Monday, December 21, 2015

Nutcracker 2015 Sparkles with Surprises

Quirk, in Snow                © Kat Stiennon 2015
by Susan Kepecs
On the surface, Madison Ballet’s Balanchine-based Nutcracker (through Dec. 27, Overture Hall) looks like tradition set in stone.  Every year, Maestro Andrew Sewell and the Madison Chamber Orchestra, with its light, sparkly touch, save Tchiakovsky’s familiar score from ending up as supermarket muzak cliché.  Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith’s choreography always has the same slightly unconventional neoclassical look, though it changes (almost imperceptably) to highlight the strengths of dancers new to particular roles.  The sets have been around since 2004, but they still pop with holiday glitter.  The dancing always looks competent, often lovely, though it’s never perfect all the way through (someone’s arms will lag behind on a corps port de bras; someone’s battus will flop), and somebody inevitably slips – the floor on Overture Hall’s stage is less than ideal. But there are always surprises hidden in predictability.  In order not to miss out I saw both casts, back to back, on Sat., Dec. 12.  Here are this year’s revelations:
The party scene – that seemingly intermniable prologue to Nut’s real dancing, fun to see only if you have little kids in the cast – seemed a little shorter and brighter this year thanks to Jason Gomez, who’s always superb in character roles, as Drosselmeyer.  The part’s been done for years by local celeb actors who never quite seemed to fit right in the context of ballet, so it was a relief to see a dancer, with a balletic sense of timing and elegance, orchestrate the scene.  Plus Gomez has a flair for magic tricks, and he really knows how to fling a cape.
Phillip Ollenberg, who’s done the Russian divertissement as a solo for the last four or five years, beamed with confidence as he turned in (as always) a bold bravura performance.  
Madison Ballet’s hired several new men this season, but the ballerinas are still the heart of the company.  Two of them, both in their second MB season, blossomed in this ballet.  In the Arabian pas, Abigail Henninger furled and unfurled around her partner, newcomer Jordan Nelson, with exotic lushness, miraculously achieving with her long, supple body the curlique lines of ancient Moorish calligraphy.  Nelson’s partnering added mystery to this feat; sometimes his hands were almost hidden behind Henninger’s back, making it appear as if she were floating, unsupported.  
And Elizabeth Cohen – the Dewdrop in “Waltz of the Flowers” in the evening show – excels at moving through the music with loose pleasure.  There’s a dash of Latin sassiness in her style, honed during two seasons with Ballet Latino de San Antonio that preceeded her move to Madison last year.
But the big story in the current Nutcracker production is about three ballerinas who occupy special places in Madison Ballet history.  One is veteran Rachelle Butler, who plans to retire after the 2015-16 season.  Butler’s the company’s backbone – she’s the one the dancers follow in company class, relying on her command of Balanchine technique and Smith’s choreography.  As Dew in the afternoon show she revealed that treasure trove of experience in her arms and back, and it was obvious that she carries this choreography deep in her bones. 
     The other two in the aforementioned trio shared the principal Snow Queen / Sugarplum Fairy role this year.  Annika Reikersdorfer came up through the School of Madison Ballet and joined the company last season.  She’s one of those very rare dancers who discovered her artistry early; at 17 she was dancing soloist roles – she was Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother last spring. Now 18, she just sparkled in Nutcracker’s principal part.  In the Snow pas, absolutely calm and self-possessed, she wrapped an attitude leg behind her partner (Ollenberg); he lifted her, feathery and spirit-like, into an arcing grand jeté.  Her Sugarplum variation was fresh and full of grace; the delight she took in every step, from simple piqué turns to a twinkling gargouillade, was palpable.  In the pas de deux she flew into a triumphant shoulder sit; Ollenberg spun her into a deep fish dive as the audience whistled and clapped.
        Madison Ballet isn’t built on hierarchy – in the course of any season everyone does both corps and solo parts.  But in every sense except title there is a principal ballerina, instantly recognizable to the public at large, and that’s Shannon Quirk.  For her, the Snow pas seemed effortless.  She sailed, she floated.  The joyful flourishes that adorned her port de bras were pure Balanchine.  The audience held its collective breath as she soared into high, arched lifts or flew, fearless, into a fish.  And the long adagio Sugarplum pas was all about her.  The regal way she swept into penché, then dipped luxuriously into her cavalier’s arms, left no doubt – Quirk is the reigning empress of Madison Ballet.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Li Chiao Ping's Bright, Shiny Armature

Li, in "Tome"     © Craig Schreiner
by Susan Kepecs
Li Chiao Ping Dance presented Armature: in media res, the final installment of the company’s twenty-year retrospective, at Overture’s Promenade Hall last weekend (Dec. 10-13 – I attended on Dec. 11).  Li is a powerful performer and a major force in the world of second-wave postmodern choreographers. Her modus operandi is intellectual and kinetic, achingly personal and/or oddly abstract. Her idiosyncratic vocabulary melds a buff, angular, egalitarian aesthetic with a quasi-classical countercurrent.  Autobiographical solos, dances devised over spoken-word works, and dada-esque ensemble un-ballets are her bailiwick.
