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. 

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