Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Best Performances of 2014

                                                                              Bandaloop  © SKepecs 2014
by Susan Kepecs
Around the world the number of popular uprisings against the oil, narco, racist, sexist, military and political forces of global capitalism increased this year. But can the people ever win?  While you ponder the question, remember this: at least there’s respite in the arts.  Here, in no particular order, are the performances I was most grateful for this year. 

Madison Opera’s Dead Man Walking, April 25-27, in Overture Hall.  Based on the made-into-movie book by Sister Helen Prejean, composed by Jake Heggie with libretto by Terrrence Nally, and directed and conducted by Maestro John Demain, Dead Man Walking was the year’s most powerful production.  The structure of this opera offers all the elements of its traditional, nineteenth century predecessors – love, violence, high drama – but the work is set compellingly in the zeitgeist of today. The music – Stravinskyesque modern with touches of gospel, jazz and blues – plus the industrial, Broadway-style set – grab a musty old artform by the horns and flip it smack into the present.  In Madison Opera’s production the performances, especially by the leads – Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as the murderer on death row, Joseph DeRocher – were beautifully turned. The emotional impact of this opera on the audience was astonishing, and colossal social relevance of this exceptional work of art was driven home again three days later, when the botched execution of an Oklahoma death row inmate monopolized the national news.

Madison Ballet’s Repertory II program, March 21-22, at the Bartell. Three short ballets were on the bill – two by artistic director W. Earle Smith (La Luce D’Amore, a pure ballet piece to a set of
                                                         "Who Cares?"   © SKepecs 2014
Neopolitan folk tunes, and Groovy, an ode to the 1960s), plus the concert version of Who Cares?, George Balanchine’s Broadwayesque, Gershwin-scored gem from 1970.  Much of the dance performance I saw this year was formulaic and dull.  But these ballets sparkled, setting the company’s strong, polished dancers free, within the neoclassical canon and the parameters of the choreography, to let loose and dance for joy.

Juancho Martínez (L) and Aurelio Martínez   © SKepecs 2014 
Two selections from the Eleventh Annual Madison World Music Festival, Sept. 12-13, Memorial Union Terrace, the Wisconsin Union Theater, and the Willy St. Fair.  One was Aurelio Martínez and the Garifuna Soul Band, from Honduras (Sept. 12, Shannon Hall at WUT). No place on earth has   more social problems than this crime-ridden ex-banana republic, and few people are more marginalized than the African / Caribbean Garifuna of Central America’s Atlantic coast. “I write songs about social problems,” guitarist / bandleader Martínez said onstage.“We are the voice of silence.”  But no music has ever been more alegre – smooth, rhythmic, tropical and transcendant, with a moral message for the ages: you gotta dance to keep from cryin’.  Congas, hollow-log Garifuna drums, bass, dueling guitars – plus invited guest Juan Tomás “Juancho” Martínez, of Golpe Tierra, Clan Destino, Acoplados and other smokin’ Mad City bands, on cajón and congas – put out irresistable punta and parranda beats.  Aurelio, possessed of a powerful deep tenor and a supple guitar style, sang like a preacher, scatted like a jazzman, danced with the spirits. “Like it?” he asked. “Garifuna soul!”

    Bandaloop © SKepecs 2014
 Also at the MWMF, aerial dance company Bandaloop (both days, Union Terrace) took my breath away.  No tricks á la Cirque de Soliel, no death-defying, high-impact feats like Streb’s.  Bandaloop’s a small company of extremely graceful movers who used the Terrace face of the Union Theater exactly  the way modern and classical dancers use the floor – but with a whole extra dimension.  Rigged like  mountain climbers the dancers got incredible hang time in the air, approximating flight.  How much fun, jitterbuggging to Count Basie, suspended up there!  When I interviewed senior dancer Melecio Estrella before the fest, he told me one of the company’s main aims was to get people to see architecture they may be very familiar with in a new light. Bingo. That side of the WUT hasn’t looked the same since. 

