Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Repertory II Dazzles and Delights

                            Butler, Quirk and Luksik, in Who Cares?  ©SKepecs 2014
by Susan Kepecs
I was dazzled by Madison Ballet’s Repertory II concert at the Bartell last weekend (March 21-22).  I attended the Saturday matinee.  What a thrill, after this bitter winter (and too many dull, formulaic performances by other companies) to see dance that was magical and uplifting.  The Repertory II program delivered three substantive short ballets that set the company’s strong, polished dancers free, within the neoclassical canon and the parameters of the choreography, to let loose and dance for joy.

Artistic director W. Earle Smith’s airy La Luce D’Amore, a pure ballet piece done to a set of Neopolitan folk tunes, premiered in 2006.  The updated version, choreographed for the company   Madison Ballet’s become, is much more sophisticated.  Done slightly tongue-in-cheek in soft, peachy tones and a painterly, late Romantic look, La Luce’s eight short sections – all small or large ensemble works, save one solo and one pas de deux – evoked the ethos of George Balanchine, who often made ballets inspired by traditional dances.  
                                                         © SKepecs 2014
A mirage of simplicity made these witty little lookback pieces seem repetitive, but in fact La Luce is diverse – sprinkled among four flowy, circular waltzes are a sassy, crisp march, two tarantellas and a pas de deux – and many-layered, each dance building on the last, weaving new steps and patterns into the picture.  
The dancers in La Luce’s six ensemble sections (six of Madison Ballet’s seven women, plus three of the School of Madison Ballet’s highly advanced level six students) came through as individuals while moving in utter harmony – the mark of a solidified, Balanchine-based company.  The pas de deux to Caccini’s “Ave Maria,” by company veteran Rachelle Butler and newcomer Richard Glover, gave this ballet a centerpiece; while the rest of the sections depend on each other, this luxurious dance can stand on its own.  Choreographed on and for Butler in 2008, it benefits today from the maturity of her craft.  She flaunted epaulment, wrapped an attitude dangerously around Glover’s back, flung herself with abandon into a dip – all with breathtakingly elongated phrasing.
 “Funiculi, Funicula,” merging into the final “Tarantella,” gave La Luce a high-energy, Broadway-esque finish. The full corps marched out in two lines and kicked like chorus girls; when the music switched to 6/8 time Butler and Glover reappeared, punctuation for a plotless story.  In the midst of a stage alive with fleet-footed movement, he swept her into a final fish dive. 

Quirk, in Who Cares?       ©SKepecs 2014
It’s impossible not to fall in love with Balanchine’s sexy, slinky 1970 Who Cares?, with its stunning neoclassical vocabulary, its jazzy syncopations, its complex, rhythmic footwork, its sassy humor.  It’s easy to see why Smith wanted this American masterwork, with its lush Gershwin score, in his company’s repertory; its influence on his own choreography is incalculable.  Some of his best contemporary works – notably “Night Dances,” with a jazzy score by local composer Taras Nahirniak (2004), and “Expressions” (2011), to a set of standards performed live onstage by Jan Wheaton’s trio, are odes to it.  So it comes as no surprise that the concert version of Who Cares? (pas de deux and variations only, without the ensemble sections in the original), set by Balanchine Trust repiteteur Michele Gifford on Madison Ballet’s Butler, Marguerite Luksik and Shannon Quirk with former New York City Ballet principal Charles Askegard, fit like a glove.  
Askegard, in Who Cares?      © SKepecs 2014
Images from this brilliantly happy, Broadwayesque ballet were strong enough to sear themselves forever into my mind's eye.   In “The Man I Love” pas – so deliciously all that jazz -- Luksik channeled her inner Betty Boop, bending her knees, pushing her butt back and batting her eyes.  Askegard reached for her; she pranced around him, then lept onto his back.  Locking eyes with Butler in the title piece, Askegard took her hands and pulled her into a half stag leap, back leg bent skyward at the knee – a singluarly eye-catching move that segued into a slinky sequence of hip swivels and tap-like footwork.  In “Embracable You,” Askgard twirled Quirk into a slow attitude turn that ended in a tender hug.  In her “My One and Only” variation, Quirk flew across space with her trademark long-limbed Italian pas de chats, eyes sparkling with delight. In “Liza,” Askegard, loose and easy, spun and pirouetted, and circled his forearm like a hipster twirling a keychain in a jitterbug break.  
In the finale – “I’ve Got Rhythm” – they all flew. 

