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.

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