s proof enough for me.  The Union Theater, which shuts down for rennovation this summer, re-opens in fall, 2014.  From my opinionated perspective, the Flecktones belong on the bill for the grand re-opening season.