Smith, who’s applied the language and nuances of neoclassical ballet to popular American dance forms from jazz to rock n’ roll (Dracula) and urban contemporary / hip-hop (“Street,” which premiered in the company’s spring, 2013 repertory concert Exposed), took on a new oeuvre – the ‘60s – in Groovy, the grand finale for Madison Ballet’s current season. Bare bones accoutrements adorned the exposed side walls – lava lamps, peace symbols, drapey cloths, a butterfly – turning the stage into a hippie crash pad.  The women wore bright mod mini dresses; the color-loaded lighting was trippy.  
The piece wasn’t perfect. The Four Tops’ Motown classic “I Can’t Help Myself” was on Smith’s hippie playlist, but nobody danced on the backbeat, where the soul resides.  And Smith sometimes used the song lyrics literally, which didn’t always work.  Butler, in a solo to the metaphorical marijuana song “Green Grass,” revealed sharp, comic wit that the audience adored – but people stoned on pot move like cats. The silly, stumbling steps Smith choreographed to this tune seemed boozy instead.  
Stohlton, in Groovy  ©SKepecs 2014
Mostly, though, Groovy was – well, groovy.  This was the company having fun, showing off its chops, reveling in its own good vibrations.  Everyone got a chance to sparkle.  To the Byrds’ version of Dylan’s immortal “Mr. Tambourine Man” Quirk danced alone, hair swinging, loose as a goose, one hand waving free.  Courtney Stohlton cavorted to “Turn Down Day,” leaping, prancing, flicking her feet, sailing attitute turns. Luksik bounced joyfully through “Red Rubber Ball,” jumping and spinning, arms and head unfettered.  For the finale, the full company, including the level six students, danced their hearts out to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil With a Blue Dress.” 
I loved this music, and Groovy’s generous spirit.  I left the Bartell high as a kite. 

                                                                                                                         © SKepecs 2014

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Madison Ballet's Slick Season Goes Out with a Bang

