Monday, December 10, 2012

Hometown Ballerina Steps Down from the Stage

    Custer-Weeks as Dewdrop                                                   ©Andrew Weeks   
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s 2011 Nutcracker definitively marked the company as a fully developed, bona fide arts organization that would do any mid-size city proud; this year’s production (Overture Hall, Dec. 15-24), which may be even better, is special in a different way.  Madison-born ballerina Genevieve Custer-Weeks, whose professional career stretched from here to Chicago to California, will be the company’s first principal / soloist to retire from the stage. Custer-Weeks, a master of nuanced musicality and interpretive skill, performs the Dewdrop solo choreographed for her by Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith in 2004, for his Nutcracker’s debut in the brand-spanking new Overture Hall.  It’s painful to see a favorite dancer retire, but Dewdrop’s the perfect cap to an excellent career.  Custer-Weeks’ very first stage performance – as a Nutcracker bonbon (in Smith’s production the little bonbons are called puchinellas) – occurred 22 years ago, next door to Overture Hall in the old Oscar Mayer Theatre.  If you haven’t been here long enough to remember, today that venue is Overture’s beautifully restored Capitol Theater.
“Most people don’t get to tie it up that neatly – to have a career that comes so full circle,” says Custer-Weeks. 
A look back at that circle is obviously in order.

Ballerinas usually retire between 29 and 34; Custer-Weeks, who’s 30, is right on schedule.  “It just feels like its time,” she says. “I feel sad, but that’s good – I want to be sad about leaving the stage.”  
It’s a sentimental experience for Smith, who started working with Custer-Weeks when she was 16, too.  “Up until now,” he says, “it’s been me and all my peers retiring.  This is the first dancer who’s worked substantially with me who’s stepping down.  It makes me feel old, but more importantly it’s a passing of the baton. It’s very touching and emotional – I didn’t think it would affect me the way it has.  We have a great bond.  I love Genevieve as a dancer, as a person, as a friend.
Smith choreographing Cinderella
on Custer-Weeks  ©SKepecs
Smith’s most cherished memory from this long association comes from Madison Ballet’s first production of Cinderella, in 2005. “I choreographed the title role on Genevieve and for her,” he says.  “In those days all I had in terms of local dancers was a pre-professional studio company.  Genevieve was on contract then with Oakland Ballet, and I brought her in as a guest artist. Because I knew her so well it was very special to be able to coach her in a major role.  It was a huge deal for Genevieve, too, because it was the first time she’d performed a principal role in her home town, and she had to carry the whole ballet by herself.  She was very nervous, and I was very proud.  Not many ballerinas can say they’ve done a lead role in a full-length ballet.”
By the time Custer-Weeks met Smith, she was a polished dancer; her training began in Madison, with Kate McQuade and Charmaine Ristow, and then, when she turned 14, with Daniel Duell at the prestigious pre-professional academy Ballet Chicago.  Duell was impressed.  “Genevieve arrived at the School of Ballet Chicago, already a skilled dancer and a naturally expressive artist,” he says.  “It didn’t take long for me to be inspired by her for choreography.  Within a few months I created on her the Arabian solo that remains intact in our Nutcracker to this day.  After that, Genevieve performed many principal, soloist and ensemble roles in the demanding repertoire of the Ballet Chicago Studio Company.  As a dancer she showed great diversity and a deep understanding of how to deliver a role onstage. 
“It was always a particular pleasure to choreograph on Genevieve,” Duell continues. One of his fondest memories was making a solo for her to the Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  Genevieve's strong, soft pointe work, her beautifully flowing movement quality, and her deeply expressive artistry lit up every moment and made this celestial piece all it could be.” 
Her retirement, Duell concludes, “means the loss of a uniquely expressive artist from the dance world.  Her grace and warmth will be a permanent memory for me, as well as for all audiences who have seen her perform.” 
              Having grown up in the Midwest, Custer-Weeks went west -- in 2002 she signed with Oakland Ballet, then under the artistic direction of Karen Brown, former principal ballerina at Dance Theatre of Harlem.  "Genevieve was a delight to work with at Oakland Ballet," Brown says.  "When considering hiring her I called Daniel Duell, whom I'd known during his performance career at New York City Ballet.  He assured me that the attributes that attracted me during her audition -- style, grace, talent and enthusiasm -- were constants.  My fondest memory is the way she was always fully engaged in exploring the nuances of characterization in the diverse works presented by Oakland Ballet.  That was never more evident than in the creation of Ella -- a world premiere tribute to the musical genius of Ella Fitzgerald choreoraphed by five-time Tony-nominated choreographer Donald McKayle, with music by celebrated jazz composer Marcus Shelby and live performances by Ledisi.  Genevieve's character in the pas de trois with Preston Dugger and Sara Hayes went from sultry to seductive, to protective to vulnerable and demanding.  I wish her the best in "retirement," and I am proud that she has found a way to share her talent and artistry with others."

