Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dance Preview: Li Chiao-Ping Takes on Nijinsky and Stravinsky in "Riot of Spring"

by Susan Kepecs
One hundred years ago avant-garde art broke the back of bourgeoisie innocence.  In New York, the Armory Show introduced European Cubist painters – notably Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp – to Americans just beginning to embrace the modest, democratic, industrial age realism of the “Ashcan” school most famously represented by Edward Hopper.  Duchamp’s Cubist / Futurist rendering of the female form in motion – “Nude Descending a Staircase” – utterly scandalized viewers accustomed to naked ladies depicted strictly in classical repose.  By 1913 you’d think the Europeans would’ve been more blasé about the new century’s creative innovations.  But as testimony to the power of live performance, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – Russians recently transported to Paris – shattered the sweet dreams of the Belle Epoch, causing the upper crust to lose its cool in the brand-new Theatre des Champs-Elysées.  The ballet that pulled this trigger was decidedly un-balletic – Rite of Spring, an imagined pagan ritual to propitiate the Slavic gods in which a virgin is chosen to dance herself to death, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to Igor Stravinsky’s unprecedented, explosive score.
    Lacking modern recording tools Nijinsky's choreography was lost, though the score was used by dozens of twentieth-century choreographers, including Martha Graham and Pina Bausch.  And in 1987, in Los Angeles, the Joffrey Ballet staged the full ballet, painstakingly reconstructed from dispersed scraps of information. Now, in its centennial year, homages to Rite of Spring are popping up like daffodils.  One blooms in Madison next weekend (May 3-5), when Li Chiao-Ping Dance premieres “Riot of Spring” in Overture’s Promenade Hall.  The similarities to Nijinsky’s ballet will be slim, but Li, a wizard of intellectual wit, says “Riot” is inspired by the “étonné moi!” spirit of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.
    In an interview with CulturalOyster Li spilled a few beans – just enough to whet the appetite – about  her upcoming program:

CulturalOyster: Partly because nothing shocks us any more, and partly because of today’s insidious social conformity, which I blame on Ronald Reagan, there’s not much experimentation in art any more.  Is that part of what inspired you to do your own Rite of Spring?

Li: The power of the music itself is the main reason – it just coincided with the centennial.  A few years ago I began listening to the music intently, and it just drew me in.  The other thing is I started teaching an art historical class on classical and modern dance forms that brought my attention to the question of what’s radical, and how hard it would be to be shocking any more.  I talk about Diaghilev’s spirit, I ask my students to put themselves out, to do something new and astonishing.  So it isn’t surprising that I’d come around to the idea of doing a piece related to Rite of Spring myself.

CulturalOyster: There are so many attempts to honor Rite of Spring on its 100th anniversary – did you anticipate that when you set out last year to do this piece?

Li: I can’t help but be affected by the other works – it would be irresponsible not to be aware of them – but I try not to let them influence me.  I brought Molissa Fenley in [to the UW Dance Department, of which Li is the current chair] for a panel discussion.  She had done a solo to Stravinsky’s entire score – what an incredible feat, to sustain that by yourself – and that brought up a question for me, a chichen-and-egg thing – how much of what I’m doing with this piece is embedded in the music, and how much is memory?  The story is universal, and I saw the Joffrey’s reconstruction when I was a grad student at UCLA, so the evolution of my piece began way back then.  

CulturalOyster: Does your “Riot” just imply Rite of Spring, or does it bear some real resemblance to the original ballet?

Li: I could just say wait and see – but there’s some resemblance in the music. The score is still there – the skeleton of it – but it’s performed, live, by just three musicians.  Carol Carlson [violinist] and cellist Maxfield Wollan-Fisher put a couple hundred hours into rearranging the music; the third musician is percussionist Sean Kleve.

For the choreography, what I did was deconstruct the idea of the “chosen one,” and then I considered selection – how people are included or excluded or part of a group or not, “the one” or not “the one.”  Those elements of the original ring loudest in my piece.  I appreciate diversity, I embrace it, but I know that difference is the very thing that keeps people separated.  The idea of “the other” threads through the piece, and lots of people are chosen.

