Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best Performances of 2013

by Susan Kepecs
2013 goes out the way it came in – with a never-ending parade of gun-toting TeaPublicans, “free trade” dealers, safety net slashers, climate change deniers and dark money sugar daddies. In the halls of power the Reagan paradigm’s grown so fat it refuses to budge.  The peoples’ protests make the news, but they never make much change.  The only place insurgencies still happen is in the arts.  Two breakaway leaders came through town this year.  Their transcendental offerings top my list.
           © Frank Thibault
Alonzo King, who leaps over the traditional barriers of ballet with his San Francisco-based company, LINES, was at Overture Hall, in a joint performance with Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance, on March 20. King goes where no choreographer has gone before – straight to the abstract truth behind both the artform and the themes on which his dances rest. LINES' extraordinary dancers are fluid, contemporary, remarkably strong, emotionally resonant.  In my mind’s eye I can still conjure up images of them dancing in “Rasa” (2007), the lone LINES work on the program (the rest of the bill was filled with a piece by Hubbard resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, and a dance King created for both companies, “Azimuth”).   And “Rasa,” a meditation on Hindu deities with a score by tabla master Zakir Hussein, is a signature King work.  Like magic it obliterates the line between pure dance and theatrical performance, and reveals the essences of these ancient entities in all their multifaceted glory without resort to a single concrete detail.

                                                                                                                  Vásquez, third from left.       © SKepecs 2013
Papo Vázquez and his Mighty Pirates Troubadores (Music Hall, as part of the Isthmus Jazz Series under the ausipces of the Wisconsin Union Theater, November 14) are at the forefront of the new Latin jazz – wide open, genre-busting, hard-swinging bomba bop.  The mighty Mighty Pirates (Vázquez on trombone, Milwaukee native Rick Germanson on piano, Willie Williams on sax, Victor Jones on drums, Carlitos Maldonado and Gabriel Lugo on percussion, Alexander Ayala on bass) fly high with the spirit of salseros and trade eights with the radical attitude of New York’s 1960s post-bebop jazz players. Think beautiful dissonance over heartbeat percussion – mellow, delicious, jivey, blue. There’s plenty of Puerto Rico in the Pirates, but their treasure chest overflows with glittering rhythms – besides bombas y plenas there’s jitterbug, fox trot, mambo, danza, and more.  The Mighty Pirates Troubadores, on their Mad City visit, delivered this musical loot with great glee.  “Aargh!” they growled, swigging bottled water between tunes.  Their sizzling show wrapped up with a deconstructed holiday medley followed by a verdadero bombazo, for which Vázquez called local Latin jazz luminaries Tony Castañeda, José Madera, Roberto Rengel, Manny Vellon and Darren Sterud up on stage.  The crowd at little Music Hall went wild, cheering for this electrifying finish like Packers fans for a winning touchdown.

       Two of the world’s most honorable traditional musicians, appearing under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s World Music Stage at the Sett in Union South, brought a different sort of joyful noise.
                                          Mahlasela, right.   © SKepecs 2013
Going to a Vusi “The Voice” Mahlasela concert (February 15) is like going to church.  Mahlasela – priest of ubuntu, bard of South African resistance – is sheer inspiration, plying his golden, rangy pipes on jubilant songs of struggle and reconcilliation.  Though accompanied only by his own amplified acoustic guitar and a backup guitarist who sometimes sang on the chorus, Mahlasela’s silky township sound, with its Miriam Makeba, mbaquanga and Motown roots, was round and full. Dancing with his guitar, Mahlasela soared through the lovely love song “Woza,” off his latest album, Say Africa (ATO Records, 2011).  A master showman, he told stories about the struggle against apartheid we saw on TV months later when Nelson Mandela died.  Fist raised in revolutionary salute, he sang “When You Come Back,” the song he penned for Mandela in prison, and which he sang at the revolutionary leader’s presidential inauguration in 1994.  A luta continua. 

         Afropop superstar Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi (April 12) comes from Zimbabwe, which, of
                                           Mtukudzi, left.  © SKepecs 2013
course, is also southern Africa.  Tribes and styles overlap in this region without regard for political boundaries that are largely artifacts of bygone colonialism, so there’s mbquanga in Mtukudzi’s mix, along with Shona m’bira music that’s typical of Zimbabwe, and the swift, super-polyrhythmic Harare beat called jit. Wielding a mean electric axe, Mtukudzi – poppier and more stylish than Mahlasela in sharkskin pants and square-toed, thin-soled, zebra-striped shoes – served up three glorious sets of irresistable grooves.  Backed by bass, drums and percussion, Mtukudzi, his gravelly tenor sometimes slightly offkey, like the dissonance characteristic of old-time Cuban singers, danced like a cat. And despite the limitations of the Sett, the crowd jumped and jived. Some brothers broke free on the floor with a Zimbabwean flag; little kids bounced on their parents’ shoulders; a soul train line wound around the tables and snaked past the stage.

