Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's Repertory I

Smith's "Nuoto"                           © Kat Stiennon 2015

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Repertory I – I attended the matinée on Sat., Feb. 7 – was a guest choreographer’s showcase, featuring three works by outside dancemakers plus a piece by Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith.  Programs of this sort are by nature experimental, and, as with most experiments, some results were better than others.  Performing four highly stylistically diverse works in one fell swoop is challenging.  Spunky Marguerite Luksik was temporarily sidelined with an injury; her absence was noticeable.  Plus this is a transition year for the company – nearly half the dancers are new to Madison Ballet this season, and some are still feeling their way in.  Given all these factors, the occasional unevensess of the performance was no surprise.
Jin-Wen Yu’s “Un Bolero Azul,” a pas de deux, was a terrific showcase for company apprentice Annika Reikersdorfer, who just turned 18 and who’s possessed of a feathery, limber  lightness and a palpable sense of artistry that comes naturally to very few ballerinas.  Reikersdorfer was perfectly matched with and smoothly partnered by Jackson Warring.  But the pas was, as are many of Yu’s works, too long; much of the excessive floorwork could have been cut.  And, with a few exceptions – a bit of slink, a few flamenco-like piques for Reikersdorfer, bent leg crossed over standing leg instead of set at the knee – the piece had none of the smoke and smolder of Spanish bolero.  The disjunction between title and dance was largely due to the music; it was hard to get a grasp on Yu’s intent, but his choice – a soft-edged, New Age / classical, deconstructed bolero by the Welsh / Finnish group Adiemus Singers – perhaps was made for conceptual reasons.   
"Jiffy Pop" © Kat Stiennon 2015
Jacqueline Stewart’s urban-contemporary “Jiffy Pop,” with its varied, urban score, is the anti-ballet – no pointework, an angular vocabulary, and abundant grotesque gesticulations that revealed the muscularity of the dancers clad in brief, dark swimsuits.  This interesting but difficult work for six was notable for its surprising use of the proscenium arch; in one section Shannon Quirk, looking uncharacteristically tough in her minimalist bathing suit, wielded an enormous golden picture frame that she swung to the left or the right; with it she channeled the viewer’s attention, in spurts, toward strikingly Cubist views of the dancers’ bodies – an extended leg; a pair of torsos; spidering arms framing a grimace.The unframed action was rendered moderately peripheral, a slightly disconcerting – in a good way – effect.  Humor graced the edges of this oddly harsh work; a couple of times Quirk turned the frame on herself, calling attention to her exaggeratedly coquettish postures and expressions; once, in a different section, Phillip Ollenburg lifted her; she wriggled vehemently, a universial “put me down!” demand. 

"Am I My Brother's Keeper"   © SKepecs 2015

General Hambrick’s “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” hit closer to home, done in a mix of neoclassical ballet (lots of sweeping penches and attitude turns) and Alvin Aileyisms (as when the six dancers in this work, grouped, stretched their arms out like eagle wings above Graham-like contractions).  Everything about this piece worked, from its angular electronic Steve Reich score to its deliciously abstract narrative.  The dance began with a striking image – the women, wearing flowy white tunics lit golden, rode the men’s shoulders, moving arms and torsos slowly, as if through ether; the men, unlit, were barely visible.  Once the ghostly figures were set down they became players in a courtship game that ran the emotional gamut from playful to furious. Couples swapped partners; sometimes men danced with men, or women with women.  But the story swirled mostly around the central pair, the very buff Cody Olsen and the elegant, long-limbed Quirk.  These two have great chemistry that dates back to their superb performance in Marlene Skog’s 2010 “Swans,” performed in Madison Ballet’s spring repertory concert in 2013.  In Hambrick’s piece their onstage relationship was loaded with emotional drama and choreographic finesse that showed them off to excellent advantage.  There was plenty of sweeping, circular movement, as when Olsen lifted Quirk, both legs bent in attitude, and swirled her around.  In spots the two became one; in a particularly striking ship prow lift done with both dancers facing front their arms, stretched out in second position, were intertwined, making a single pair of thick, winglike arms; Quirk’s head was thrown back, obscuring Olsen's, her legs wrapped behind his back.  The oddly alien creature this lift created had one pair of legs – Olsen’s – planted firmly on the ground in a wide second position stance.
The full-company finale, a very lighthearted neoclassical work, "Nuoto," Italian for swimming, was classic W. Earle Smith – pure neoclassical ballet adorned with all the jazzy little accoutrements he loves. Smiling company members were decked out in 1930s-style swimwear in bright primary colors.  The work opened and closed with sections for the full company, involving port de bras suggestive of diving or swimming over lots of unison allegro footwork.  In the middle were solos and smaller group numbers.  Sections for the women were playful, in the “dancing as music made visible” vein -- a bright, airy solo by newcomer Kristin Hammer; a pure allegro piece for all six women built on little pas de chats and quick coupe jete turns, in unison or in mirroring groups of three.  The men’s sections, in contrast, were outright funny.  Ollenburg’s dance with a little rubber duck was both bold and touching, memorable for both his bravura and the delighted-kid way he carried around the tiny yellow toy, tossing it in the air and catching it – he never missed! An Italian jig for all five men, colorful, muscular, hornpipe-ish, was unexpected, and it made me laugh out loud. Olsen and Jason Gomez cavorted behind a big beach towel held up at the waist. When their dance was over they turned their backs to the audience to prance offstage, towel still held to the fore, revealing – yes – nothing but little flesh-toned thongs!
It’s hard to sum up such a diverse program, but in spite of its slight inconsistencies Rep I was a pretty delightful show.  
"Nuoto"    © SKepecs 2015

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