Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Madison Ballet's Cinderella Sparkles

Quirk, at the Palace Ball            © Kat Stiennon 2015
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Cinderella (at Overture Hall last weekend – I attended the evening show on Saturday, March 28) is one of those kid-friendly story ballets with an antique, if somewhat schizophrenic aesthetic.  The overarching look of this painterly, jewel-toned production – sets and costumes acquired from Texas Ballet Theater in 2005 – is Rococo, men in brocade, women in elaborate skirts puffed out at unnatural angles with paniers; the guests at the ball all sport high-piled wigs.  Yet smidgeons of Diaghilev’s Art Nouveau spirit sneak in. 
Like Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker, Cinderella’s choreography, also by artistic director W. Earle Smith, is very traditional, in the pure Balanchine tradition.  And much like Nut, Cinderella has lots of little kids in adorable costumes, plus an overabundance of ballroom party dancing.  It’s the kind of ballet at which you see little girls in the audience decked out in tiaras and fairy wings; it’s a staple in the company’s long-term rotation, especially for that reason.
A few too-long interludes could use some judicious editing.  At one point all the fairies in the forest bourée in place for what seems an eternity, repeating the same simple, flight-mimicking port de bras.   Cinderella, at the ball, inexplicably and in darkness, changes slowly back into her peasant dress, shielded from view by dark winged creatures.  And there’s lots of overblown character work here – the evil stepsisters (the very able ballerinas Rachelle Butler and Abigail Henninger) engage in the sort of slapstick that appeals to kids, though I’d prefer less of it.  Nevertheless, Smith’s choreography does a very good job of articulating ballet and theater.  In the opening scene Butler and Henninger taunt Cinderella, tossing a scrub bucket back and forth over her  head – toss, pas de chat, soutinue – with pitch-perfect musicality. The ballroom waltz is a bit long and schmaltzy, but it’s hard not to chuckle when those ridiculous Rococo wigs arc skyward atop the heads of the dancers, airborne in pas de chat.
But like all traditional story ballets, what Cinderella is really all about, when you strip away the fancy production, is the high-end dancing -- the pas de deux, the variations, the divertissements. The elegant, long-limbed Shannon Quirk, possessed of exquisite technique and abundant acting chops, was stunning in the principal role.  Playfulness and delight were palpable in her tender, heartfelt little pas de deux with the ashman, apprentice Andrew Erickson, whose growth as a dancer this year has been impressive.  Emerging from the hearth soft and shy as ashes, Erickson blossomed under Quirk’s gentle coaxing, finally bounding into exhuberant tours en l’air.  In her adagio pas de deux with the prince (Phillip Ollenburg) at the palace ball, Quirk was luxurious and floaty.  Dreaming of him back at the hearth she waltzed with her broom, light as a feather – until, realizing he was gone, her joy gave way to grief. 
Ollenburg, a tall, lanky dancer, achieved marvelously lofty leaps in the bravura variation that represents his journey around the world to find the foot that fit the glass slipper.  The maidens he met on that venture (Butler and Henninger) offered him an eye-popping, snaky, Manchurian divertissement that could have come straight from one of Diaghilev’s ballets – the immediate precursors of Balanchine’s neoclassical style.  
Fall fairy
© Kat Stiennon 2015
Fairy godmother
© Kat Stiennon 2015
Like the divertissements, the fairy variations were lush little dances, done with sparkle and well-turned technique.  Spring fairy Kristin Hammer was fleet of foot, very alegre; in the summer fairy waltz Elizabeth Cohen flaunted sumptuous extensions; fall fairy Jackson Warring’s bounding brise volés and cabrioles reminded me of the Greek deity Pan as he’s often represented in Rococo art. 
Fairy godmother / winter fairy Annika Reikersdorfer, technically still an apprentice, came up through the ranks at the eleven-year-old School of Madison Ballet. At eighteen she’s already mastered the length, the lift, the speed, the syncopation, the slink, the very American-ness that mark Balanchine’s departure from the Russian school. She was the quintessential storybook fairy godmother, bouréeing around Cinderella’s hearth sprinkling fairy dust, and her winter fairy variation, a mix of fancy footwork (a gargouillade, entrechat quatres), feathery, long-legged echappé releves, and little sixth position prances, glittered like new-fallen snow. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cinderella Season!