Million Dollar Quartet, May 13-18, Overture Hall.  
The ebullient jukebox musical, revolving around a 1956 recording session at Sun Records in Memphis, featured killer musicians playing standout songs from the dawn of rock n’ roll.  Corey Kaiser (as Jay Perkins) didn’t get as much spotlight as his collaborators (little brother Carl, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis), but he was oh-so-cool, daddy-o, slappin’ and spinnin’ that standup bass, jitterbugging a foot all the while. James Barry (as Carl Perkins) pounded out hard-driving, two-fisted boogie-woogie and occasionally rippled a foot across the ivories for extra effect.  And John Countryman (as Jerry Lee Lewis) stole the show, boppin’ his head and stompin’ his feet as he shook, rattled and rolled.

                                                               DakhaBrakha  © SKepecs 2014

DakhaBrakha, Aug. 28, at Overture’s Capitol Theater.  This altermodern Ukranian band is a force of nature with its ancient, pagan, avant-garde music of the spheres, its polyphonic chants, Motown harmonies, accordions, cello, African percussion, and high performance art attitude.  The band’s second (third?) Madison appearance coincided with the height of the (still sizzling) crisis, on a day particularly rife with reports of new Russian incursions in eastern Ukraine.  The second set ended with the band’s signature song, “Baby,” and as the cheering audience rose to its feet the musicians held up signs.  “Stop Putin.” “No War.”  Whooping and hollering in solidarity ensued.
Kanopy Dance’s performance of Martha Graham’s “Steps in the Street” at American Kaleidoscope, Overture’s tenth anniversary celebration show, Sept. 27 in the big hall.  “Steps,” from 1936, is an absolutely striking example of Graham’s early work and a veritable lexicon of her brilliant modernist vocabulary.  It requires exacting, difficult modern dance technique, and it was rendered splendidly by Kanopy’s dancers. 

I’m giving two local saoco salutes this year, both to institutions that serve up big doses of performing arts happiness to the community on a regular basis.  One goes to the Cardinal Bar, for all those Friday
Tony Castañeda at the Cardinal © SKepecs 2014
happy hour jazz jam tribe gatherings.  Tony Castañeda’s Latin Jazz Quartet plays most first Fridays; the rest of the month varies, but the rotation, mixing up Latin and straight-ahead, often includes Golpe Tierra, Acoplados, Samba Novistas, El Clan Destino, the Dave Stoler Trio, and Gerri DiMaggio among others. 
The other goes to the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium for its 2014 Strollin’ Jazz Crawls. I only did the First Settlement event, on Sept. 26, and even then I didn’t catch every act. But what a pleasure to amble along East Wilson on a warm late September afternoon with the community out in full force, relaxed and diverse – so conspicuously different from the establishment formality of Overture’s American Kaleidoscope show the following night.  Such a stroke of genius, turning Crowley Station (aka the concrete top of Municipal Well #17) into a bandstand for Jamie Kember’s Madison College Big Band and later, Ladies Must Swing!  Meanwhile, the great Jan Wheaton’s joyous groove rocked the packed-to-the gills Cardinal across the street.  Formidable guitarist Louka Patenaude plied his alt-country side at Tempest Oyster Bar, accompanied by another guitar guru, Richard Hildner, plus John Christensen on bass and Juancho Martínez on cajón. 

© SKepecs 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Madison Ballet's 2014 Nutcracker Flaunts Beautiful Ballerinas