        Madison’s much more metropolitan than it was a decade ago, but the city’s still got an inferiority complex about its own performing arts organizations.  You know what I mean – you walk out of the theater after a local show and you hear people say “that was pretty good, for Madison.”  It’s time for that attitude to go.  From its overture to its allegros and adagios and its evocative character themes, all made to drive big, expansive dancing, Michael Massey’s Dracula score, commissioned for Madison Ballet’s eponymous new production and played live onstage by Massey's seven-man band, is a marvel of classical structure rendered in rock n’ roll.
And Madison Ballet just keeps growing.  2013 was the company’s sixth professional year, but only
                                          Butler as the Dewdrop Fairy   © SKepecs 2013 
its second with dancers on full season contract.  Artistic director W. Earle Smith’s assembled a bright, articulate troupe, and an unparalleled string of hits revealed the strength and versatility of a much more mature organization.  It's hard to pick highlights from this super season, but here are a few: Smith’s sexy steampunk choreography for Dracula (Overture’s Capitol Theater, March 8-10, Oct. 23-26).  The company’s premiere of its first Balanchine ballet, Valse-Fantaisie, on the spring repertory program, Exposed, at the Bartell (April 19-20).  Brian Roethlisberger as Jonathan Harker, trapped and desperate in Dracula’s castle, flinging himself into quadruple pirouettes, prancing like a matador and sailing big bravura jumps high into the air. Marguerite Luksik, so liquid in Dracula’s short, mournful nightmare adagio, and so supple and fearless, partnered by Roethlisgerger, in Nutcracker’s Snow pas de deux (Overture Hall, Dec. 14-24).  Rachelle Butler’s dangerously lustful pas with Dracula (Matthew Linzer) in October, her slow sizzle in Smith’s piece to “Concierto de Aranjuez” in Exposed, and her lushly neoclassical Dewdrop fairy in both Nut and Nutty Nut (Dec. 21).  Shannon Quirk as Dracula’s spooky, hissing, harpy bride, plus her sailing turns in Smith’s playful solo to Albinoni’s “Oboe Concerto in D Minor" and her angular, evocative dancing as a great long-legged bird mired in oil in Marlene Skog’s 2010 “Swans,” both in Exposed.  Also noteworthy: in Nut, Anthony Femath’s flashy flamenco in Spanish and Jacob Ashley’s bounding, Cossack-kicking Russian; and in Nutty, supremely silly dances by Phillip Ollenberg (doing Russian as Betty White) and Andrew Erickson (as the loopy lady in the red dress in the Thai divertissement). 

       Last but far from least is Golpe Tierra, which you can catch about once a month at the
              Moran, Martínez, Hildner.  © SKepecs 2013
Cardinal Bar’s always-hopping Friday Happy Hour. Like Peruvian food, Afro-Peruvian music is rising – and this band’s Afro-Peruvian jazz bailable is the freshest Latin sound in town.  Its blue-chip musicians are what make that so: bass boss Nick Moran, guitar wizard Richard Hildner Armacanqui and cajón king Juan Tomás “Juancho” Martínez Paris, whose lead vocals are tinged with classic Spanish dissonance.  Sometimes Golpe Tierra’s supplemented with a very special guest, cajón master Juan “Cotito” Medrano, renowned for his work with Latin Grammy-nominated Afro-Peruvian worldbeat band Novalima.  Cotito's a force of nature, but with or without him Golpe Tierra just cooks. Dancers find their tunes irresistable.  Golpe Tierra gets my 2013 saoco prize.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Madison Ballet's Nutty Nut's a Celebration of Silliness