CulturalOyster: Is there anything shocking about “Riot”? Are you anticipating riots in the theater?

Li: Wouldn’t that be fun?  I really did think about it, and I asked myself – do I want to do something shocking, just to be shocking?  I went through reams of paper thinking about how to do something to get the audience to throw tomatoes at the dancers, or if we should throw tomatoes at them instead, but I moved away from that.  I decided to do a more straightforward, more elegant, simpler piece.  I moved away from the burden of trying to shock and just made my own rendition – my treatment of the music and how I feel it and want to move to it. 

CulturalOyster: Who’s in this performance?

Li: I have some new dancers in the company, and I’m bringing in a guest, Christina Briggs Winslow – she and I danced together in a Heidi Latsky piece.  Christina’s been based in New York for the last 10 or 15 years and she happens to be a visiting artist in Milwaukee right now so it’s not so far to bring her in – I’m very excited to have her in this piece.  She’s a beautiful dancer, she was with Richmond Ballet and then became a modern dancer – she’s powerful, and she’s able to give me the clarity of line and athleticism and full-body movement I love. 

My community group is in the piece too, you’ll see them mostly in the beginning,  And I needed a lot of dancers, I wanted the impact of a large group, so “Riot” includes some of my students. 

CulturalOyster: Is “Riot” a full-length work, or are there other dances on the program?

Li: “Riot” is about 40 minutes long – the length of the music, with an interlude and a prelude.  There are three other pieces on the program.  I’m performing a solo set on me by [experimental New York choreographer] Sally Silvers, “L’Altra Notte,” which I premiered fifteen years ago and that was it.  I’ve always loved that piece, so I’m bringing it back.  It fits into the overall feel of “Riot.”  There’s a solo of mine, “Fin de Siècle,” that [Li Chiao Ping Dance soloist] Liz Sexe is performing.  And I’m screening a piece I made for my mother called “Daughter” – you’ve seen the live work, but I made a for-camera version that recently premiered at the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival and was chosen among the “best of the fest.”  I’m happy to be able to share that here.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's Spring Repertory Concert, "Exposed," Exposes Excellent Dancing

