Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Performance Review: American Kaleidoscope

Circus poster, Overture Hall lobby        ©SKepecs 2014

by Susan Kepecs
A decade ago I reviewed “Stars Over Wisconsin,” the brand-new Overture Center for the Performing Arts’ inaugural show.  I concluded that “Stars” – a good show – revealed the theater’s potential, but that the formality of the place would have to wear off before it felt like home.  Last Saturday, Sept. 27th, I attended Overture’s gala tenth anniversary program, American Kaleidoscope, which featured short performances by all ten Overture residents.  The show revealed how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.
A pre-show reception with circus paraphernalia and hors d’oevres, at which Overture donors mingled with members of the community at large, made the minimalist lobby feel much more inviting than it seemed in 2004. But I’m a white gringa, and then as now, about 98% of the audience looked like me.  Ditto Overture’s resident performers.  Madison’s diversity dilemmas often headline today’s news, but at the city’s performing arts palace the dominant culture – I mean that in the sociological sense of political-economic power – still prevails.
The full impact of Madison’s shifting ethnocultural mix is most evident in our schools, and kudos to Children’s Theater of Madison for tackling issues of color twice – in the escaping slavery vignette from The American Girls Revue and a short segment from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in which Scout comes to understand why her lawyer father, Atticus, is defending a black man.  The kids in these pieces were terrific, too – in the latter, little Andrew Leone, as Dill, was especially spunky.
Still, these works were written by white people.  And the program was overwhelmed with music by white male American composers. Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes are a force of nature, and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Leanne League rocked her instrument on the first movement of Samuel Barber’s neo-Romantic Violin Concerto.  But the best of the bunch was Madison Symphony Orchestra’s dynamic rendering of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México, with its near-jazzy dissonance, its swing, snippets of Jarabe Tapatío woven into its modern classical fabric.  That by itself would have been enough.
Madison Opera’s been knocking my socks off lately with its modern works, and its selections from Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta Candide were no exception. From a few well-picked excerpts the whole story emerged intact.  The singing was compelling, and the principals were witty – particularly tenor Daniel Shirley in the title role, and soprano Jeni Houser as the ditzy Cunégonde.
Wisconsin Poet Laureate Max Garland’s poems, and his performance style, too, struck a rare balance between hilarious and deeply humanist – I wanted more.
Forward Theater Company’s two very short excerpts sparkled.  Using the Stage Manager (Norman Moses) from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to announce the show’s intermission was quite clever, and I was hypnotized by Marti Gobel’s recitation of the hallucinatory “Night Flight to San Francisco,” from Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. 
Li Chiao Ping’s “Tendrils” was the only piece on the program that somehow missed the mark.  A stripped-down example of her spare, angular, postmodern technique, “Tendrils,” like some of her other works, rendered a scientific – in this case botanical – phenomenon in human movement.  If you tried, you could take the cloth strips from the deconstructed tutus – a Li hallmark – as well as the dancers’ shifting bodies and limbs – as tendrils.  But the piece looked awkward – under-rehearsed – and it lacked the mystique and humor that so often grace her works. 
A dance of a different sort, Madison Ballet’s pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1970 Broadwayesque, Gershwin-scored Who Cares?, gave the audience a savory taste of neoclassical ballet.  Phillip Ollenburg, who’s new to the role, was still feeling his way into it, but that barely mattered – all eyes were on quintessential ballerina Marguerite Luksik, who lit up the stage with her spot-on timing and sassy attitude.  The company’s other piece – the happy little “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” to the famous Four Tops tune for which it’s named, was excerpted from Groovy, artistic director W. Earle Smith’s ode to the 1960s that premiered last spring.  As a stand-alone piece “Sugar Pie” highlighted the company’s tight corps work, and its sense of fun was sweetened this time by the addition of  a vocal quartet (uncredited in the program).  But the choreography’s too simple, the unbroken unison too restricting, to showcase the considerable chops these dancers actually possess.
And now, the showstopper – Kanopy’s formidable performance of “Steps on the Street,” a dance excerpted from the reconstruction of Martha Graham’s full-length 1936 work Chronicle.  “Steps,” a veritable lexicon of Graham’s brilliant modernist vocabulary, features a lone soul (Brienna Tipler) moving amidst a corps of eleven women often dancing in unison.  Its striking motifs – in particular, a repeated series of rhythmic jumps, arms raised overhead, hands balled into fists – were exactingly executed by Kanopy’s dancers.  The piece, Graham’s  abstraction of the Spanish Civil War, is the emotional equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica.  It’s a time capsule from the twentieth century that looks devastatingly fresh in the war-torn twenty-first.
American Kalidescope revealed stunning advances in Madison’s performing arts scene, thanks to Jerry Frautchi’s gift to the city and Pleasant Rowland’s Great Performance Fund challenge grant.  These magnanimous offerings to the arts have allowed our city to move far beyond the cow town it used to be.  But the program left us with a lopsided panorama.  It’ll be interesting to see what the next decade brings.

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