Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's Repertory II, 2015

Rachelle Butler in Expressions  © Kat Stiennon 2015
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Repertory II, April 17-18 at the Bartell (I attended Friday night and Saturday afternoon) consisted of two works by Balanchine (by arrangement with the Balanchine Trust), one by Balanchine’s direct forebearer, Marius Petipa, and two by Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith.  These dances were diverse, but they fit together like pieces of a beautifully-hewn jigsaw puzzle.  
It was brave, immediately on the heels of the company’s late March production of Cinderella, to offer such a sophisticated, ambitious program.  A full-length story ballet can hide, within its elaborate sets and costumes, a multitude of small sins; the unpointed foot, the corps dancer out of step.  But an extremely demanding set of pure, plotless ballets, done in the stripped-down intimacy of the Bartell’s little Drury Theater, puts it all out there – the technique, emotion, exertion, and small falters, as well as the moments of triumph when a dancer knows she or he has executed perfectly a challenge that caused unbearable angst during a bout of pre-show jitters.
                              Quirk, Ollenburg  © SKepecs 2015
Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (1960) – its traditional structure (adagio, variations, coda) inherited from Petipa, its music a “lost” piece of the original Swan Lake score – is physically demanding, grandly formal, and charmingly flirtatious.  Danced by Shannon Quirk and Phillip Ollenburg, it put a finishing flourish on their well-paired season.  Quirk’s a lovely dancer – strong and long-limbed, possessed of a natural gentleness that gilds her style with floaty lyricism; Ollenburg is tall, strong, long-limbed, and unassuming.  As testimony to the challenges “Tschai Pas” presents, the two looked a little nervous at the start of the adagio Friday night, and on Saturday there was a little slip in the fish dive at the end of that movement – the one where the ballerina turns to look up at the danseur, which always looks impossible even when it’s perfect.  Luckily, they relaxed into the variations – Ollenburg’s bounding cabrioles and grandes sissones ouverts were memorable for their loft and ballón, and Quirk’s petit allegro was appropriately sparkly and flirtatious.  And the flying fish dives at the end of the coda were so thrilling they made the audience gasp. 
Watching the Presto excerpt from Smith’s 2011 Palladio (to the eponymous piece by contemorary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins) makes my legs ache from imaginary exertion.  The pas de quatre (Rachelle Butler, Annika Reikersdorfer, Abigail Henninger and Kristin Hammer), done in wide white pancake tutus, takes a great deal from Balanchine’s corps choreography, though it’s adorned with Smithian accents – the jazz-tinged failles and lunges that find their way into most of his petit allegros.  Palladio’s unison, mirroring, and one-by-one patterns zip by in the blink of an eye, pointe shoes flashing like lightning as those ballerina legs power through a relentless chain of releves in echappe and passe; strings of fast soutinues spin the tutus like tops.  It’s a very pretty little ballet, though Hammer wore a lost look and managed to drop behind the beat a few times, breaking its crucial synchrony.  
Petipa’s White Swan Pas de Deux marks the first time Madison Ballet has departed from its neoclassical mothership, but it acknowledges the immeasurable influence the late nineteenth century Old World choreographer had on the father of American ballet.  Performed by Marguerite Luksik and Jason Gomez, this is the only piece on the program that looked significantly different in the two shows I saw.  Luksik is a firey dancer, possessed of elegant articulation and impeccable timing, but she attacked this tender adagio pas with a vengeance Friday night, flinging herself into penche so vehemently I thought Gomez might drop her.  But Gomez, who’s an able actor as well as a great partner, maintained his charm and chops throughout. Luksik pretty much redeemed herself on Saturday, turning in an uncharacteristically cool but technically precise performance. 
Elégie  © SKepecs 2015
               In Elégie, excerpted from Tschaikovsky Suite Number 3 (1970), Balanchine laid a Duncanesque aesthetic – women barefoot in loose dresses, their hair unbound – over the highly refined ballet technique he insisted on and which Isadora Duncan so vehemently revolted against.  Balanchine did not admire her, reportedly once calling her (when she was past her prime) a fat, drunken pig, but he must have absorbed some of the revolutionary influence she had on Ballets Russes, with which he worked in the 1920s.  Elégie turns “Tschai Pas”’ deep-rooted tradition on its head; there’s no rigid nineteenth century structure here, no prissy petit allegro.  Quirk, relaxed and glorious, was again paired with Ollenburg, with Butler, Hammer, Henninger, Reikersdorfer, Elizabeth Cohen and Madeline Gambino in the corps.  Surrounded by the corps’ flowing, circular movements, Quirk and Ollenburg ran and lept with abandon, Quirk’s hair flying out behind her, the living image of a free spirit. And, as free spirits often do, at the end of this dance the women – all of them – abandon the man.
Smith’s Expressions premiered, like Palladio, in 2011.  I liked this eight-section jazz standards ballet then, but this time it was spectacular, and danced to a T; a perfect ending for this program when you think about all those sexy jazz age Broadway ballets Balanchine choreographed in the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Rachelle Butler and Jason Gomez, in the principal parts, looked terrific together.  Butler, whose jazz timing is exquisite, was commanding and slinky throughout, and her pas de deux with Gomez (“That’s All”) just smoked.  The swing-loaded “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” danced by Reikersdorfer, Gambino, and Hammer, with its pizzazzy little prances on pointe and its happy two-fisted crazy-girl head shakes, sparkled like diamonds. “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” a boppy duet for Gomez and Cody Olsen, reminded me of those amazing hoofers, the Nicholas Brothers, who Balanchine loved, and on whom he choreographed a couple of snazzy Broadway numbers.  Henninger got to show off her miraculous extensions in “Don’t Explain.”  “One Note Samba,” originally choreographed on the creampuffy Jennifer Tierney, who’s no longer with the company, looked like a different dance on Luksik, whose fast, spunky, bebop-accented take brought the tune back to its Latin origins. 
And then there was the flashy, flying, full-cast finale, “Almost Like Being in Love.”  ‘Nuff said. 