                                                                                           © SKepecs 2013
by Susan Kepecs
A 132-year old ballerina, a rollerskating rat, a guy (just one) on ice, Frau Stahlbaum drunk as a skunk – what’s not to love about Madison Ballet’s campy Nutty Nut, a new city tradition that began last year? Lots of ballet companies across the country have taken to dedicating one night of Nutcracker’s two-week annual run to a spoof on the holiday classic – it breaks up the monotony for the dancers, and offers guffaws for hard-core fans.
If you’re not a balletomane in general and a follower of Madison Ballet in particular, though, maybe Nutty Nut’s not for you. One woman I talked to at intermission thought the “attempts at comedy” were annoying, and she found the ancient ballerina, creeping across the stage on a walker, “especially distasteful.”  A man in the crowd huffing its way up the parking ramp steps in the bitter cold after the show told his girlfriend he thought parts of Nutty Nut were funny, but if he’d known there’d be so much dancing he’d have stayed home. 
As for me, I was pretty much in stitches from the fake company bios in the program – though I can see how you wouldn’t get all the jokes if you didn’t have a ballet background – to the grand finale.
Notice I said “pretty much.” Half-gag commercials disrupted the flow; one or two might be funny, but the number in this production was excessive.  The canned score was, in spots, too fast. The handful of community celebs who generously lent themselves to this Nutcracker lampoon were cast in context, though some of their roles needed touches of fine tuning.  Still, the abundant laughter was exhilirating – a holiday celebration in itself. 
Clever pop-cultural references flew fast and furious throughout the production, and the way they were laid over the ballet, which managed to be its regal self despite the twists, turns and interruptions, was striking. 
The party scene was as chaotic as ever, though it cast off its straight-laced dullness in favor of bacchanalian antics, a definite improvement. Cody Olsen, Jackson Warring and Andrew Erickson were deliciously loony in their burlesque dance number to “It’s Raining Men.”  The parents’ mazurka was almost madcap, done to “We Go Together,” that goofy tune from the musical Grease.  And the nutcracker doll was replaced by a stuffed toy fox, which seemed like nothing at all but turned out to be a brilliant joke that packed its punchline in the finale.
In Clara’s nightmare scene, Sam White (in leather jacket and sunglasses), attempting awkward little ballet steps he’d never do as Drosselmeyer, was both funny and touching.  Instead of baby mice and tin soldiers, chickens and a cow paraded past Clara’s bed.  And the Nutcracker come to life (Brian Roethlisberger) wore fox ears and a fox tail. Do you get it yet?  (I didn’t). 
After winning his battle against the cast of Duck Dynasty, which replaced the traditonal rats, the Fox Cavalier found Clara (Marguerite Luksik) in bed with the cow, but no matter – off they danced to the Land of Snow.  The snow pas de deux and snow corps – epitomes of classical dance – were elegant, despite three hilarious gags, all repeats from last year, that took place around them and which define what Nutty Nut is all about.  In the shadows a lone ice fisherman sat on a bucket, dangling his line into the orchestra pit, completely unaware of the ethereal dancing behind him.  (I’m not sure which community celeb the fisherman was, but his part was woven seamlessly into Nutty Nut’s fabric).  The 132-year old ballerina – in real life Madison Ballet’s Ballet Master Sarah Melli – did her walker-aided stage crossing under falling snow, out-doing by orders of magnitude Ballet Nacional de Cuba prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonzo, who, blind as a bat, stopped performing at 74.  Sorry, disgruntled audience member, but there's no way anyone who knows that the average age of retirement for a ballet dancer is somewhere between 29 and 34 -- or anyone who’s ever loved ballet enough to keep doing it in middle age (or later!) -- could find Melli and her walker anything but outrageously funny.  And last but not least, as the curtain fell on Act I, a rat – have I ever mentioned how crazy I am about the Nutcracker rats? – roller-skated across the stage.
Act II opened as an episode of The Hunger Games, fought by three ballerinas with weapons pilfered from Dracula’s props.  The winner, Marguerite Luksik, got to be – as she is in the real Nutcracker – the Sugarplum Fairy.  Her music was mangled by a string of false starts, causing her to stamp her feet, but in between tantrums her variation was crisp and clean.  Anthony Femath swapped Spanish for an exuberant Tejano take on Swedish DJ / songwriter Avicii’s 2013 chart-topper “Wake Me Up;” Jessica Mackinson and Jacob Ashley did Arabian-as-disco to Leon Russel’s “Song for You.” 
Twin pinnacles of supreme silliness left tears in my eyes.  One was Andrew Erickson, in a red dress pooched out over a pillow pregnancy, following along like a loopy lady behind the Thai dancers.  The other was Phillip Ollenberg, leaping high in pearls and a pale, wispy wig, reprising his 2012 role as Betty White in the Russian solo.  Men dancing in drag aren't inherently funny; it's the high humor with which these numbers were delivered, and the way that made them look, that put them over the top.
                           © SKepecs
“Waltz of the Flowers”'s elastic Dewdrop, Rachelle Butler, was buzzed several times by Madison Ballet Artistic Director W. Earle Smith wearing a bumblebee suit that looked utterly adorable.
And then, for the sparkling pop-culture grand finale, there was Roethlisberger, in his foxy accoutrements, with the whole cast doing the dance from the viral Europop YouTube hit of the year, Norwegian duo Ylvis’ absurd and innocent “What Does the Fox Say?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jofNR_WkoCE
I’m still laughing.  Merry Christmas.
                                                                                              © SKepecs