Ollenburg and Quirk, rehearsing a pas     © SKepecs 2015
by Susan Kepecs
It’s simply serendipity that Madison Ballet’s production of Cinderella coincides with the blockbuster release of the live-action quasi-remake of Disney’s 1950 animated classic.  But everybody needs a good fairy tale now and then, and you can see two astoundingly different versions of the French fable next week.  The movie’ll be around a while, but the ballet’s got a small window – it runs March 28-29 at Overture Hall.
Inspired by Sergei Prokofiev’s dark, expressive 1944 score (written in the canon of late nineteenth century ballets with the modernist overtones of Soviet Russia), Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith choreographed his version of Cinderella in 2005. The ballet’s been staged twice since, in 2007 and 2010.  “We scheduled this season’s rotation two years ago, long before we had any inkling that the movie would come out this spring,” Smith says, “but it couldn’t have been a better business decision if we’d actually planned it.”
Of course, while the movie’s a literal narrative, the ballet abstracts the story.  And unlike, say, Madison Ballet’s rock n’ roll hit, Dracula, or the experimental Repertory I program just last month, Cinderella is pure neoclassical ballet, edged with the wit it takes to tell the tale without words.
In this season’s production the lovely, long-limbed Shannon Quirk is in the title role, partnered by the elegant Phillip Ollenburg.  But Cinderella is really a soloists’ show, with lots of opportunities for the dancers to show off their individual chops.  I watched a partial run-through this week, and I was struck by how this company – really in transition, since almost half the dancers were new last fall – has gelled in the last few weeks.  Repertory I felt a little tense, both in rehearsal and onstage, but this time the ambience in the studio was relaxed.  Smith was clearly having fun with this ballet.  De dum dum, de dum dum,” he called out, marking the beat as he luxuriated in demonstrating a step.  “Hip! Hip!”  The dancer he was working with – Kristen Hammer, the Spring Fairy – picked up his cue, exaggerating the roll of her hips as she flitted across the floor. 
The choreography looks pretty much as it did in 2010, but this is the danciest this ballet has ever looked.
“What’s changed,” Smith says, “is that when I repeat a ballet every few years it gives me a good sense of how the company’s developed.  The choreography’s only been tweaked in very small ways, but the maturity in the dancers’ approach, and their technical acumen, has gotten better.  And a lot of strength comes from having the company in residence for an entire season.  We had that last year, but this is our longest season yet – 32 weeks of dancing together brings cohesiveness to the group.  It’s like a football team, the more you practice together the better the teamwork.”
Here’s something else that’s different.  For the first time, one of the key soloists – the fairy godmother – is a dancer who came up through the School of Madison Ballet. That dancer is Annika Reikersdorfer.
“It’s a dream come true to see one of my students excel to the level that Annika has,” Smith   “I’m so proud of her I can’t stand it.”
Reikersdorfer in rehearsal  © SKepecs 2015
“I was in second grade when my family moved here in 2004,” Reikersdorfer says. That year, the School of Madison opened its doors.  Today she’s a high school senior at Middleton, and technically a company apprentice on the brink of moving up. “It’s a challenge, balancing high school and dance,” she says.  “I go to school before I come in for company class in the morning; after rehearsal I go home to do school work.  It’s difficult and unconventional because I’m spending my free time doing school and my school time doing ballet.”  
Being in the company’s a challenge, too.  “I had to break out of my perfect little student shell and do things that were different – like more contemporary work – and I had to be more mature.  I was expected to give myself corrections, and to make sure I knew all the choreography.”
Nutcracker aside, Reikersdorfer’s debut as a company member was in Jin-Wen Yu’s postmodern / contemporary pas de deux “Un Bolero Azul,” on the Repertory I program last month.  I wrote then about her uncanny sense of artistry.  But this is a much meatier role, and it fits her to a T – Reikersdorfer looks like she was born to do fairy variations. 
“Being fairy godmother is really amazing,” she says, “because when I was younger, watching this ballet, that’s what I really wanted to be, and now I’ve achieved that dream role.  A lot of the choreography is set variations, but there are times when I get a chance to make it my own, make up my own arms and play with the story I’m trying to tell.  It’s definitely my most challenging role so far – a lot of times I’m onstage all by myself and everyone’s looking at me – it’s quite different than sharing the stage with the corps!” 

