Thursday, August 21, 2014

Madison Ballet's Upcoming Season: Snazzy and Family Friendly

Butler, Quirk and Luksik in Who Cares?        ©SKepecs 2014

by Susan Kepecs
In the decade since Madison Ballet’s performance at Overture’s grand opening, the company’s scaled a metaphorical mountain.  The climb wobbled unsteadily for seven years and then, two seasons back, the organization simply sailed to the city’s cultural summit.  The number of talented professional dancers on full-season contract expanded, allowing for the kind of consistent training and personal rapport that turns a bunch of well-trained but disparate ballet dancers into a bona fide company.  And artistic director W. Earle Smith’s urban-sexy rock ballet Dracula – a choreographic coup that premiered in February, 2013 and returned by popular demand for Halloween that year – plus the acquisition of two stunning Balanchine ballets – kicked the repertory up to new heights.  Reviewing the company’s spring 2013 repertory concert, Exposed, I wrote “Madison Ballet really has arrived.” 
That statement was premature, from Smith’s perspective.  “Yes, we have arrived,” Smith said the other day, “but this is going to be the season that proves it.” 
Luksik in Groovy  ©SKepecs 2014

The 2014-15 season is bigger and more well-rounded than any in the past.  Two full-length ballets, two repertory concerts, an appearance in Overture’s tenth anniversary celebration, and two (possibly three) tours are on the calendar.  For the first time, the entire company – larger this year than last – will be in residence full-time, on a 32 week contract.  Rachelle Butler, Marguerite Luksik, Shannon Quirk, Phillip Ollenburg and Jackson Warring – well-known to Madison audiences – return, joined by five new dancers and three promising apprentices.

  On September 19 the company tours to Menomonie, to perform at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, which – who could imagine? – made CNN’s list of the world’s 15 most spectacular theaters --  The program reprises this spring’s sparkling Repertory II concert at the Bartell:  Smith’s La Luce D’Amore, a slightly tongue-in-cheek,very neoclassical pure ballet piece done to a set of Neopolitan folk tunes; Smith’s free-spirited, dance-full-out ode to the ‘60s, Groovy; and – the pièce de résistance – Balanchine’s jazzy, sassy, Gershwin-scored masterwork Who Cares?

A week later – September 27-28 – the company performs excerpts from Groovy and Who Cares? in a private performance for Overture donors, as part of the center’s gala tenth anniversary festivities. 

In keeping with Overture’s first-decade celebration – also the tenth-year anniversary of Madison Ballet’s current Nutcracker – that production gets a revamp this December. “We’re using the same sets,” Smith says – they were acquired in 2004, for Overture’s debut season – “but we’re but we’re sprucing everything up.  We’ll be premiering a lot of new costumes, new lighting, new choreography.”  And for the first time the holiday ballet, often the youth audience’s first introduction to both dance in performance and live classical music, runs December 13-27 – three weekends rather than two.  

Nutcracker: Mother Ginger and the Pulcinellas   ©SKepecs
Like its 2014 predecessor, this season’s Repertory I concert, February 6-7 at the Bartell, showcases a variety of outside choreographers.  The purpose of this practice is twofold: it expands Madison Ballet’s relationships with other dance organizations, and, just as importantly, working in the very different styles these guest artists bring in stretches the dancers’ powers of technique and interpretation. Last season Smith invited a slate of UW-Madison Dance Department faculty members to set their works on his company.  This season’s Rep I – still partly in the planning phase – will include works by General McArthur Hambrick (yes, that’s his real name), who’s on the dance faculty at West Virginia University, and Jacqueline Stewart, of Chicago and New York.
These are really interesting choreographers, with radically different approaches.  “Hambrick and I danced together a hundred years ago at what’s now known as Texas Ballet Theater,” Smith says.  “He left Texas for Broadway.  He’s one of those quadruple threats.  He’s an unbelievable dancer, and besides being involved in musical theater he’s a choreographer, singer, director, and arranger” 
He also records with his own gospel group, the Joyful Noise Choral Ensemble.  I have no idea what kind of piece a multi-talented choreographer like Hambrick is going to set on Madison Ballet, but excerpts of his neoclassical ballets posted on YouTube reveal the background he shares with Smith. 
Jacqueline Stewart, artistic director of Jaxon Movement Arts in Chicago and New York, will also have a piece on the program.  “She’s a true urban contemporary choreographer,” Smith says.  “Her stuff is crazy.” 
He means that as a huge compliment. On the company’s website,, Stewart calls her works project-based dance art inspired by current events and the urban environment.  The videos she’s posted are more Pina Bausch than Nederlands Dans Theater or Hubbard Street Dance Chicago – super edgy, and bristling with visual and psychological punch. 

