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!” 

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