Only one piece on this program, “Past Forward,” which I described after its 2006 premiere as a happy demon dance (for three), fell flat – the dancers were strong, but the work itself this time around struck me as simply a vehicle for Li’s movement style, lacking the meaty content that defines most of her oeuvre.
The rest of the bill was compelling, featuring dances old and new that I was delighted to see again, or to experience for the first time.  “Aqueducks,” an absurd divertissement excerpted from Li’s 2010 holiday un-ballet, The Knotcracker, lacked the layers of intellectual nuances that prevailed elsewhere in this program, but it exemplified Li’s razor-sharp sense of humor – and in these dark times if you can make your audience laugh at a postmodern dance concert, you’re onto something.
“Cline,” choreographed this year, was built around the company’s six current core dancers plus Li, whose powerful presence bookended the corps performance.   Like “Past Forward,” “Cline,” a minimalist piece, was essentially a vehicle for Li’s vocbulary.  But its formal structure was engagingly complex, built like a Balanchine ensemble ballet with groups of dancers crossing in space while executing different but related moves, or moving in unison, or mirroring each other in pairs and trios.  Sets of Li-isms – spin, fall, fling, run; rollover, shoulder stand, push-pull, carve through space – meshed seamlessly with artifice-less balletic references (little coupe jeté turns; a promenade in low arabesque; brief pas de deux with small, low lifts).
Li excerpted three substantive solos, strung together like pearls on a string of dancing soliloquys, from her autobiographical exposé Yellow River, originally an evening-length solo program that premiered in San Francisco in 1991 and which she performed herself.  I’ve seen extracts from this work before, but never so many at once.  Taken together, these dances deftly dissected the Chinese-American experience.  East met west; superstition clashed with science.  Li ran in place, center stage, spouting a string of old wives’ tales – a metaphysical net from which she tried to break free.  The following solo, titled “I can feel the rings” – set to a remarkable field recording of Chinese Gypsy women recorded by Li’s father – was set on Toronto-based guest artist Susan Lee, whose grasp of its content was primordial; dancing as if driven by external forces, she exposed a veiled edge of violence shot through with pleas to invisible deities.  From traditional China the story lept to the modern West; the Mozart-driven “Exact and Precise,” danced by LCPD veteran Liz Sexe, was playful, with patterns that repeated but became more complex – dance as music made visible, as Balanchine liked to say.  Finally, “Tome” featured Li, small but mighty, with a big old dictionary that served as a low pedestal on which she pivoted, or crouched, or balanced on one foot in penché, working leg in low arabesque – so hard! –  while reciting mathematical constructs. 
“Refrain,” choreographed in1999 (though I’ve never seen it before), was bravely performed by Megan Thompson, who’s danced with LCPD on and off for years.  She wore a deconstructed tutu of the sort Li often uses to signal her un-ballet genre – red tulle pinned in odd spots over a burgundy-toned leotard.  A round spotlight like a full moon projected on the backdrop hightened this dramatic – ok, operatic – dance, set (what else?) to Wagner.  Balletic components – cambrés, port de bras, second position pliés – were channeled through Li’s angular style.  Thompson’s ironic facial expressions underscored the tongue-in-cheek intent of this piece. 
“Gó” (1995), an un-ballet named for the ancient Chinese board game played with black and white stones, underwent slight modifications in the early 2000s and then disappeared from Li’s active repertory.  The 2015 version, “Gó Redux,” was mostly its sassy old self – a double whammy that deconstructs ballet both avant-garde and nineteenth century classical. With dancers in black halter tops, little white tutus, and combat boots, this witty work flaunts – in Li’s vocabulary – the rhythmic, tribal thrust of the 1913 Stravinsky / Nijinsky collaboration Rite of Spring (to which Li paid direct homage during its centennial year), plus some beloved clichés from the 1895 Tchiakovsky / Petipa Swan Lake including the famous dance of the four arms-crossed cygnets.  “Gó” is dynamite dancemaking, eye-popping and filled with references that click. I was mystified, though, when “Gó Redux” ended with a trick seemingly lifted from the Hubbard Street Dance vocabulary – empty dresses traveling across the stage (here, on a clothesline).  We’ve seen variations on this theme in Jirí Kylian’s signature piece, “Petite Mort,” and in other works staged by Hubbard in the early 2000s.  Knowing Li, the reference probably was intentional, but it felt like an afterthought – a non-sequitur among the brighter puns in this piece.