                                                                                                                      © SKepecs 2015

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Nobody Sits Down When Poncho Sanchez is in Town

                                                                                           © Devin DeHaven
The one and only Poncho Sanchez, soul vato supreme, swings into town – to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall – on Saturday, May 9, after a ten-year absence.  And boy, is he bienvenido.  I know I’m slinging superlatives here, but Sanchez plays the happiest music on the planet.  If you have to put a label on it call it Latin jazz, of the most bailable sort. But really, it’s much bigger than that.  The way this generous Tejano from East LA (yes) puts his sounds together tells a tale of the American melting pot. 
Sanchez is a storyteller with words, too. He’s so loquacious his interviews tell you everything you need to know.  So, without further ado, here’s what he told me on the phone last week, and it’s so good I’ll just write it out verbatim: 

CulturalOyster: Your musical journey’s been pretty unusual – most Tejanos who grow up in East LA don’t end up playing Latin jazz.  What made you different?

Sanchez: You know, I’m the youngest of 11 kids.  I have six sisters and four brothers.  We were all born in Laredo.  I was three when we moved to Southern California in 1954.  I did hear a lot of Tejano and mariachi music, my mother and father grew up in Mexico, but my older siblings caught the mambo and cha cha cha wave when we got to LA, so I grew up listening to Cal Tjader and Machito.  My sisters really got into it, every day they’d push the living room furniture aside and dance.  It was part of my life.  One of my brothers was into jazz, Duke Ellington and Tito Puente, man, and at that time doo wop was really popular in our barrio and I still love all the old stuff, doo wop and ‘60s Motown and Stax Records, James Brown, Wilson Pickett – that’s my life, that’s what I got on my iPod, that’s my thing.
I was trying to play that stuff, but I had to grab it, study it and work on it first.  I played guitar in a neighborhood rock band and then I progressed to drums, and I’d sing no matter what.  And then in high school I got hold of some congas and I’d listen to Tito and Tjader, I was too young to go to clubs and we didn’t have any money for lessons, with 11 kids you got a lotta love but no money, you know what I mean?  I was self-taught.  Me and a buddy went to a drum circle we heard about at the park – Griffith Park, in LA – guys got together there every Sunday so we went and wow, there was about 35 guys under a big tree all beatin’ on trash cans and whatever they could find.  It was a buncha hippies, and we got in that circle and right away we thought man, this is just a buncha boring noise, people smokin’ marijuana and passin’ a bottle of wine.  We wanted to play serious music.  And someone came up to us and said hey man, you’re good, if you go up that hill there’s a place where the good guys, the Puerto Ricans and Cubans, play.  So we went up there and I put my congas down and they were playing rumba, you know, guaguancó.  I thought wow, they sound good.  We listened for about 20 minutes and I tapped the guy playing the quinto – the solo drum, the talking drum – I tapped him and said ‘hey man, can I play?’  He goes ‘Are you Cuban?’  I said no.  He says ‘are you Puerto Rican?’  I said no.  He says, ‘what are you?’
I said I’m Chicano.  He said oh, man, Chicanos can’t play congas.  I thought, how do you know if you haven’t heard me play?  But then he got up to go shake somebody’s hand or somethin’ and I jumped on his drum and started playing and the guy stopped in his tracks and looked back at me like ‘Damn!’  And after about 10 minutes he said hey, man, you sound good, your father must be Puerto Rican or Cuban.  I said no, my father’s Mexican and he said ‘Mexicans can’t play congas.’  It was like that till I established myself.  It’s a funny story, but it’s the truth.