     "Who Cares" rehearsal at Madison Ballet's studio   © SKepecs 2014
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet takes on Italian classics, Gershwin, and a snazzy ‘60s playlist for its Repertory 2 program, at the Bartell March 21-22.  “Balanchine used to say ‘dance is music made visible,’” says Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith, “and this is a music lover’s performance.” 
The program’s three substantial, multi-movement works – two by Smith, and one by George Balanchine – shine a spotlight on the company’s versatility.  Smith’s “La Luce d’Amore” – a reflection on his Italian heritage (yes, his name is Smith, but he’s pure Italian on his mother’s side, and he identifies with Italian culture) – premiered on the Evening of Romance program in Overture Hall on Valentine’s Day, 2006, when Madison Ballet was still a pre-professional studio company.  Smith’s re-choreographed and re-staged it as a more formal repertory piece for the professional neoclassical outfit Madison Ballet’s become.  There’s a lot of southern Italian folk spirit here, rendered in neoclassical ballet – a tarantella, and a dance to the famous Neopolitan song “Funiculi Funicula” are among the eight sections in this ballet, along with Smith’s elastic, adagio pas de deux to Caccini’s “Ave MarĂ­a,” which premiered in 2008.
The ‘60s piece, “Groovy” – Smith’s feel-good closer for Madison Ballet’s terrific 2013-14 season – makes its premiere in this show.  I haven’t seen it, but from what Smith says, it covers a lot of ground – included on the playlist are the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” the Byrd’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil with a Blue Dress,” Petula Clark’s “Color My World” – “and something by the Buckinghams,” Smith says. 
Balanchine’s Gershwin ballet, “Who Cares?”, is the second of the master’s works Madison Ballet has acquired, set on the company by former New York City Ballet dancer and Balanchine Trust repetiteur Michelle Gifford. The first, “Valse-Fantaisie,” which premiered in last spring’s repertory concert, is a lovely work of pure ballet, and it looked lush on this company.  But if “Valse” was a feather in Madison Ballet’s cap, “Who Cares?” is the whole bird.  Balanchine, of course, inspired by America's archetypal twentieth century dance – Broadway, jazz and tap – created American ballet from his native Russian cloth.  And “Who Cares?”, with its Gershwin score, is one of Balanchine’s quintessential jazz-tinged ballets.  New York City Ballet’s full-length version premiered in 1970, with the great Patricia McBride and Jacques D’Amboise in two of its principal roles.  It’s a ballet Smith adores and has danced many times – and it’s one that’s influenced his own work immensely.
Madison Ballet will do the concert version – the solos and pas de deux, without the ensemble sections.  Marguerite Luksik, Rachelle Butler and Shannon Quirk are paired with special guest and former New York City Ballet principal Charles Askegard, who was a frequent guest principal here when Madison Ballet was a studio company. 
Askegard danced the principal male role in “Who Cares?” many times during his tenure at NYCB.  “I performed it for fifteen or sixteen years,” he told me, “and it was one of the first things I did at City Ballet.  I’d started with American Ballet Theatre – I spent ten years at ABT working on the classics, and then had the opportunity to take that strong male technique and apply it to the quicker style and everything else that went with Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, who I got to work with before he died [in 1998].  Now I’m teaching in New York, and I’ll be teaching at ABT this summer – it’s nice to go back there now and teach.”
It’s nice to have him back in Madison, too.  “Earle’s done an amazing job,” Askegard says, refering to how the company’s changed since his last appearance here as the cavalier in 2004’s Nutcracker (with NYCB principal Maria Kowroski).  “To have built a professional company in the midst of financial crisis, a place where professional dancers can get a good contract, good performing venues, good programming – it’s inspiring.”
I watched a rehearsal of “Who Cares?” last weekend, and, to pick up where Askegard left off, I was inspired.  The solos are perfectly cast – Askegard is completely at home in this ballet and Luksik, Butler and Quirk get to be utterly themselves, within the context of the choreography.  And “Who Cares” is the antithesis of everything I’ve been complaining about in the world of dance performance lately (read my recent review on this blog of Complexions, at Overture last month, for comparative material).  “Who Cares?” is joyful.  It’s jazzy, brassy, slinky, free.  It flies.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Jazz Band for Winter's Hearse Wagon

                                                                  © SKepecs 2010

Zulu costume     © SKepecs 2012

by Susan Kepecs

Last week the nine-man Rebirth Brass Band, a New Orleans institution, was at home,playing the Mardi Gras Zulu Coronation Ball. Next week, on March 13th, the veteran second line outfit hits the road, bringing Mardi Gras, a little late, to spots around the States including the Sett, Union South, under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Isthmus Jazz Series.  Rebirth, founded in 1983 by sousaphone player Phil Frazier and his younger brother, bass drummer Keith Frazier, got a “best regional roots” grammy for its 2011 Basin Street album Rebirth of New Orleans – and the band’s irresistably rootsy groove is something to get excited about.  If you’re over 25, though, you’ll want to focus on the bop-laced, sometimes funkified or hip hop-influenced second-line beats while ignoring the nasty gangsta lyrics that crop up too often in Rebirth’s tunes.
In spite of its 21st century youth culture veneer, Rebirth, at heart, is the real thing.  The Fraziers were born and raised in Treme, where second line was born and where HBO told the story of New Orleans’ post-Katrina rebirth – a story that opened with a second line parade featuring the Rebirth Brass Band. 