The pièce de resistance in Armature was the world premiere of the title work, “in media res.”  For sheer physiopsychological challenge it bore relation to Elizabeth Streb’s “Board” – a dance featuring a soloist, a mat, and game of chicken with a spinning two-by-four that I’ve seen Li perform twice.  “In media res” is a strong, resonant piece, threaded with spoken words in nonsensical sequences that evoked its title or its actions.  It featured a fearless Li at the peak of tensegrity, performing impossible feats with a small, plain work table; she lifted it on her shoulders like Charles Atlas, slid beneath it and hung off its edge, went from downward dog to headstand on its top,
Li, "in media res"     © Craig Schreiner
promenaded there in low arabesque, slid backwards to hang off its edge, teetering on the small of her back, then fired up her core to spring up – a Pilates teaser – before leaping to her feet on the tabletop and jumping down, to vanish and re-emerge, mysteriously, framed in a string of lights. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Madison Ballet's Dracula Sizzles

Count Dracula ©  Kat Stiennon 2015
by Susan Kepecs
They believed, so I did, too.  I’m talking about the dancers in Madison Ballet’s fast-paced feast of entertainment, cooked up by artistic director W. Earle Smith and featuring his own action-packed choreography, Michael Massey’s indelible rock n’ roll score (played live onstage by his band), Karen Brown-Larimore’s slick steampunk costuming, and a big Broadwayesque aluminum-truss set by the late Jen Trieloff.  It played Overture's Capitol Theater last weekend, Oct. 16-17.
Dracula premiered at Capitol Theater in March, 2013, and returned in October of that year.  In both of its previous runs it seemed like a series of somewhat disparate dances, held together by a thin thread of story plus the astute characterization in Massey’s score. But this time the cast reveled in the plot, taking the tale to new heights while refusing to sacrifice dance on the altar of drama. The ballet itself, with the exception of choreographic adjustments to suit the styles of dancers who’ve joined the company since the last time Dracula was staged, had few obvious changes.  Except one.  The action starts with Jonathan Harker trapped in Dracula’s castle, dancing frantically.  This solo of distress formerly was done behind a scrim, which provided a delicious air of mystery that gave way to spine-chilling shock – when the dance was done and the veil was lifted, there stood Dracula, in all his glory.  In last weekend’s production that magic was lost – the scrim was gone, the Harker variation brightly lit.
Other than that I have no complaints.  If Balanchine had created a sex-oozing rock n’ roll ballet in the twenty-first century, this would be it.  The dance for Dracula’s brides is unmistakably
Brides © Kat Stiennon 2015
neoclassical, despite its subject matter.  Abigail Henninger sizzled and slithered, Rachelle Butler was lascivious, Kelanie Murphy demonesque – but what really mattered was how the dancers’ precise pointework exaggerated their slinking hips.
The Dracula corps is packed with talented soloists, so it’s no surprise that some of the show’s best dancing happened in the ballet’s two large ensemble numbers.  In “Gypsies,” eight dancers in goggles and mohawks in charge of Dracula’s bags of dirt – vampires, of course, can only rest if their coffins are filled with earth from home – travel with the Count from Transylvania to England.  Ensconsed in the dark hold of a wave-tossed ship they shifted between partnering and unison work, rhythmic and expansive like the roiling sea.  “Minions” was bigger, wilder, and more beautiful, full of batlike contractions that marry latter-day Balanchine with Martha Graham.  All ten dancers (six women, four men) wore long red satin skirts that swirled and flew as they spun and lept, to dazzling effect.
As eager suitors of the coquette Lucy Westenra, the doctor (Jason Gomez), the Texan (Cyrus Bridwell), and the nobleman’s son (Phillip Ollenburg) brought out an arsenal of balletic pyrotechnics, competing for her attention with leaps and pirouettes.  When she became a vampire, their pursuit – and their arsenal – turned murderous.  The scene where van Helsing (Jacob Ashley) laid out his plan to slay the vampires just popped.  Men bravura dancing in unison, with guns – pow!
Ashley’s danced this role in every Madison Ballet Dracula production to date.  He’s always
van Helsing © Kat Stiennon 2015
been a powerful jumper – grand cabrioles, switch leaps, and tours en l’air are his specialties – but he’s upped his acting ante since last we saw him in van Helsing’s leather frock coat.  He was so authoritative he looked presidential (ok, yes, it’s primary season), directing his posse in the hemovore hunt.
Jackson Warring, cast again as Dracula’s lackey (the crotch-grabbing, insect-eating lunatic Renfield), has grown into his role, too.  He came across as blazingly crazy, and he nailed the intricate rhythmic shifts in Massey’s spot-on maniac music.  This is much harder than it looks, since it demands complicated counts and an almost constant string of various kinds of jumps.
The part of Lucy Westenra was danced by McKenna Collins, one of two current company dancers who’ve come up through the School of Madison Ballet.  At 19, this was her first principal role.  A hint of tension that showed mostly in her shoulders held her back at the start of her opening number, a wildly flirtatious rock n’ roll romp, but the stress vanished when her boyfriends charged onstage.  It was fun to see her relax and let go, ripping through the rest of the dance with great delight that didn’t abate as the plot moved along.  Drained by Dracula, laid out in her tomb, and sensing the
Lucy in the tomb © Kat Stiennon 2015
presence of van Helsing’s posse, she heaved herself up from her icy slab, angry and hissing, feet pointed.  She bouréed across the stage, pale under the cold light, arms gesticulating, hair flying -- a madwoman in a house of horrors.  She bared her teeth and lept brazenly onto her pursuers, one by one.
