Monday, January 26, 2015

Dance Preview: Madison Ballet's Repertory I

Rachelle Butler rehearses with General Hambrick.  © SKepecs 2014

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Repertory I concert, next Fri. – Sat. (Feb. 6-7) at the Bartell, is, like last season’s Rep I, a guest choreographers’ showcase.  The goal of inviting dancemakers with different approaches is to shake things up and to break the dancers out of their comfort zone, stretching their technical and interpretive skills.  At the same time, the process expands the company’s reach in the dance world by bringing new artists into the fold.  It’s always fascinating to see Madison Ballet’s adept dancers explore other realms – though like all experiments, this kind of concert is a leap into the unknown.
That tension makes Rep I especially exciting.  There are four dances on the program, one by Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith, one by UW-Madison Dance Department Chair Jin-Wen Yu, who’s set works on Madison Ballet before, and one each by choreographers brand-new to the company.  One is General Hambrick, who’s worked with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, Texas Ballet Theatre – where he danced with Smith – and on Broadway.  He was in Cats!  And Phantom of the Opera!  Currently, Hambrick teaches at West Virginia’s School of Theatre and Dance.  The other newcomer is Jacqueline Stewart, director of Jaxon Movement Arts, an urban, avant-garde company based in Chicago and New York. 
“This program’s a great evening that showcases the dancers doing different kinds of movement,” Smith says.  “It’s the eclecticism of the program that makes it successful – it’s an evening anyone would be intrigued and entertained by.  The movement in the Stewart piece is unique, and fun – it makes me think of going out nightclubbing, and the dancers enjoy doing it.  In General Hambrick’s work, the movement, in the context of the abstract narrative he sets up, is really well done.  Jin-Wen Yu’s dance gives the dancers the opportuny to explore the sense of bolero, of Spanish music.” 
Smith’s own piece, “Nuoto,” is the program finale. It’s unmistakably Smith – neoclassical choreography, the Italian music he loves so much, the tongue-in-cheek humor – on the order of his “La Luce D’Amore,” from last season’s Repertory II, but fluffier, sillier, and with a ‘20s beach theme.  “I really didn’t want to choreograph anything new, after doing Dracula last year,” he says.  “That was such a huge project.  But as the months progressed I decided no, I want to do one new piece – but I don’t want to be too serious about it. 
“I don’t do comedy, but I wanted to do something light.  I always start by listening to music while I’m on the road or lounging around, and I came across a number of Italian baroque pieces I’d collected and for some reason they made me think of swimming.  And then I found this old photo of all these people in crazy beachwear taken on the Mediterranean somewhere in the ‘20s or ‘30s, and it really spoke to me.  I gave the photos to Karen (Brown-Larimore, Madison Ballet’s costume designer), and she’s done an amazing job designing costumes in that style.”
“Nuoto” uses the whole company, and uses it very well.  Of course, Smith knows these dancers better than any outside choreographer could, and he’s a master at showing them off.  There’s plenty of action – allegro, petit allegro, male bravura – in this very playful piece, composed of small segments featuring different combinations of dancers, with working titles like “beach towel,’ “jig,” “rubber duck,” and “tour jeté.”
Yu’s piece, “Un Bolero Azul,” is one of his earlier works exploring Latin themes.  (“Transit,” shown in last season’s Rep I concert, was set to tangos, the result of a research trip he made to Argentina in 2012).  “Un Bolero Azul," Yu says, was originally choreographed in 2001, and set on soloists at Nashville Ballet. Like “Transit,” “Bolero” mixes a luxurious balletic look with angular, postmodern, sometimes floor-based vocabulary.  Last fall, Yu set this work on Madison Ballet’s Shannon Quirk and Phillip Ollenburg for his “In Tune” concert at H’Doubler Performance Space in Lathrop Hall. This time it’s done by Annika Reikersdorfer and Jackson Warring, on whom it will look quite different.   
Stewart’s urban-contemporary work, “Jiffy Pop,” is a leap in a different direction.  It’s the anti-ballet, though it plays to Madison Ballet’s dancers’ strengths.  Originally it was made for contemporary / modern Thodos Dance Chicago.  “But it’s reshaped for Madison Ballet,” Stewart says.  “There’s lots of new material in a contemporary ballet vocabulary.” 

Jiffy Pop in rehearsal.   © SKepecs 2014

“Jiffy Pop,” set on six dancers, is an exploration of pop culture and postmodern theory.  Its point of departure is “gaze theory” – “the way dancers (or the subjects of a painting, or a photograph) are objectified by the viewer,” Stewart says.  This exploration of postmodern theory draws on pop culture; it’s built on actions and poses that are deliberately bizarre.  Some segments are marked off by an enormous picture frame moved about by a dancer (in this performance, the very striking Shannon Quirk); this device commands the audience’s gaze, directing emphasis toward certain movements onstage.

"Brother's Keeper;" Cody Olsen and Shannon Quirk.
© SKepecs 2015
Even in rehearsal, under harsh lights and in studio clothes, Hambrick’s piece, “I Am My Brother’s Keeper,” looks mystical, almost spooky – and somehow, at the same time, playful, even joyful. (Guys!” Hambrick calls out during rehearsal, “smile when you’re throwing each other around!  I don’t mean a fake smile, I mean really smile!”)
There’s thick emotional content here, laid on the abstract narrative Smith refers to above.  You can read the story with your own imagination, but to me it’s about the complexities of human (or alien!) relationships.  The choreoraphy, too, is exceptionally expressive.  Hambrick uses a meld of Balanchine-isms and Ailey-isms that’s addictive to watch, and it pushes the dancers to try familiar steps in new ways.  “I want you guys to be more dangerous here, Hambrick says of a partnered attitude turn.  “When you lean out, it’s really beautiful.”

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