                 Second line is voodoo music, hallelujah music, raise your hands high and call the spirits music, with a history as deep and wide as the Atlantic Ocean. Early in the eighteenth century the African slaves of French-held Nouvelle Orleans were allowed to gather and let loose in Treme’s Congo Square on Sunday afternoons.  There they danced their homeland dances – bamboula, calinda, chica, congo, yanvalou. When the French ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762, Spanish Afro-Caribbean crosscurrents blew through the sounds of Congo Square – the “Latin tinge” Jelly Roll Morton put a name on a century and a half later. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, in which New Orleans, the state it’s in, and much of the adjacent Great Plains were annexed to the budding United States, blacks – slaves and free – fought in US military campaigns, where the polyglot polyrhythms of the African diaspora met British-style fife and drum military marches.  Military music went brass around the time of the Civil War, with new instruments invented in Europe only decades earlier – trumpets and tubas (and, slightly later, saxes and sousaphones – marching band tubas). 
          No, second line doesn’t sound military.  As long as there’ve been free African communities in North America there’ve been black mutual aid societies in New Orleans – forerunners of organizations like the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, created to promote economic and social solidarity in a white-dominated world. After the Civil War black marching bands in the Big Easy played for aid society parades, funerals, dances and weddings, muting the Euro-military sound and accentuating the syncopations and call and response patterns of the African ancestors.
         The band, of course, is the first line – the revelers who follow the sound down the streets, twirling umbrellas or waving white handkerchiefs, are the actual second line.  Keith Frazier, who keeps the beat, seemed like he’d much rather be playing music than doing a phone interview with some honky girl journalist from a winter-worn flyover state when I called him last week, but I don’t really blame him – if I could put out joyful noise like he can I wouldn’t be doing interviews for blog posts about it, either.  Frazier didn’t say a lot, but here’s the transcript of our short conversation:

CulturalOyster: One of the first things people think about when they think New Orleans is brass bands – literally, the first thing you see when you get off the plane is the statue of Louis Armstrong, who started out as a lion of second line.  And Rebirth is maybe the number one keeper of the brass band flame today.  Since you’re so famous, I wonder – how much of what you do is touring, and how much is doing the heritage stuff – the parades, the jazz funerals – at home?

Frazier: Actually, our touring’s increased a lot – we’re touring 150 days a year now, in the US and all over the world. Being on the road comes with the territory, but we try to be at home as much as we can. We’re out of New Orleans so much now we always miss it.  It’s good to give back to your community, and community’s where we come from. 

CulturalOyster: What got you and Phil started?

Frazier: When we were little kids our stepfather introduced us to second line culture.  We used to go to the parades – I remember it all like it was yesterday.  Then when my brother was in high school his teacher asked him to put a band together to play at a function and we said OK.  We went down to the function and they were serving alcohol and they wouldn’t let us in ‘cause we were underage so we went down to Bourbon Street and played for tips, and so we decided to do that after school every day so we could earn some money and learn some songs, and that’s how it started.

CulturalOyster: How did you get famous from doing that?

Frazier: What really happened was we’d play the Quarter and people from all different parts of the country would see us maintaining a 150-year old tradition and they thought it was cool, so they’d ask us to go play for them and we started going to Atlanta and other places close to New Orleans.  One thing led to another and we started traveling more and more and that was that.

CulturalOyster: Your music rings true, I think, because you update it with hip hop but at the same time you stretch it back to its gospel roots.  Is it all the same thing, in the end?

Frazier: No, it’s not the same.  One of the things we try to do is show where the music came from.  We try to maintain the roots even if we’re playing a very modern tune.  That’s where we come from, it’s a very old tradition steeped in rich culture that dates back to the Civil War and people get it – they can hear it and feel it and that’s how we started.  We started out playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and all the other gospel.  What we do, it’s not some fly-by-night music.  It has a long history. 

CulturalOyster: You guys have been through some rebirths of your own – Katrina, band members changing, a brush or two with law enforcement, your brother Phil’s health crisis a few years ago [Phil Frazier had a severe stroke in 2008, but to look at him now you’d never know it].  Every time you’ve been through a crisis you’ve pulled the band back together, and fast.  What keeps you keepin’ on like that?

Frazier: It’s just the music, and the love of playing.  We get so happy when we play.  We have fun – you can’t play this music unless you’re having fun.  We uplift people and make sure everyone has a good time, and that keeps us going. 

CulturalOyster: You haven’t put out an album since Rebirth – is there something in the works?

Frazier: We’re working on our next CD right now.  It should be out for the New Orleans jazz festival, end of April or first of May.

CulturalOyster: Got a message for your fans in Madison, before I let you go?

Frazier: Tell ‘em to come out, have a good time, and get ready to roll!