Monday, March 9, 2015

An Art Show to Share

"Raider Newton With Donuts"

by Susan Kepecs
I admit to being a regular shopper at Whole Foods.  What does that have to do with the arts?  Usually not a whole lot, though a number of artists have worked there over the years.  One is painter Andrea Zeitko, whose personal, eclectic work caught my eye when I was checking out at her counter one day during the 2007 US troop surge in Iraq (which was, um, supposed to wipe out all the radical Islamic extremists).  Zeitko was about to hang some work at the Social Justice Center on Willy St., which she told me about.  I went to the show, and I've been waiting for more ever since.  
        CulturalOyster is dedicated to the performing arts, but every now and then I’ve found something worth sharing with my readers that makes me deviate from that definition.  And on Saturday, Mar. 7,  Zeitko hung a show in that odd-shaped corner of Whole Foods where people sit down to eat their lunch.  The show’s a little inconsistent – there are four distinct styles among the dozen or so small acrylic on canvas works – but with their quirky subject matter and eye-popping patterns they remind me very much of small folk paintings from Latin America, Africa and Asia, and a few have so much charm I’d snap them up in a minute if I had the money to buy art. 
        I’m not sure how long the show is up – I’ll add that info when I get it.  Meanwhile, I asked Zeitko to fill me in on her life as an artist.
        CulturalOyster: Your paintings are really unique – did you go to art school, where they train you to fit the mold, or are you self-taught?

Zeitko: I did go to art school.  I started out as an art major – which morphed into Art Education – at UW-Madison.  I graduated in 1994 with a BS.

CulturalOyster: I know you’ve traveled a lot, and you’re part Iraqi – but fill me in a little on your background, which I know informs your work.

Zeitko: My mom is from Richland Center, WI.  Her grandparents were German immigrants, Pennsylvania Dutch, and English from Devonshire. My father came from Iraq  to the U.S. in 1952 and got his PhD in Medieval History from UW Madison. My parents met at the university. I was born in Minnesota. From the ages of 8 to 16, I lived in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait because my father was teaching at the universities there. The most interesting time was in Saudi Arabia, because we lived in a town called Abha in the Asir mountain region near Yemen. I was young enough to experience it in an unbiased way, and the culture is unique and vibrant. A lot of Western people don't get to see that part of Saudi Arabia, so I feel fortunate to have seen the hidden gem that the rest of the country goes to for vacation (!) I moved to Madison in 1988 to start college, and have called this city my home ever since.

CulturalOyster: Where else have you exhibited your work?

Zeitko: I've exhibited my work as part of an anti-war/pro peace show put on  by the Art Surge collective. Our show was a response to the military surge in Iraq during 2007. I guess they wanted me to participate because I was the only person of Iraqi descent, I was angry about the war, and I could paint all right---so it was a go. We held the show at the Commonwealth Gallery on Baldwin Street for a spell, and then we had a second showing at The Social Justice Center on Willy Street. 

CulturalOyster: I know some of your interest in pattern comes from your background, but it’s also very Matisse-like – is his work an inspiration for you? 

Zeitko:  I get inspiration all over the place. I love the cartoons of Robert Crumb. I admire Wassily Kandinsky---and I was fortunate enough to see his traveling exhibit at the Guggenheim. I like Banksy and all sorts of street art. Whenever I travel, I always notice and take lots of pictures of the street art I see. One of my greatest heroes is Naji Al Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist who made his character Handala come to life.  http://iljournal.today/rilaxati/2014/07/31/handala-oggi-come-ieri/ I'm interested in the work of Arab women artists like Hend Al-Mansour, who uses henna to paint on raw canvas.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJN9PQ8u5e0