by Susan Kepecs
The spring performing arts season is about to start, and here’s why you need it: This is end times for liberal arts education. The UW-Madison’s pitching to pick a CEO for Chancellor (to replace interim and former chancellor David Ward, who’s a geographer and who was preceeded by a long line of distinguished intellectual / academics). And – alerted to this phenomenon by Jim Hightower, who addressed the same issue at the University of California in his one of his Common Sense commentaries on WORT last week – I’ve discovered that the University of Wisconsin now has a marketing director, whose job is to turn this institution of higher learning into a commercial brand. The transnational corporations that are running the world – “corporations are people, my friend” – are doing their damndest to turn us all into soulless little robots. While the rich get richer, one of the few ways you, a member of the 99%, can cling to your humanity is through what’s left of the arts. And though the offerings for ’12 were fewer than usual, there’s an abundant number of whopping, life-affirming shows coming up.
The LINES / Hubbard Street Dance collaboration – an unusual amalgam – comes to Overture Hall on March 20. The two companies are strikingly distinct; LINES’ cosmic ballets and Hubbard Street’s contemporary repertory works anchor two ends of the twenty-first century dance performance spectrum. Last year Hubbard Street artistic director Glenn Edgerton asked his LINES counterpart, Alonzo King, whose depth as a choreographer is second to none, to create a work for both companies. King, intrigued, responded with “Azimuth,” which premieres in Berkeley and Chicago in February and mid-March, moving on to Madison immediately thereafter. Each company also presents a work or two from its own repertory, so you’ll be able to see how the organizations are different, as well as how they mesh.
After its near-hiatus last year Madison Ballet offers two programs this spring, starting with Dracula (world premiere March 8, Overture’s Capitol Theater; runs through March 10). Various companies have created original Draculas over the last couple of decades; Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith's been devising his version of the Gothic vampire tale for the last five years. Smith, a versatile choreographer, has explored the contemporary, sexy side of ballet in various repertory works including “Expressions,” from the “Evening of Romance” program on Valentine’s Day, 2011, and “Night Dances,” which premiered at Overture’s gala opening in 2004. Dracula, a steampunk ballet with an original rock score by Madison composer Michael Massey, is Smith’s first full-length narrative effort in this vein. From the looks of it, this production will be fun – and the most artistically challenging work to date for this bright, fast-growing company.
Madison Ballet’s 2013 repertory program, “Exposed,” runs at the Bartell, a new venue for the company, on April 19-20. I’m partial to these shows for the opportunity they afford to see dancers dance, without all the trappings of a story production. In addition to a few new works, Smith’s revisiting his short, lovely pas de deux to Caccini’s “Ave María,” from 2008; the dance originally was set on the elastic Rachelle Butler, who reprises the role. Also on this program is George Balanchine’s little gem of pure ballet “Valse – Fantasie,” the rights to which Madison Ballet recently acquired from the Balanchine Trust.
Li Chiao Ping Dance premieres “Riot of Spring” – Li’s first new work since Knotcracker in 2010 – at Overture’s Promenade Hall, May 2-5. It’s a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary Rite of Spring (score by Stravinsky, choreography by Nijinsky), an ode to tribal ritual that sparked an uprising at its Paris premiere by shocking the Belle Epoch bourgeousie expecting classical ballet. Li, a wizard of intellectual wit, says “Riot of Spring” is inspired by the “étonné moi!” spirit of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, for which Stravinsky’s work was commissioned. “Riot” will run over half an hour, and Li expects to premiere another work or two on this program. As she often does, she’ll augment her professional company with some performers from her community group, a practice that adds layers of postmodern nuance to her definition of dance.
Two Afropop superstars who’ve both visited Madison on Acoustic Africa tours deliver divine inspiration for tough times. South African singer / songwriter / guitarist / activist Vusi “the Voice” Mahlasela wields his velvety, rangy voice and the soothing, Soweto-style rhythms and harmonies of his songs in the service of social justice on February 15 at the Wisconsin Union Theater at The Sett, Union South. Mahlasela grew up hanging out at his grandmother’s sheebeen speakeasy listening to mbaquanga and Motown. And like his revered predecessors Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela, Mahlasela, born into apartheid, is a freedom fighter. Mahlasela cites Makeba – and also Chilean revolutionary songmaker Victor Jara (who was murdered in ’73 when Chilean president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a CIA-supported coup) – as his principal influences.
Oliver Mtukudzi – a living legend of a singer / songwriter / guitarist from Zimbabwe – plays the Wisconsin Union Theater at the Sett on April 12. Unlike Mahlasela, and despite myriad political-economic problems in his homeland, Mtukudzi insists he doesn’t write outright resistance music. But the joyful, borderless sound he calls “Tuku music” fuses the relevant, responsible lyrics of chimurenga (Zimbabwean social justice music) with gentle, polyphonic m’bira, the swift Harare beat called jit and South African mbaquanga, itself a mix of Zulu jive, township jazz and Xhosa tribal twists.
I’ve heard a rumor or two I can’t yet confirm about big-time imported Latin music acts, so cross your fingers, do a little dance to the deities and stay tuned. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the club calendars – especially the Cardinal Bar’s. The Cardinal, in fact, is saoco city on February 15, when two superlative bands play back to back – El Clan Destino (for Happy Hour, 5-7 PM), followed by Madisalsa at 10. (If you’re loca like me you can catch El Clan, speed down to the Sett for Vusi Mahlasela, and make it back to the Bird before the end of Madisalsa’s first set.)
In the realm of straight-ahead black American music (thanks for the term, Nicholas Payton), NEA jazzmaster and mainstream sax heavyweight Branford Marsalis and his quartet play Overture Hall on February 28. My instinct is to rebel against concert-hall expositions of music that’s best enjoyed in a nightclub – or at least a funky little venue like Music Hall, where the Ninety Miles Project knocked my socks off in November. But you can’t really go wrong with Marsalis. His latest album’s got a catchy title – Four MFs Playin’ Tunes – it’s slick, and the reviews are all raves.
A somewhat more intimate jazz performance is in the offing when rising young pianist / composer Gerald Clayton and his trio play the Wisconsin Union Theater at Town Center in the Institutes for Discovery on April 6. The venue’s something of an experiment for the temporarily homeless theater, but Clayton, who comes from a jazz family background and who already has three Grammy noms under his belt, is definitely someone to watch as mainstream bop marches into the future.