The Harker role was danced by former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson, guesting with Madison Ballet for this show.  An accomplished dancer, he exudes an aura of smoldering lust that he gets a lot of mileage out of, adjusting it as needed. He approached the ballet’s opening display of male bravura with relaxed, confident swagger; he swooned and staggered, swept away, in the vampiric orgy with Dracula’s brides; he was passionate, playful, and protective in his bedroom-eyed pas de deux with his fiancé, Mina Murray (Shannon Quirk).
Quirk, as always, was a joy to watch.  We first saw her alone, dancing on air, lyrical and light, dreaming of Harker.  She was liquid; she flowed and soared.  Her pas de deux with Johnson was an
Mina / Harker pas © Kat Stiennon 2015
ode to carefree delight.  Their chemistry was superb – they were diggin’ it, you could tell.  Sometimes Johnson pulled her off center, exaggerating her luxurious long lines.  The Mina / Dracula pas was the other side of the sex coin – a dangerous, surreal dream in which Quirk appeared terrified but willing.  The powerful Count (Joe LaChance) swept her hungrily into arched overhead lifts; he tossed her over his shoulder; he slung her deep into fish dives; he tried to bite.
LaChance made a compelling Dracula, tall, proud, and able to slip sideways through the ether while imposing his will on vampires and humans alike.  In his final variation, shot by the nobleman’s son, he sank to his knees, slurped his own blood, and, like a wounded animal, rose to fight again.  I desperately wanted him to break the fourth wall and appeal to the audience before van Helsing drove the final stake through his heart.  He didn’t, but the moment was gripping nonetheless.  He believed, so I did, too.   

Monday, October 5, 2015

Interlude with the Vampire-Dancers: Getting Ready for Dracula

Dracula slings Mina over his shoulder  © SKepecs 2015
By Susan Kepecs
Shortly after dusk, a string of plump Dane County Farmers’ Market garlic wrapped around my neck, I muster my courage and tiptoe up the steep flight of steps that leads to the Secret Kingdom of Madison Ballet.  I peek into a spooky, windowless room where a troupe of vampires is rehearsing a ballet.  It’s artistic director W. Earle Smith’s Dracula, to be precise.  I loved that show so much I saw all three performances of its 2013 premiere.  That’s why I’m here.  Insanely drawn to vampires and other bad boys, I can’t wait even one more day to see it again.  Take it from me, though – unless you want to scare yourself silly, go for the finished product.  It runs Oct. 16-17 at Overture’s well-guarded, very safe Capitol Theater.  If you see the show there you get the total experience – Smith’s weirdly terrifying, action-packed, contemporary choreography; Michael Massey’s indelible rock n’ roll score, composed just for this ballet and performed live onstage; Karen Brown-Larimore’s over-the-top steampunk costuming; and the late Jen Trieloff’s bold, Broadwayesque aluminum-truss set.
Smith’s Dracula, like all really good story ballets, is more about the dancing than the narrative, though when you catch it onstage you can see the fable’s flow unfold.  But since I’m sneaking in to see a rehearsal, and it’s early in the process, I’ll just get bits and pieces.  To prepare, I boned up on the Cliffs Notes:
I draw a deep breath and venture into the studio.  At this hour all the sugarplum fairies have gone home, but except for an occasional glint of fang the members of the Dracula cast seem for all the world like perfectly ordinary highly trained ballet dancers (not that there’s anything ordinary about highly trained ballet dancers, but you get my point).  They’re wearing regular old dancewear, which heightens the effect.  
I work up the nerve to approach Smith.  I don’t have any formal questions ready, so I just plunge in.  “As the artistic director of a vampire company, I assume you usually work late into the night?”
“I do my best work at night,” he says.  His upper lip lifts in a slight snarl, and I notice a red fleck on one of his front teeth. “I play best at night, too.  I’m a night owl.”
“How do you keep them from biting you?”
“We don’t often bite our own kind, but the truth is best left unsaid – vampires never give away their secrets, or their feeding habits.” 
 Out of the corner of my eye I notice something unusual for ballet companies – half the dancers are men!  Smith anticipates my next question.  “The real tension in this ballet is between the Count and a number of mortal men who haven’t crossed over,” he says.  “It takes more male dancers than we have in the company, so I called in Jacob Ashley – um, Dr. Van Helsing – because he’s the best vampire slayer I know.  And I brought in former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson, also known as Jonathan Harker, because, well, even though he’s a mere mortal, he’s just plain sexy.”  
Smith turns away from this impromptu interview and bares his fangs; the dancers jump to attention.  The opening notes of the overture to Massey’s Dracula score announce the start of rehearsal.  (Just to clarify, Massey is not a vampire, but he is their favorite composer).  