On March 13 the company takes to the road again, performing the three repertory works on the Menomonie program at the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh. 

On March 28-29, Madison Ballet presents Smith’s lavishly neoclassical Cinderella at Overture Hall.  The full-length story ballet, with it’s exquisite Prokofiev score, its jewel-toned, Victorian Romantic costumes and sets and its fantastical fairy variations premiered there in 2005; it was reprised in 2007 and 2010.  Smith might have chosen to do something experimental instead – more like Dracula than Nutcracker.  “But in celebration of Overture’s tenth anniversary,” he says, “we really wanted a season with two wonderful family-friendly ballets that provide lots of performance opportunities for kids.”

       Revealing another side of Madison Ballet, Repertory II, at the Bartell on April 17-18, promises sophisticated excitement.  The company premieres two newly acquired Balanchine ballets: the deeply romantic, hair-unbound "Elegie" movement from Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, choreographed in 1970, and the exquisite 1960 Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, to music originally composed for Swan Lake (but not used in Petipa's original).  The latter is legendary for its daring partnering and its flashy female variation.  “And there’ll be something of mine on the program,” Smith says – “probably two of my pieces.”  He won’t reveal what those will be – one might be brand-new – but he hints at the other, which I swore I wouldn’t name since it’s not yet set.  All I’ll tell you right now is that if he picks it, Rep II will end the 2014-15 season on one big, bright, snazzy, jazzy note. 

DakhaBrakha comes Back!

by Susan Kepecs
Ukrainian altermodern quartet DakhaBrakha (the name means Give / Take) comes to Overture’s Capitol Theater this coming Thursday, Aug. 28.  I surprised myself by loving this band’s hauntingly soulful sound at last year’s Madison World Music Festival, since my taste in world music generally swings toward all things Latin.  And I far prefer world music that I can pinpoint, culturally speaking, to the spurious syntheses of roots-related sounds that abound lately on the world stage. 
But I had a hard time pinpointing what it was that I liked so much about DakhaBrakha, with its unlikely “ethno-chaos” (the band’s term) instrumentation – cello, piano, trombone, bass drums, zgaleyka (Russian bagpipes), garmosha (Russian accordian), and an assortment of originally indigenous sound-makers including digeridoo and various hand drums like tablas and djembes.  So what, exactly, was Ukrainian about this band, other than the musicians’ tall, furry hats, which I took to be a postmodern deconstruction of Cossack headgear from the Ukraine steppe? 
Given the raging east/west conflict over Ukraine (or, more specifically, over Ukrainian shale gas and the country’s rich agricultural sector – good articles here, here, and here, it seemed important to get a better handle on contemporary Ukrainian culture.  So when I found out DakhaBrakha was coming back to town I jumped at the chance to talk to them.
Marco Halanevych, the band’s lone male, graciously answered my email questions.  (The three women – ethnomusicologists who’ve combed the Ukrainian countryside for years, learning their country’s traditional songs – are Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsibulska, and Nina Garenetska).  I did a little bit of transliteration on Halanevych’s text, to make it read smoothly for US audiences – I’m pretty good at this kind of thing, but any mistakes in interpretation below are my own.

CulturalOyster: From what I’ve read DakhaBrakha has been around for a number of years, and you have several albums – is Light, from 2010, the most recent? Please talk about the band’s history.

Halanevych: DakhaBrakha was created 10 years ago by Vladyslav Troitskyi, director of private Centre of Contemporary Art, for his theater project, "Ukraine Mystical." Vlad asked the women, who are professional folklorists, to make some experiments and try to create something new, create a new myth about Ukraine. The whole project was devoted to searching of new identity for Ukrainians, and the women were resposible for the sound part of it. I was an actor in this theater project, and I accidently walked through during this conversation [between Troitskyi and the women], so Vlad proposed that I join them. Also, the women are professional singers but [at that time] they didn’t play instruments.  So we just took some percussion instruments, which Vlad had from his travels, and tried to listen – first in silence, and then to the best examples of different world music. 
We’ve recorded five CDs, and a new soundtrack for the 1930s film Earth, directed by Dovzhenko Oleksandr in 1930 and considered an all-time masterpiece. [Check this out, film buffs:].
After Light we recorded the Khmeleva Project with the Belorussian instrumental trio Port Mone, and also Earth was released as a DVD several months ago.  Now we are thinking about creating a CD like a musical trip through Ukraine, all different parts of it. We have some drafts and maybe it will be recorded as one track. We want to create a special video design for this trip, to show the beauty of our land.  I hope we will do it in winter.