Custer-Weeks shared her own “top ten” reminiscences with me in an interview last week.
In Concerto Barocco (center)
“With Ballet Chicago we got to do an incredible amount of Balanchine repertory, so as a teen I was doing Concerto Barroco, Serenade, Apollo, Stars and Stripes – ballets people kill to dance.  In particular, I feel like I grew up in Concerto Barroco. I danced it my entire time there, in different roles, so I could feel the evolution – it taught me so much! 
“When I started doing Dewdrop here, I was still at Ballet Chicago.  I was 16, and it was the first version of the solo in the current Nutcracker production.  I haven’t done it every single year – I’ve taken breaks and come back to do it again.  I’ve never had anything else like that – a role I’ve danced so much over time.  You get really comfortable, which gives you a lot of freedom – you can really play with something like that. 
“Another work that’s close to my heart is the Bach Prelude Dan Duell choreographed on me – I was dancing professionally and went back to Ballet Chicago as a guest.  It appeared to be so simple – you just step up on pointe and roll down – but it required such control!  It taught me a lot, and it was a pleasure to be a grownup and be back in the studio with Dan. 
Titania in Midsummer, 2011
 © Andrew Weeks
“I’ve loved the Titania role in Peter Anastos’ Midsummer Night’s Dream – I’ve done that three  times over the years with Madison Ballet. I danced in a version of Midsummer as a kid, and it seemed so magical – I was enchanted by all the fairies in the forest then, and years later it was enchanting to be on the other side as a professional dancer.
“The whole time I was at Oakland Ballet [2002-2006] was special, but in Donald Kayle's ballet Ella, choreographed for the company’s 40th Anniversary [fall, 2005], I was in a pas de trois to “Begin the Beguine. ”  It was incredible – a very different style than I was used to.  It’s always fun when a new choreographer comes in and does something new on you.  I was doing classical repertory at Oakland and I don’t think the directors saw me doing very saucy stuff like that – it was really fun.  [It's worth noting that like Karen Brown, Bay Area reviewer Toba Singer was impressed, lauding Custer-Weeks’ “unflinching precision, attack and verve” in this dance].
“Actually, the whole experience of Oakland’s 40th anniversary program was a highlight.  There were excerpts from Bronislava Nijinska’s famous works originally choreographed for Ballets Russes in the 1920s.  One of our ballet masters there was an expert on setting those pieces.  I was the bride in an excerpt from Les Noces, and I understudied the female lead in Les Biches.  And I got to be one of the dancehall girls in Billy the Kid.  It was like living what you read in the dance history books – really special.” 

Night Dances (Custer-Weeks in front)
© Andrew Weeks
Oakland went on hiatus during the 2004-05 season, which interrupted Custer-Weeks’ career there.  She started freelancing, which she’s done ever since.  The Overture Center opened in fall of ‘04, and Smith choreographed “Night Dances” for the inaugural gala.  
“Night Dances” was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Custer-Weeks.  “Having grown up here, and performing with big-name soloists – it was such a huge deal I was afraid I might pass out on stage.  I was dancing with Sandy Brown, Margo McCann and Michael Clark, and then I did the solo in the second movement – it opens with a lot of jumps and then everyone leaves and you’re just out there alone, standing in B-plus and hoping the conductor waits for you.  It looked light and fun but it was full of jumps and turns – I never stopped moving.  I was really proud of it, but it was maybe the most nervous I’ve ever been. Marcelo Gomes was here for that, too, to do the White Swan pas de deux with Sandy – he said nice things about my solo to Earle, which made my life, ‘cause I think he’s incredible.
“That same season, I also did Dracula with Inland Pacific Ballet for the first time [the second was in 2007].  My favorite thing about Dracula was the chance to work with the choreographer, Arturo Fernández.  He has an incredible style, influenced by Alonzo King [Fernández is the ballet master at LINES] but also very much his own. I loved every minute of the chance to step so far outside my comfort zone, both choreographically and in terms of the character I was playing – one of Dracula’s brides. 
Cinderella (2010)    ©Andrew Weeks   
“Also during that season – spring of ’05 – Earle choreographed Cinderella.  That’s a highlight for sure. Titania in Midsummer’s a great role, you get to be a principal, but you’re not carrying the whole story like you are in Cinderella. Right before the opening, I burst into tears.  That first time, David Bier and I were the only principals – the rest of the dancers were all in the studio company.  It’s so different now that Madison Ballet is a professional company.  I love that ballet – Cinderella starts in bare feet, and then you put on your pointe shoes and there’s a pas de deux, a solo, another pas de deux. Last time we did it [March, 2010] was the third time, and for me maybe the most intimidating, because it was my first stage performance after my son Sullivan was born. But by then I had all this affection for the character, and such a strong sense of the story I wanted to tell – I remember very clearly how the first performance of that run really clicked.  It was extraordinary.
Tiger Lily                                          © Andrew Weeks
“I was Tiger Lily in Earle’s Peter Pan – he only did that ballet once, in ’08, between the second and third productions of Cinderella.  It was different from other things I’d done with Earle – very neoclassical.  It reminded me of Balanchine’s Stravinsky ballets.  And Tiger Lily is very fierce.  I loved the strength of the character. 
“Some of the most fun I’ve had onstage was two years ago in Madison Ballet’s repertory show, “Evening of Romance.  I did the first solo in the last piece, "Expressions," with Jan Wheaton and her trio live onstage – the song was “Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man of Mine.”  It’s hard to get to that place in performance where you’re completely relaxed, but it happened, probably because I’d done a nine-minute solo earlier in the evening.  There was just this jazz band onstage and it felt very organic and natural, and I really enjoyed doing it.”

Ok, that’s eleven stories, not ten. Let’s make it a dozen – come cheer on Custer-Weeks as she delights her hometown audience one last time.  And yes, there’s more ballet fabulousness in her future, though of a slightly different sort.  Not all retired dancers stay close to the field, but in 2008 Custer-Weeks, who lives in the Bay Area with her husband, photographer Andrew Weeks, and son Sullivan, now three and a half, opened the Tutu School – ballet for tiny tots and kids to age eight.  Right now there are two Tutu Schools, in San Francisco and Larkspur (Marin County).  Kids love it – the reviews on just glow – and Tutu School Franchises just launched this fall.  Bringing the fairytale ballet dreams of new generations to fruition will undoubtedly keep Custer-Weeks on her toes for years to come. 

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