Harker, indefatigable fiancé of the lovely Mina Murray, bears a slight resemblance to the young Mikhail Baryshnikov – it’s his haircut, and some of his facial expressions.  He’s executing a bold bravura variation and is in the middle of a string of second position pirouettes when the music goes gouhlish – the characterization in this score is right on point – and the imposing figure of Count Dracula (day name: Joe LaChance) sidles in with loose, lateral steps – the opposite of the diagonal dynamic we earthly humans usually employ.  He stalks Harker, grabs him, and – sluuurp! – licks his neck – then pushes him away in disgust. 
There’s a break; the dancers regroup.  “Mr. Harker,” I ask, “do you find Dracula attractive?”
“Nooooo!” Harker replies, scandalized.  “Of course, I’m apprehensive – I don’t really believe in vampires, but there they are!  It’s all so weird – I don’t know exactly what’s going on here.”
Dracula's brides seduce Harker  © SKepecs 2015
The action resumes.  Dracula’s brides (Rachelle Butler, Abigail Henninger, Kelanie Murphy) set out to seduce Harker, who’s ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time; they circle him, slinking lasciviously, hissing, hips jutting.  Holding hands, arms crossed like three harpy cygnets from some perverted Petipa ballet, they slither    
sideways doing the Count’s signature step.  Each executes a bloodthirsty little come-hither dance.  Henninger brandishes exceptional extensions; her limbs seem to stretch toward outer space.  Butler, who’s been with the Count longer than the rest, flaunts a singularly voluptuous solo.  Still, Smith isn’t satisfied.  “Don’t prettify it,” he insists, incisors flashing. “Make it more grotesque!”  
I’m itching to ask Dracula if bigamy’s common among his kind, but he’s protected by a band of Gypsies who pirouette, pas de chat and kick, pointe shoes flashing, like human spikes on the castle gate.  It’s big, bold, off-center dancing that looks devastatingly dangerous.  
The mortal Mina (the elegant Shannon Quirk) appears, leaping happily; she’s come to visit her friend Lucy Westernra (McKenna Collins), who responds with a welcoming outburst of shoulder-rolling, hip-shaking, sheer rock n’ roll that brings her three suitors (Phillip Ollenburg, Jason Gomez, Cyrus Bridwell) out of the woodwork in hot pursuit.  Mina watches warily.  Lucy beckons her to join this bacchanal.  “Mina,” Smith admonishes – and it’s obvious how his tone softens when he’s around this superbly graceful dancer – “don’t fall for it.  You’re like, oh no, no, I’m not doing that!  Not me!  I’ve got morals!”
Lucy is gossiping in the corner with some of the Gypsy girls.  I make my way over.  “I know you always have a lot of boyfriends,” I say, “but aren’t you afraid Dracula will come lusting after you when you do that outrageously flirty dance?” 
“No, not at all!” she replies, laughing.  “I’m a daredevil – I’m not afraid of anything!  I find vampires alluring – I find most men alluring!”
Renfield does his crazy dance  © SKepecs 2015
That crazy Renfield – his day name’s Jackson Warring – is a bona fide schizophrenic.  It’s slightly unnerving to see him suck up to Dracula with his loony little crotch-grabbing, insect eating dance.  “I’m the action star of my own movie,” he says, safely back in his cell and drooling slightly.  “I mean, I just want Dracula to like me.  I want him to make me into whatever he wants.  Ha ha, I’m a vampire!”  
But Dracula has other plans.  He goes after Mina, sweeping her into a luxurious penché and lifting her onto his back to carry her off.  “Bite her!” Smith commands, chomping at the air.  “Find your inner Dracula!” 
Finally, I work up the nerve to approach the Count.  Up close his towering presence is totally intimidating.  “What is it you want?” I squeak.  “The taste of blood – I need blood!” he snarls.  “I’m a control freak.”  His upper lip curls.  “I want to do what I want, to whoever I want, whenever I want to do it, and nobody is smart or strong enough to top me.  I’ve been dead 400 years – I don’t really want to reconnect with humanity.  It’s insulting to have to associate with all these humans – I feel put upon.  But it’s Mina – I have a long-term plan for her.  I want her, which is why I want to kill Lucy.  I’ve been feeding on Lucy for ages, but the next time she looks at me wrong I’m going to do her in.  I’m going to do it for Mina, and the hell with Lucy and the rest of my brides!”
I’m starting to feel really weird about all of this.  I want to get out of here, now.  Mina must be thinking the same thing, because she’s inching toward the door.  I follow her.  
“How does it feel to be pursued by Count Dracula?” I ask as we tiptoe toward the stairs.  “It’s terrifying, yet flattering,” she whispers.  “I usually play it safer – it feels very risky to fall into being pursued, especially by a vampire.”  
