| Smith (right, in red shirt) rehearsing Dracula at the |
Madison Ballet studio last spring. © SKepecs 2013
by Susan Kepecs
In 2004, when Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith first told me he was planning to create a professional neoclassical dance company in Madison, I pretty much didn’t believe him. This has always been a modern dance town, thanks to the fact that the UW-Madison Dance Department famously was the first academic home of the Terpsichorean arts in the United States. Off-campus modern companies were having some success – Kanopy’s been around since the mid-70s, and Li Chiao-Ping was doing interesting work. But there’d never been hordes of balletomanes here, demanding steady diets of classical dance. Besides that, since there’d never been work for professional classical dancers in Madison there just weren’t any; the few locally-trained kids with oodles of talent went on to train and dance in bigger cities. And it’s hugely expensive to start a ballet company from scratch. But against these long odds, Madison Ballet today is a dream come true. The company’s sparkle these last few seasons is proof-in-the-pudding (you can find my reviews elsewhere on this blog) – and 2013-14 looks better yet.
The company’s transformation from community youth outfit to new jewel in the city’s classical arts crown was long and difficult. You may remember that the original Madison Ballet was dedicated to an annual Nutcracker, performed by students from around the county and spiffed up with the addition of one-night-stand guest principals. Launching the School of Madison Ballet, in the fall of 2004, was the first step toward a more professional model. Smith created a pre-professional studio company composed of advanced student dancers, but performances still bore small resemblance to bona fide ballet. It takes practically forever to build a company from the ground up, and guest principals remained the key to putting on passable productions. In 2007 Smith decided to hire young professionals, which opened up new choreographic vistas, but he could only afford to bring them in for a few weeks prior to each performance. Madison Ballet got bogged down in this pattern when the Crash of ’08 took its toll, but finally, in 2011-12, with many short-stint dancers returning regularly, the company started to gel.
And then, last season, with the advent of resident dancers on full season contract, the metamorphosis was complete. A highly polished Nutcracker in December was followed by the world premiere of Smith’s steampunk Dracula ballet in March, and capped with an April repertory concert featuring the company’s premiere of a sparkling little gem of pure ballet, George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. The Balanchine Trust decides which companies can be licensed to perform the twentieth-century master’s works, based on the director’s credentials and the company’s capability – and Valse is the first Balanchine ballet Smith’s acquired, so its performance here marked a milestone for Madison Ballet.
This year the resident company, as well as the number of company apprentices, is expanding, and while Madison Ballet still doesn’t have a full complement of male dancers on season contract, the men who’ve been the company’s standout soloists and principals over the last few years will return for a month at a time on a per-performance basis. Moreover, this will be Madison Ballet’s most substantial season yet, with two full-length story ballets and not one but two repertory programs.
Just in time for Halloween, the season kicks off with the return of Smith’s Dracula, Oct. 23-26 at Overture’s Capitol Theater. It’s a sizzler of a ballet – sexy and chic, with a spooky, industrial set by APT’s Jen Trieloff and a robust rock n’ roll score by MAMA-winning Mad City composer / keyboardist Michael Massey.
“Dracula’s back by popular demand,” Smith says, “and staging it again this fall gives us the opportunity to tweak the parts of it that still need a little work.” Next year – the 2014-15 season – Dracula goes on tour. That’ll be another milestone for Smith’s burgeoning young company.
Smith’s very traditional Nutcracker shows a startlingly different side of Madison Ballet. The quintessential Christmastime production has been lovely lately. It’s the same old corny nineteenth century story it’s always been, and like Nutcrackers everywhere it’s still an opportunity for ballet students to strut their stuff. But fronted by the company’s talented full-time professionals, it’s shed its amateur skin. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro John Demain, makes Tchiakovsky’s stupendous score glisten like winter wonderlands. The Nutcracker runs Dec. 14-24, in Overture Hall.
And don’t forget Nutty Nut. Like many other companies around the country, Madison Ballet now turns one performance from its annual Nutcracker run into a community-linked, pop-cultural spoof. Doing Nutty Nut breaks up the routine for the artistic director, the dancers, and the audience alike. It gives everyone something new to chew on, while still being a holiday celebration. It’s a reason to go twice – though you might want to leave the kiddies home on Nutty night. Last year’s Nutty Nut – the company’s first – was largely an experiment, but some of it – OK, maybe even most of it – made me laugh so hard there were tears in my eyes. Parts of last year’s production will remain, Smith says. “But it’ll get updated with current events – it’ll be very topical.”
Last season, for the first time, Madison Ballet offered its repertory concert at the Bartell instead of at one of Overture's smaller venues. The Bartell’s intimate, hip / urban ambience was perfect for this nicely meshed mix of classic Balanchine (Valse Fantasie) and experimental, contemporary balletic works by Smith and UW-Madison dance prof Marlene Skog. The audience, sitting close, got to see what ballet really looks like – ethereal movement, plus effort and sweat.
Madison Ballet stages both of its repertory concerts at the Bartell this season. The first of these runs Jan. 31 – Feb. 1 (three performances in two days). Details are in the works, but it’s a showcase for a broad range of choreographers – some local, some from out of town, some emerging, some established, and all TBA – who'll set selected works on Madison Ballet’s dancers. “Each piece has to be a good vehicle for my dancers; it has to stand alone and also fit within the context of the program,” Smith says. “The dancers have to like what they’re dancing, but I also want them to be challenged by it.”
A concert of this kind shakes things up, Smith adds. “We always want to be defining ourselves – that keeps it interesting. We always want to be growing, as artists and as an organization, artistically speaking. Bringing in outside choreographers extends our reach in all those ways.”
The content of the second repertory concert, Mar. 21-22 (three shows), is also still in the works, but Smith plans to resurrect his airy little set of Balanchine-y dances to Bach’s French Suite #3, which premiered on Madison Ballet’s “Pure Ballet” repertory program in the spring of 2008. He’ll also choreograph at least one brand-new work, probably something contemporary and upbeat, with which to close the show, and the season. It’s a format he’s had terrific success with in the past; in “Street,” the finale for the 2013 repertory show, he mixed neoclassical ballet and hip-hop, creating a seamless and spunky new vocabulary that, in the end, was thoroughly balletic. To cap the 2013-14 season Smith says he’s thinking about using a compilation of ‘60s tunes, which, to my Boomer brain, is the best dance music ever.
The kicker for this concert, though, will be the addition of a second Balanchine work to Madison Ballet’s repertory – Who Cares?, an urban, Jazz Age, nightlife ballet that the Master choreographed to seventeen Gershwin songs in 1970. What we’ll see is the shorter “concert version,” a set of seven dances that omits the ensemble pieces and includes only the principal variations and pas de deux.
Doing Who Cares? is momentous for Smith, who danced in this ballet many times over the course of his stage career. “It was one of the best times I ever had onstage, dancing to Gershwin,” he says.
Having watched Smith work over the years, it’s obvious that dancing Who Cares? also is part of what formed him as a choreographer. The sexy, nightlife language, cast in Balanchine’s neoclassical style, is an aesthetic Smith’s returned to over and over, in works like “Night Dances,” made for Overture’s 2004 gala opening, and “Expressions” – a suite set to tunes from Madison chanteuse Jan Wheaton’s eponymous 2005 album, which premiered in Madison Ballet’s 2011 "Evening of Romance" repertory concert at Overture’s Capitol Theater.
“My company's going to love dancing this ballet,” Smith says of Who Cares?. He’s going to love staging it, too, and you just can’t go wrong with all that l-o-v-e. Madison Ballet’s second repertory concert next spring should be a fine finale to a highly rewarding season.