|Quirk and Stohlton in Smith's "Sonata No. 1" © Kat Stiennon 2014|
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Repertory I, at the Bartell, which I attended Friday night, Jan. 31, was a choreographers’ showcase, presenting works by the company’s artistic direcctor W. Earle Smith as well as the UW-Madison Dance Department’s Marlene Skog and Jin-Wen Yu, plus former Madison Ballet dancer and current New York choreographer Nikki Hefko. In best-case scenarios using outside choreographers takes dancers out of their comfort zone, giving them new moves to chew on and stretching their technical and interpretive skills. The Repertory I program fell in the middle; overall the evening was interesting, but the dancers and the choreography didn’t always mesh.
Among outside works, the best fit came last. Nikki Hefko’s “Mandolin Amble” – to Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concierto in C – was a frothy little frolic in pastel tones, fairylike and classical. It reminded me of how Peter Anastos’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, last performed in 2011, sits on this company – Madison Ballet’s dancers can handle more of a challenge, but works at this level look good on them. “Mandolin”’s three parts included a bright, light-filled trio for McKenna Collins, Anna Reikersdorfer and Jackson Warring; a more challenging and contempory brief pas for Rachelle Butler and Eoin Gaj, and an ensemble allegro – courtly, in a contemporary way – that began with Warring’s whirring feet beating entrechat quatres and ended with Butler’s single, high-flying grand jeté. Butler’s been having a stellar season – I’d have liked to see more of her in this concert – but that lone leap left a fine final image before the house lights went up.
Skog’s “Un-Tango,” “Mandolin”’s polar opposite, was a short, staccato un-ballet set on Warring and Marguerite Luksik. At the heart of this piece – playful and beautifully danced – were some zingy, recurrent themes. In one, the two dancers checked each other out like snakes, heads and shoulders undulating, eyes locked. Another involved dropping precipitously from releve into deep second position plié. But the choreography didn’t play much to the balletic strengths of these dancers, and it lacked both the emotional punch and the powerfully contemporary ballet vocabulary of Skog’s 2010 environmental statement, “Swans,” set on Shannon Quirk and Cody Olsen for “Exposed,” Madison Ballet’s 2013 spring repertory concert.
Tango seems to be a main metaphor for the UW Dance Department these days – if Skog’s piece was an “un,” Yu’s work, “Transit,” the longest piece on the program, was an “almost.” It was done in four parts: man / woman (Gaj and Luksik); man / man (Gaj and Warring); woman / woman (Luksik and Shannon Quirk) and quartet (for all four). Classical combinations, adorned with tango-esque arms and hip-led struts, are common enough in ballet choreography. This blended idiom was extended with surprising slides – dancers ran and then skidded gracefully to the floor, like birds landing on water. These flying drops were full of movement and long lines that extended the balletic look of this piece – truth be told, I just loved them. But the aerodynamic flow of tango / ballet / slide was broken by a variety of floorbound rollovers drawn directly from modern / postmodern dance that seemed like extraneous fill – I’d have liked “Transit” much better without them.
“Transit” had another problem, largely due to its length plus the short rehearsal time (it was set on the company just two or three weeks ago). Despite the allusion to a smoldering social dance form, some of the passion in the music was missing in the dance. Yes, there was a bit of sizzle – these are confident, highly trained dancers – but for the most part the choreography hadn’t seeped into their bones. I liked parts of the quartet; the shifting combinations of dancers created interesting patterns that flowed across the floor. But best segment by far featured Luksik and Quirk, looking Spanish in lacy black tops and short red skirts. It was fun to watch the contrast between Quirk’s long-limbed, expressive, contemporary style and Luksik’s compact, pitch-perfect precision as the two spun toward each other or in unison, arms overhead, flamenco-style. Part of this dance had the same not-quite-finished look as the rest of the piece, but near the end the tempo sped up; without warning Luksik and Quirk threw all techniquiness to the wind and just danced their hearts out. Brava.
I saved the very best for last, though it fell in the middle of the program – W. Earle Smith’s “Sonata No. 1 in F Minor,” named for its Scriabin accompaniment. Smith, of course, is in utter command of his own company, and his piece – a complex and serious work that epitomizes the Balanchine side of his choreography – fit just right. It began and ended with Morgan Davison, Jessica Mackinson, Shannon Quirk and Courtney Stohlton in simple gray leotards with black straps, moving to or through the music as the tempo changed and shifting from unison to two-plus-two mirror patterns; from staccato passages, dancers moving with arms out in T position, wrists flexed, to waltzy and lyrical; and from croise to effacé facings. A solo, bookended by this theme, was sweeping and straightforward, adding a new texture to this study in contrasts. Choreographed on and for Stohlton, who’s new to Madison Ballet this season, it revealed her as a lovely neoclassical dancer, able to sail turns effortlessly and possessed of a certain kind of lifted, stretchy tensegrity that’s appealingly visual and kinesthetic.