The first faint rays of dawn are visible in the hall.  Only the hemovores remain inside the studio; the sound of coffin lids softly closing reaches our retreating ears.  But someone who doesn’t belong in there is trapped – it must be Harker, since he’s not with us.  We can hear him leaping, flinging himself at the walls in frustration.
Want to know what happens next? You’ll have to go to the show.  But don’t forget your garlic, or you might be sorry.

Dracula tours to Oshkosh’s Grand Opera House (Oct. 21-22) and the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts in Springfield, MO, on March 16. If you can’t get enough, get on the road.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Toda Madison le Gusta ... the Afro-Cuban All Stars!

by Susan Kepecs
Dr. Juan de Marcos González wears a string of green and yellow beads on his wrist.  This bicolored bracelet is the iddé of Orula, orisha mayor, oracle, brother of Changó, personification of knowledge, keeper of all secrets of life and nature.  Juan de Marcos isn’t particularly religious, but the iddé is apt – the man personifies knowledge of Cuban music.  He’s the keeper of its flame; he knows, better than anyone else, its secrets, and the many facets of its brilliant nature.  He sees its future.  For these reasons, Marcos is the UW-Madison Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence this fall – and the purveyor of the Cuban music experience not just on campus, but beyond the ivory tower.  He heads a series of performances and lecture-demomstrations that are open to the public. This week he offers us two events with his own master project, the Afro-Cuban All Stars.  On Tuesday, Sept. 29, there’s a lec/dem at Music Hall (7:30 PM) – and on Friday, Oct. 2, the ACAS play a gala performance at Overture Hall at 8.
Juan de Marcos is a world class, multilingual intellectual with advanced degrees in hydraulic engineering and agronomy, musical training at Havana’s premier conservatories, and a deep, wide knowledge of son y rumba rooted in his personal family experience.  Family looms large for Marcos, and the iddé is part and parcel of his heritage.  “It’s something I’ve had since I was little,” he says, “though not this particular one.  My mother gave it to me when I was only seven.  I didn’t like it; I frequently threw it away, and then she’d give me another one.  About four years ago I made this one – not as a religious object, but as a tribute to my family and my culture. 
The Afro-Cuban All Stars, which has been around much longer than that particular wrist band, is also a tribute to his family and culture.  The idea for the project was sparked by the success of Marcos’ first band, Sierra Maestra, which he put together while he was a graduate student at the Universidad de la Habana.  “A bunch of students got together to play music in '76,” he told me some years ago when I interviewed him for another upcoming ACAS concert.  “Most of our peers were drawn to British and US bands that had the allure of forbidden fruit.”
Not that there was any authorized rock n’ roll from “la yuma” on the big socialist island.  But in Havana there were clandestine late-night rooftop listening sessions revolving around radio pirated from Miami, and in 1973 the groundbreaking Cuban jazz/rock fusion band Irakere, fronted by Chucho Valdés, started enlisting traditional Cuban rhythms in the service of new, US-influenced forms.  Sierra Maestra took a different direction.  “We were smitten with the old-timers' music,” Marcos told me.  “We were after a punk look and we played traditional Cuban son.  We were notorious, and very popular.”
From the dustbins of prerevolutionary history, Sierra Maestra rescued the sounds Marcos grew up with in Pueblo Nuevo, which, along with its neighboring Centro Habana barrio, Cayo Hueso, was the Cuban capital’s twentieth century hotbed of rumba and urban son.  Marcos’ own father – his puro, as Cubans say – sang with some of Havana’s greatest dance bands, including the great Arsenio Rodríguez’ Septeto Boston, in the 1930s.

After his puro passed away, Marcos, looking to take the Sierra Maestra concept one step further, found a deeper way to celebrate traditional Cuban music.  And that’s how the Afro-Cuban All Stars came about.  The ACAS’ first album, A Toda Cuba le Gusta, was recorded in 1996 at Havana’s EGREM studios, produced by World Circuit’s Nick Gold, and distributed in the States through Nonesuch.  For A Toda Cuba, a big band affair, and its sister CD, Buena Vista Social Club, dedicated to the son septet style, Marcos and his wife Gliceria Abreu rounded up as many of the old-timers as they could find who were still able to play.  Most of them had abandoned music, or rather, the Cuban revolution had abandoned them.
A Toda Cuba le Gusta was a very traditional big band album of urban, '40s and '50s-style son, guaracha and guaguancó, starring a remarkable slate of musicians whose names evoke reverence if you’re a fan of the Buena Vista albums: soneros Ibrahim Ferrer, Pio Leyva, Raul Planas, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea; the great pianist Rubén Gonzalez, bassist Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez (Cachao’s nephew), trumpeters "Guajiro" Mirabal and Luis Alemañy. 
Almost all of the grand old soneros featured on those two albums and the handful of followup solo recordings from that series are gone now.  But musicians Marcos' age and younger were in the mix, including, on A Toda Cuba, sonero Félix Valoy, Marcos himself on trés and his now-deceased brother Carlos González on bongos.  All were integral to Marcos’ plan. “I was always aware that the old ones have to die, so even in the beginning I was adding younger musicians to the lineup,” he says.