CulturalOyster: Where does DakhaBrakha fit in the history of Ukranian art?  I’m thinking that in the late nineteenth – early twentieth century Ukraine had a number of famous avant-garde artists – in a sense the great ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was born there though he trained in Russia, but also the painter Mykhailo Boichuck, and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko, who were persecuted in the 1930s by the Bolsheviks.  In what way does DakhaBrakha – especially with the band’s origins in experimental theater – link back to that earlier current? 
Halanevych: Yes, you are right, Ukraine had a great writers, artists, actors, directors in this period of time. But Soviet times were hard for Ukranian culture.  It was only supposed to be done on special official terms.  Some of this pseudoculture we still have in our times. But even during the Soviet time we had really talented and even genius artists. As I've mentioned before, we [DakhaBrakha] try to create a new myth about Ukrainian culture, to open Ukraine not only to world but to Ukrainians also. Of course it's very global mission. First of all we play music we like, and we play it in a way we like. Then all of our other senses fall into place. And we are really lucky and happy that in some way our sensibilities coincide with the feelings and images of different people throughout the world.

CulturalOyster: The tall fur hats are a play on Cossack culture, yes?   You also had a beautiful painted cello when you were in Madison – does that have a traditional cultural backstory?

Halanevych: About the hats – not exactly. The Cossack hats were shorter and only for men. But as we are not an authentic [folkloric] band we understand that we can't wear pure Ukrainian traditional costumes. They have to be pastiched, as is our music. We have to be very natural and modern, and theatrical at the same time. These hats and costumes (we have several) were created especially for our performances.  The hats became our signature, and we joke that they are our connection – our conductors to the Universe.  As for the cello – the ornaments on it repeat the visuals of traditional Ukrainian carpets. Nina painted it herself. It’s an interesting thing that a lot of people even in Ukraine accept our images as being very familiar and traditional, but of course they understand that it's only stylization. The same is so about our music - it's all fusion, but on very rich background. 

CulturalOyster: You said something in the interview on the RockPaperScissors website [ ] that gets to the heart of what I want to ask you.  You said you “try to shift the emphasis of traditional sounds.”  To me, your music sounds like one of the most interesting and ethereal global fusions I’ve heard in ages – you were my favorite band at the Madison World Music Festival last year.  If I were to put a label on your wonderful song “Baby,” for instance, I’d say it sounds like a prehistoric spiritual from Motown’s ancient counterpart.  “Zhaba” sounds so African – like tribal music from Zimbabwe.  “Karpatskyi Rep” sounds partly Ukrainian-folk to my untrained ear, but it’s such a mashup of other sounds, even hip-hop – I can’t quite explain it to myself. So here’s my question: Ukraine’s cultural position between eastern Europe and Russia makes it hard for me, as a non-Ukrainian, to grasp what’s most characteristically Ukrainian – and yet I know that no matter how far afield it goes, your music is somehow rooted in traditional Ukrainian songs.  I think right now, given what’s going on in your country, it’s really important to understand your culture, so – can you talk a little about that, and describe the Ukrainian roots in your sound?
Halanevych: The background of all our music is the Ukrainian singing tradition – vocal polyphony. That helps to describe any emotion in any style. The women – they are professional ethnomusicologists – have a great collection of Ukrainian folk songs that they recorded during their own field expeditions, as well as songs recorded by their teachers and their colleagues. And in our music we give these songs new life.
We can combine several songs together, or change melody and rhythms totally but not change the lyrics.  A lot of the songs are from pre-Christian times and still have their magic genetic codes. For centuries they’ve accumulated all the destiny and pain, all the tenderness and power, all the love and crying of Ukrainians. We just use these codes in a way that is closer to our modern and urban consciousness, the way we feel it now. We are happy that even though people don't understand the lyrics (there are so many dialects that even not all Ukrainians can understand all the words), they can feel the emotions and create images in their minds. In this way we can share our unique culture with people around the world, and we can them tell more about our culture, about our passion and nature, and most importantly, we can inspire them to feel all of these things.