by Susan Kepecs
I’ve always loved repertory programs for the way they show dance, stripped to its basic elements, without the distracting noise of extravagant production.  Madison Ballet’s “Exposed,” last weekend (April 19-20) at the Bartell, is the best such program the fast-rising company’s done to date. 
I attended the opening night performance.  As the audience filed into the bohemian, urban Bartell – just the right venue for this kind of concert, and it’s the first time Madison Ballet’s used it – dancers onstage in sweatshirts and tutus walked through their steps, broke in new pointe shoes, fiddled with their costumes or just chatted, exposing exactly what dancers do between class and rehearsal or backstage before a show.
The opening work was the Madison premiere of George Balanchine’s “Valse-Fantaisie,” the first-ever Balanchine ballet in the company’s repertory. Balanchine’s works were revolutionary for their modernist sense of musicality – his penchant, subtly tied to mid-twentieth century American jazz, for choreographing on the beat, against the beat, behind the beat, with unexpected accents and syncopations that break from the Russian classicism of his youth.
 “Valse-Fantaisie,” a pure, storyless ballet set within the parameters of a classic corps and principals work, featured Marguerite Luksik and Brian Roethlisberger in the principal roles.  The 20-minute piece is remarkable for its exuberant flow. The corps – Rachelle Butler, Katy Fredrick, Jessica Mackinson and Shannon Quirk, in coral-colored tutus – waltzed across the stage, criss-crossing, in twos, or swept the diagonal all together, springing into pas de chats in perfect unison.  Even "Valse"'s pas de deux is more about dancing than partnering; the lifts are brief, the variations substantial.  Roethlisberger wore a look of sheer joy crossing the stage in bounding saut de chats; Luksik sparkled, zipping through a series of pique turns and grand jetes. The only fly in this delicious ointment was the lighting, a touch too harsh, a smidge too bright.
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith’s style, of course, is deeply rooted in Balanchine technique.  His own pure dance works on this program, both premieres, have clear rhythmic and choreographic similarities to “Valse,” though they’re tempered with his own substantially different sensibilities. 
Smith set the bar high in “Adagio de Quatres” – four generous neoclassical solos, each set to an opulent, slow score.  The dancers wore short dresses in different pastel colors, which gave the work a dreamy, soft look, but sustaining adagio movement is grueling. Fredrick, who danced to Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise No. 14 for Cello and Piano,” often holds back, but this work proved she’s an absolutely lovely dancer.  Her full-out, heartfelt performance revealed clean lines, crisp turns, expressive arms and a spot-on sense of timing. 
Smith gave Luksik, who favors fast, firey steps, a bigger challenge – Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings, Opus 11,” which is long and exquisitely slow.  On a penché arabesque, and again on a snail’s-pace turn, Luksik’s standing leg wobbled.  Not that it mattered – as always her pointework was precise, her extensions luxurious, her transitions chewy and elegant, and after each tricky sequence her adoring audience cheered.
Butler’s flawlessly executed dance to Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” was, like the music, somewhat quicker and spicier.  Slinky, hip-driven turns, snake arms that reminded me of Smith’s Nutcracker Arabian pas, escuela bolera foot flicks and exaggerated contrapposto positions meshed happily with juicily unhurried grand allegro steps.  Smith once told me he’s never choreographed a Spanish dance he likes, but this one’s a keeper. 
At the end of her first full season with the company, Quirk’s making a name for herself in this town.  Her solo to Tomaso Albinoni’s “Oboe Concerto in D Minor” was light and playful, with abundant direction changes and long strings of turns.  I wouldn’t expect to describe a tall, long-limbed dancer like Quirk as feathery, but her sailing attitude and arabesque turns, and the way she bourréed, floating her arms, were just that.
Smith’s bright finale for the whole company, “Street,” to a violin score that mixed Bach and Beethoven with contemporary urban street playing, was, on one level, part straight-up neoclassical ballet, part contemporary / hip hop – but even the hip-switching lunges, stomps and shimmies, and Beyoncé-esque booty rolls offered lengthened lines that looked utterly balletic.  A variation for Roethlisberger to an excerpt from “Für Elise” was strong, fast and fun, very dancey.  A sexy, syncopated pas by Butler and Quirk slipped seamlessly back and forth between the dual dance vocabularies that were the premise of this piece. A stellar pas de trois for Luksik, Roethlisberger, and company apprentice Cody Olsen was a marvel of tight unison work punctuated by Luksik’s sassy attitude turns.  At one point Roethlisberger and Olsen passed Luksik through the air – more subtly than in the company’s March production of Dracula, where she’s really tossed, but daring nonetheless.  
In the sense that “Valse” and Smith’s works bore relation to one another, the sole piece on the program by guest choreographer and UW-Madison dance prof Marlene Skog, “Swans” (2010), stood out.  The work is set to Madison composer / violinist Carol Carlson’s adept deconstruction of Saint-Saen’s “Dying Swan,” played live onstage.  As a choreographer Skog owes as much to modern dance technique as to ballet, and in contrast to pure dance her piece makes a specific point.  I knew in advance that “Swans” was Skog’s reaction to the 2010 BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast, but even though there were no program notes the piece is moving and vivid; you couldn't fail to grasp the imagery. 
Quirk and Olsen turned in a superb rendering of this work, which is decidedly different from anything I’ve seen them do before.  Olsen was elastic, moving as though through tar; from a deep second position plie he straightened one leg, then the other, arms overhead, circling his torso.  Quirk, a white feather painted on the back of her black unitard, absolutely nailed the sensation of a big bird exerting its will against a rubbery, imprisoning substance; she flailed in second position on pointe like a mired stork, achieving the long, angular leg and wing extensions of herons or pelicans by generating arm and leg movements from deep in the core, the way Alonzo King’s dancers work. 
          “Exposed” exposed this: Dracula’s impressive success at its March premiere was no fluke. Madison Ballet really has arrived. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tuku Music!

