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.