Quirk in the Land of Snow.  © Kat Stiennon 2014

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s 2014 Nutcracker, at Overture Hall through December 27 (I attended Saturday night, Dec. 13, and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 14) was a bit like that Victorian rhyme about bridal good luck charms – something old, new, borrowed, and blue.  By superstition that should be enough to ward off bad juju, and for the most part this production came through beautifully.  Just a few small demons slipped through the cracks.
The sets and about 95% of the choreography are relatively old, dating to 2004, Overture’s opening year.  And nobody goes to Nut for the party scene, as someone commented later, but the one in Madison Ballet’s production is so old it’s worn out. In both casts, the young Claras (Tia Wenkman Saturday night, Ruby Sutherlin Sovern Sunday afternoon) danced brightly and with spunk  But really, the dancing dolls are the scene’s saving grace. Young, talented company apprentice Annika Reikersdorfer’s music-box ballerina pique turns and twinkling pas de chats, plus Jackson Warring, flaunting crisp, clean cabrioles and quadruple pirouettes in his rhythmic soldier doll dance, brought the sleepy stage – and the audience – to life.
What’s new (and good) is twofold: first, and most importantly, Madison Ballet has grown; there’s an extra weekend of Nutcracker performances, and to carry that load for first time there are two sets of principals (Clara / Snow Queen / Sugarplum Fairy and her Nutcracker Cavalier).  It’s the ballerinas who count here.  One was Marguerite Luksik, who’s danced this role the last four or five years, and who I saw Saturday night, partnered by Jason Gomez.  The other is Shannon Quirk, partnered Sunday afternoon by Phillip Ollenburg.  This is Quirk’s third season with Madison Ballet, but her first in the principal part.
Second in the “what’s new” category are some costumes in Act II.  The plummy new Sugarplum wear is sleek and snazzy – very twenty-first century without treading on tradition at all.  And the new Waltz of the Fowers tutus are gorgeous, much more flower-like than the old ones with spring green bodices above pastel tulle in pink, peach, and hydrangea blue, hence “something blue.”
Less wondrous were the new Merliton costumes; the puffy-sleeved, long-skirted, candy-striped dresses fit the carnivalesque, Victorian ambience of Nut’s second act, but they looked heavy, made the dancers’ necks look short, and hid the complex legwork in what’s arguably the ballet’s longest, most difficult variation.
What’s borrowed was Drosselmeyer.  Actor Sam White, who’s been doing that part since, I think, 2008, was out with an injury – so the show appropriated Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith for the role.  Smith was oddly outfitted for the traditional, nineteenth-century look of this production in a 1970’s-style but appropriately plum-colored suit beneath the classic cape.  Though long retired from the stage Smith can dance up a storm, and he possesses considerable acting chops – but he downplayed the part.  It’s easy to understand why he chose to stay in the background, but it would have been fun to see him strut his stuff, amping up the magician’s malevolence. 
Beyond what’s old or new, there’s the matter of what’s timeless. There’s Tchaikovsky’s score, for one thing, sparkling in the hands of the Madison Chamber Orchestra under Maestro Andrew Sewell’s vibrant baton.  The dancing itself, and Smith’s choreography, are lovely and fun.  Yes, there were a few glitches.  The stage had a few slippery spots, but that’s old hat.  The Snow corps got off to a late start Saturday night, which threw off the timing for a few seconds.  But ballets, like the humans who make them happen, don’t need to be 100% perfect to be great.  
Among the divertissements, Spanish on Saturday night, danced by Warring and second-season apprentice Andrew Erickson, stood out; the pair waltzed and pirouetted and sailed cabrioles and tour jetés in tight, rhythmic unison with loads of ballon and brio español.  Also appealing was the slinky, golden-lit Arabian pas, with its sinuous, suggestive partnering and push-pull dynamic, both nights partnered by Cody Olsen.  Rachelle Butler (Saturday night) curled and unfurled around Olsen’s Pilates-buff body like liquid silk; Abigail Henninger’s flexibility and endless extensions on Sunday were striking.
But the best thing about Madison Ballet’s 2014 Nutcracker was the opportunity to witness the artistry of two sensational but very different ballerinas in the principal role, back to back.  In fact, though, each has two roles, which they swap in alternate performances – Clara / Snow Queen / Sugarplum one time, the Dewdrop the next.
The comparison is fascinating.  Luksik is audacious, elfin, fleet of foot; Quirk is elegant, long-limbed, swan-like, luxurious.  The choreography for both is the same, of course, but what’s vividly remembered the next day is a factor the dancers’ distinct styles.
Luksik as the Dewdrop     © Kat Stiennon 2014
Luksik’s energy crackles onstage.  In her Sugarplum variation Saturday her glittery feet stirred up imaginary fairy dust with a tricky little gargouillade; later she spun sixteen flawless fouettes into a triple pirouette. In the pas de deux she flung herself thrillingly into partnered arabesque, flipped a flirty attitude leg around Gomez, then swept deep into penché.  She ran across the stage, leaping onto his shoulder – like an exclamation point! – twice in a row. 
    As Dew Saturday night Quirk’s long-legged bourées were like those of a great, graceful bird.  The jetés she sailed across the stage came close to flight.  On Sunday in the enchanged land of snow she melted into sumptuous lifts, swirling into arabesques like a crystaline flake in the wind.  In the Sugarplum pas, a picture-perfect attitude followed by a fearless fish dive made the audience gasp. Then she lept, regal and victorious, onto Ollenburg’s shoulder, arms allongé, raised to the skies like exultant wings.