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.

No comments: