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

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