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Madison Ballet's 2013 Nutcracker Sparkles Like Holiday Champagne

                                         © Kat Stiennon 2013

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker – I attended the opening night performance on Saturday, Dec. 14 – proves just how versatile this company’s become.  Nut’s the traditional, neoclassical antithesis of the company’s blood-lusty, contemporary Dracula; if artistic director W. Earle Smith’s sexy vampires are for grownups, Nucracker’s a ballet for kids.  In the hands of Maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s oft-chiched score sparkles like newly fallen snow. Music aside, though, you have to get past the opening party scene before you can dig into this ballet.  The party’s important for the opportunities it provides  very young ballet students and a handful of community grownups – that’s part of Nutcracker’s spirit – but the prissy nineteenth century relic’s in drastic need of renovation.  The only bona fide ballet in the production’s first 20 minutes, which take place in the Victorian drawing room of the upscale Stahlbaums, is the crisp, clean, and far too short performance of the dancing dolls (McKenna Collins and Jacob Ashley). 
But once Clara’s post-party Christmas nightmare began Saturday night, oh, what a show!  If Nutcracker were a costume contest, the rats that infest the Stahlbaum house after midnight would win hands down.  I love their red button shields, and how their long ratty tails sweep the ground as they kick and leap, scratching their little rat butts.  Still, it’s the appearance of the Nutcracker / Cavalier (Brian Roethlisberger) that tips the production toward serious dance.  The Cavalier doesn’t get to strut much stuff, save a short variation in the Sugarplum pas de deux, though Roethlisberger, a wizard onstage, turned mundane into magic. Under the cumbersome Nutcracker mask his upper body was quiet, as if made of wood. But before the mask came off his legs came to life, propelled by singularly expressive feet; all 52 bones were miraculously articulated as he marched past the sleeping Stahlbaum daugther.
This is the third year Roethlisberger and Marguerite Luksik, as grown-up Clara / Snow Queen / Sugarplum Fairy, have danced Nut’s principal roles together, but their triumphant Snow pas Saturday night – crystaline in its precision, yet soft and free – was the pinnacle of their partnering work to date.  Luksik commands both an elastic sense of timing and a strong, supple back that lends unusual elegance to her lines.  The Sugarplum Fairy variation at the beginning of Act II calls up history; it’s part Balanchine (the dance’s luxurious musicality, plus its early placement in the sequence of the act), part Petipa (the famous gargouillade, meaning “gurgle” – a fancy pas de chat with double rond de jambes en l’air).  But Roethlisberger’s solid partnering and his brief menege aside, the adagio and coda were all about Luksik, who flew, fearless, into lifts, and whipped off a string of flashy fouettes, spicing some with triple spins.
Because the company is small, upper division students supplement Nutcracker’s corps de ballet. Mostly for this reason the two core numbers, Snow and Waltz of the Flowers, have been riddled with small glitches – a missed cue or two, some limbs out of synch.  But not this year.  For the first time ever, unison prevailed. That’s testimony to the talent of these young dancers, and also to the training they get at the School of Madison Ballet – almost all of the pre-professional dancers in the corps this year have come up through the School, and all of them have done their advanced training there.  
The divertissements have never looked better. Spanish has had ups and downs, but it’s never had much brio español.  Done this time as a three-man trio, the ebullient Anthony Femath in the lead, it was an utter knockout.  Femath, who’s had years of formal flamenco training, was smack dab in his groove, providing the palmas and passion of a true bailaor and – because this is ballet – sailing some cabrioles high into the air.
Courtney Stohlton, in the Arabian pas, was liquid and slinky, wrapping around partner Cody Olsen like a snake.  Jacob Ashley bounded through the Russian solo with his trademark bravura, launching lofty cabrioles and a snazzy Cossack kick; the compelling elevation of his second position split jumps drew hearty audience cheers.  The strong, long-limbed Shannon Quirk was dazzling as the lone Merliton, seamlessly meshing her natural contemporary style with the classical demands of this long, complex dance. 
Company veteran Rachelle Butler reveled in the fairylike Dewdrop role, which she danced for the first time this year.  Like her predecessor, retired ballerina Genevieve Custer-Weeks, on whom Dew was choreographed, Butler plies an agile musicality that lets her reveal choreographic nuances many dancers miss.  Unlike Custer-Weeks, as Dew Butler’s cast against type – I think of her as Dracula’s Wonder Woman Mina, or slowly sizzling in Smith’s Spanish flavored “Concierto de Aranjuez” piece – but she pulled out all the stops in Nut's traditional divertissement, dancing loose and confident and wringing every centimeter of extension from her elongated, neoclassical lines.