by Susan Kepecs
Afropop superstar Oliver Mtukudzi – they call him Tuku in his native Zimbabwe – reportedly died last December.  But hallelujah!  The rumors were patently false.  Mtukudzi celebrates the pre-release of his SIXTY-FIRST album, Sarawoga, this Friday at the Wisconsin Union Theater at the Sett, Union South. 
Mtukudzi was in Madison, on the Union Theater World Stage, with the second Acoustic Africa tour in February, 2011.  That time I managed to get an interview with him; this time around, no such luck.  When I first posted this piece I didn't even have the info on whether or not Mtukudzi was coming with his regular backup band, the Black Spirits, or if Sarawoga would be available for sale at the show.  Now, thanks to Ryan Dawes at rock paper scissors, inc., here's a news flash: there will be four of the seven Black Spirits with "Tuku" on this tour -- and yes, they'll play some tunes from Sarawoga, and you'll be able to buy the album.  
      Besides that, all I can tell you this: he was great in 2011 – definitely my favorite in the Acoustic Africa lineup.  On that point I may be biased; I discovered Miriam Makeba when I was a teenage beatnik, and I’ve had a jones for the music of southern Africa ever since.  The "Tuku" brand is exciting – it has echoes of the Township sound, but it’s flavored with other spices. Mtukudzi, a master guitarist, created his sound from Zimbabwe’s polyphonic m’bira, chimurenga (Zimbabwean social justice music), the swift Harare beat called jit and the much more familiar South African mbaquanga, itself a mix of Zulu jive and township jazz with Xhosa tribal twists.     
“There’s a lot of different styles in southern Africa,” Mtukudzi told me in 2011.  “The border that splits us doesn’t matter.  The same tribes are everywhere in the area – these people are the same people, and their art overlaps the borders.” 
Mtukudzi’s career began in the late 1970s, when Zimbabwe was still Southern Rhodesia, under British colonial rule.  He was active in the resistance to white rule, and in his early days he penned some liberation songs.  Roberto Mugabe, a leader of that resistance, became the new independent Republic of Zimbabwe’s first prime minister in 1980, and then its president.  (At 89 he’s still Zimbabwe’s president, though he’s up for re-election this year). 
Mugabe overplayed his hand, at least in the eyes of the all-powerful First World elites; his avid land redistribution policies of the late 1990s resulted in the withdrawal of European support.  Zimbabwe’s economy crashed.
When Mtukudzi’s “Wasakara” – it means “you’re getting old” – came out, on his album Bvuma, released in 2001, Zimbabweans understood it as a plea for Mugabe to step down. It became an anthem for the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.  Mugabe at that time was a Marxist strongman, but not yet a despot – his heavy-handed crackdowns on the MDC came later, in the face of elections in 2005 and 2008. 
According to the all-knowing Internet Mtukudzi’s 2001 Shona lyrics, adpoted by the MDC, go more or less like this: “Accept it, you are old.  Admit it, you are wrinkled, you are worn out.  What does it mean to get old?”
And from that, people deduced that at the start of the new millinneum “Tuku music” was as political as it had been in the late 1970s.  It’s something Mtukudzi denies.  “The song is about getting old,” he told me.  “The opposition party used that one line from that one song to suit themselves.”
Mtukudzi insists that his postcolonial songs aren’t political.  Still, he said, music can be used as a tool.  His songs carry social messages about the plight of women, or standing up and taking responsibility, or the devastation of AIDS, or appreciating what one has.  He sings his substance-laden lyrics in a slightly gravelly tenor, laying the words over irresistable, hip circlin’, booty-shakin’ dance music.  It sweetens the message, and drives it home.