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.   

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