The ACAS is a hands-on, real-life study in the sustainable evolution of tradition, and we’ve watched it happen here in Madison.  Some of the original artists were in the lineup that played at the old Civic Center’s Oscar Mayer Theater, in April, 2000 – Puntillita Licea (who died later that year), Alemañy, Marcos, his wife and ACAS manager Gliceria Abreu, his brother Carlos, and Valoy – plus Teresita Garcia Caturla, who wasn’t on A Toda Cuba, but whose career in Cuban song is legendary.  A few smokin’ young players whose styles were edged with jazz and timba shared that stage.   Among them were pianist David Alfaro and trumpeter Yauré Muñiz.  Garcia wore white; the men wore zoot suits in Changó's colors, red and white.  They cooked, they danced, they played a mix of tunes from A Toda Cuba and the just-released second ACAS disc, Distinto, Diferente (Nonesuch, 1999).
There’s son on that album, and a traditional canto Abakuá, but also a timba-son penned by Marcos, who called the package a modern interpretation of traditional Cuban music.  “The only way to preserve the traditional roots is to let in contemporary elements,” he says. 
The Afro-Cuban All Stars were slated to return in November, 2002.  But early that fall, in his post-Sept. 11 delirium, Bush 43 (Fidel, in his interminable speeches to Cuba’s version of Congress, the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, used to call him “¡Boochún!”) beefed up his already hardline stance against the island, declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism. As part of this offensive the US started denying visa applications from recording artists, essentially on the grounds that Cuban music was harmful to US interests.  Fidel countered with an addition to the Cuban constitution instituting socialism as an “incontrovertible” Cuban principle.  As a result, squelched demand for economic reform on the island drove a strapping diaspora of Cuban artists to spots around the globe.
By the time the ACAS finally returned to Mad City – to play at Overture Hall – it was March, 2009.  The band had three new albums out, including Step Forward: The Next Generation (yes, the album title’s in English) on Marcos’ own Havana-based record label, DM Ahora! (2005).  “It’s classic Cuban, mixed with elements of contemporary music and a lot of improvisation,” Marcos told me when it was released.  It paid homage to the elders while showcasing the next generation’s superstars, and mixed son y rumba with multicultural, hip-hop-tinged beats – guaguancó-timba (or guarapachangueo), ballad-timba – and older fusions like Irakere’s funkified batumbatá.
On the 2009 tour all of the players, including Marcos himself, who had moved his family to Mexico City, were expats, which insured that the show would go on.  The golden age threads were gone, replaced by sharp dark suits.  The repertory was part traditional, part Step Forward, and the lineup – as always an all-star affair – was packed with ACAS, Buena Vista, and Sierra Maestra alums of assorted ages, plus (among others) Calixto Oviedo, who played drums and timbales with the original timba outfit, NG La Banda, in its best days, and the brilliant pianist Nachito Herrera, who studied with Rubén González as a child and who’s now a leading Latin jazz figure based in Minneapolis.

For this week’s concert the All Stars are all expats, too – a good thing, since even now, with the door cracked open a few inches, it’s hard to get musicians out of Cuba.  As in 2009, there’ll be some traditional tunes and some of Marcos’ contemporary compositions.  Since I'm an old-timer myself, I mention, during my most recent interview with him, that I’m not, in general, a fan of today’s youth music. 
 “It’s important to have continuity, but Cuban music is not static,” Marcos responds.  “Cuba is revolutionary and competitive in music, and if you want to play all of its genres and review its history you have to include the new styles.  When I compose, I often mix contemporary and traditional elements in the same song.”
“I don’t do reggaeton or hip-hop,” he adds.  “But, you know, I do use timba.  Of course, timba was very contemporary in the ‘90s, when it was new, but now it’s pretty traditional.  I do it for that reason, not because I want to influence the market.  I’m lucky, I don’t have to make concessions to have an intellectual and cultural effect on Cuban music.  Inside Cuba, though, young groups are being heavily influenced by commercial sounds like Puerto Rican reggaetón, and they're mixing it into what they do.” [Note: there's a whole youth genre called "Cubatón" these days.]
"Music inside Cuba is getting more commercial in another way, too," Marcos adds.  “There’s a singular new phenomenon going on.  Cuba has no commercial system – there’s no official market.  But today’s youth have created an internal market for pirate CDs and music videos by influencing the public.  They make commercial videos like capitalist pop stars to get the word out about their concerts and their bands.”
Things have changed since the days of Boochún.  The seeds of this quasi-miracle were planted in 2008 -- six years before the move toward normalization that began late last year -- when Raul Castro succeeded his brother as president and initiated a series of minor economic reforms; among them was permitting the sale of electronic devices, including computers and cell phones (with service), to ordinary Cubans.  It took a few years for this technology to become widespread.  “But young musicians are now using flash drives, text messages, and Twitter to advertise,” Marcos says.  “Everyone in Cuba texts and tweets – it’s not controlled by the government, like Internet access is.  There's a whole subcommerce that exists within a socialist system where the possibilities for individual promotion are very limited.”

