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 María,” 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.

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