Cubans are notoriously inventive, and Cuban musicians in expatlandia, like their island counterparts, are constantly reinventing the way they approach their work.  So it's no surprise that the Afro-Cuban All Stars have a new sound.  For about four years, Marcos has been using the sonora (or conjunto) format first made famous by Arsenio Rodríguez. 
On the heels of the Septeto Boston, in which Marcos’ puro sang in the '30s, Rodríguez, a king among trés players, urbanized the son sound, creating a new, larger format – the conjunto – by adding piano, a second (and sometimes third) trumpet, and tumbadoras – congas – officially prohibited by the island’s white regime for being “too black” until the ragingly louche nights of Batista’s corrupt, Mafia-allied reign overtook Havana in the '40s and '50s.  In his rhythms and lyrics, too, Rodriguez brought a blazing sense of black pride to a style of Cuban music (son) that’s African side was tempered with the sabor of Spain.
The only wind instruments in the classic sonora sound are trumpets, and the rhythm section has no timbales, but there are no hard and fast rules in this game.  Marcos uses timbales in this incarnation of the ACAS, but also three trumpets, no trombones, no sax. “I wanted more frequency,” Marcos explains.  "The trombones and barritone sax can be a little aggressive.  I chose to use clarinets instead.  I’ve also added an instrument that hasn’t been used in Cuba since the ’60s – the vibraphone.” 

        Vibes are far from a traditional Cuban instrument, but in that decade a few Cuban jazz combos, whose players would have noticed how the instrument was being used in US jazz, picked it up.  Nuyorican salsa players in that decade were using vibes, too.  Most famously Joe Cuba, “el padre del boogaloo,” often used them instead of horns to fill out the sound of his sextet.
       “I really like the vibraphone for its sweet sound,” Marcos says.  “It's sophisticated, and it’s an excellent counterpoint to the horn section. I think I'm the first Cuban orchestrator to use it in a son format.  But no matter what instrumentation I use, I respect the genres of Cuban music.  I try to play all of them, bolero, cha-cha-cha, guapachá, son – with this sonora sound.  I’m working on a new album in this format.  It’s called ‘Step Backward.’  It’s only half finished, but it’s more traditional than anything I’ve done for a while.”
Friday night’s concert, with this orchestration (the full lineup is below), will be, at least in part, a taste of “Step Backward.”  And, like Orula’s iddé, it’s a family affair.  Gliceria Abreu, as always, will be onstage playing hand percussion, singing chorus, and dancing with her husband.  Their two intensely talented, conservatory trained daughters, Gliceria and Laura González, will be there, too. 
“My daughters have always worked with me on recordings,” Marcos says, “but I didn’t want to incorporate them into the stage shows until they finished their university studies.”
  The year they started appearing live with the band was 2010.  The younger Gliceria, 30, is an orchestral conductor (and a lyric soprano); she’s teaching a Cuban string ensemble workshop in conjunction with Marcos’ UW residency this fall.  But Cuban classical music is just part of her art.  Onstage with the ACAS, she plays keyboards and vibes.  Laura’s the clarinetist. 
“Of course, they’re not just great musicians, they’re Afro-Cubans,” Marcos says, with tremendous pride.  “They play percussion, they sing and dance.”
His puro, and Orula, must be thrilled. 

Laura (L) and Gliceria González with ACAS at Yerbabuena Gardens, San Francisco  ©Tom Erlich 
The Afro Cuban All Stars for this concert are:
Gliceria Gonzalez -Ibrahim Ferrer, Amadito Valdes, etc- (Keyboards & Vibes)
Jose Marcos Crego -Klimax, Cano Estremera, etc- (Piano)
Jiovanni Cofiño -Orquesta Reve, Medico de la Salsa, etc- (Bass)
Tany Allende -Yaguarimu, Cafe Quijano, etc- (Congas)
Asley Rosell -Pacho Alonso, etc- (Bongos)
Caleb Michell -Gran Combo, etc- (Timbale Set)
Yaure Muñiz -Buenavista Social Club, Klimax, etc- (Trumpet & Flugel)
Yoanny Pino -Joan Sebastian, Azucar Negra, etc- (Trumpet & Flugel)
Julio Diaz -Salsa Giants, Luis Enrique, etc- (Trumpet & Flugel)
Laura Lydia Gonzalez -Ibrahim Ferrer, Amadito Valdes, etc- (Clarinets)
Emilio Suarez - Cachao, Willie Colon, etc- (Lead Singer)
Gliceria Abreu - Buenavista Social Club, Sierra Maestra, etc- (Afro-Cuban Percussion & Management)
Alfonso Peña -Marcos Valle, Ernan Lopez-Nussa, etc- (FOH Engineer)
Juan de Marcos (Tres & Bandleader)