CulturalOyster: You became a bandleader when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and you not only survived, you’ve put out an album roughly every year and a half.  That makes you one of the most prolific players ever – how do you do it?

Sanchez: Out of sheer will and willpower.  I really stuck to it and I worked very hard for it.  When I was with Tjader [Sanchez joined Tjader’s band in 1975, at the age of 24], that was my dream come true.  I was like come on, this is amazing!  My brothers and sisters had all his records and when I told them I was in his band they didn’t believe me.  They said you’re good, but Cal Tjader is great!  But once they got it in their heads that I was really in the band I was the talk of the family, and they’d all brag about it. 
Cal got me the contract with Concord in 1982, about six months before he passed.  The first record was Sonando and with the second, Bien Sabroso, I got a Grammy nomination under my own name.  I’d already gotten a Grammy with Cal [for La Onda Va Bien, Concord Picante, 1980] and one with Clare Fischer [for Clare Fischer & Salsa Picante Present 2+2, Pausa, 1980].  I’ve been nominated eight times under my own name now and won twice [Best Latin Jazz Album for Latin Soul, JVC Victor, 1999, and again with Terrence Blanchard for their collaborative album Chano y Dizzy, 2011, Concord].  And I got a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin Grammys two years ago.  I think we have 27 or 28 CDs out, we done good, but it wasn’t easy, it’s a lotta hard work.  You got to be really dedicated.  I also raised two boys and me and my wife Stella have been married 40 years this year.  It was tough, I was traveling with the band, but thank God we did it.
I was at Concord for 30 years.  Finally my contract is up and they’re not renewing it.  I found that out nine months ago.  Concord Records has changed so much, I only know a couple of people who still work there.  The new owners have a totally different marketing strategy – it’s not the Concord Records I signed with.  They own a lot of other labels, they’re getting their money a different way than recording a nine-piece Latin jazz band every year, so I’ve moved on.  I’m signing with Mack Avenue [an independent label based in Michigan with a fast-growing roster of jazz musicians] in the next few weeks, to start a series of CDs with them.  Right now we’re working on a Poncho Sanchez tribute to John Coltrane.  That’s our next CD as soon as I sign – it’ll have some of our own original stuff but the main focus will be Coltrane.

CulturalOyster: Over the years you’ve played everything Latin and Latinized everything that’s not – do you have a deep down favorite genre?

Sanchez: We’ve already talked about this a little, but – early Latin jazz, Mongo Santamaría, Ray Barreto, all the Cal Tjader stuff, Willie Bobo, Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, that’s my favorite stuff right there.  The other genre I love is the soul bag, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding I love very much – so there it is, plus the salsa and bebop, and Coltrane, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey – I draw on all that stuff.
Some musicians do things for money, or for the newest trend.  I kinda want to, too, but I haven’t had to.  I just do what’s really part of me and my upbringing.  This ain’t fake, man, this is my life.  I’m sharing my life with you.

CulturalOyster: You’ve met my friend Tony Castañeda, conguero and frontman for Madison’s favorite Latin jazz band.  You’re one of his heroes, you and Cal Tjader, and he ends every gig, always, with [Tjader’s 1954 hit] “Wachi Wara.”  So I’m wondering if you have a theme song like that. 

Sanchez: Well, there’s a few we always have to play, they may not be my favorite tunes but they have to be tunes I like ‘cause I only play tunes I like.  Everybody wants to hear “Besame Mama” and “Watermelon Man and “Yumbambe.”  When people shout ‘em out that’s what I’m gonna play, I always take care of my fans.  But I always play new music, new stuff we’re approaching, too.  I’m gonna throw something new at ‘em every time.  Lately we’ve been putting two or three of the new Coltrane numbers in our shows. 

CulturalOyster:  Who’s in your band on this tour?

Sanchez: It’s been pretty much the same for a long time – Francisco Torres on trombone is our director and main arranger; Rob Hardt on saxes and flutes; Ron Blake on trumpet and flugelhorn; Andy Langham on piano has been with us for about three rears; René Camacho on bass; Joey de León on timbales and Papo Rodríguez on bongos.  And for 30 years, Larry Sanchez – he’s no relation to me but he’s our sound man on every gig, he goes with us every time and also helps in the studio with our recordings. 
And one more thing.  Tell the folks to come out to see us.  They’re guaranteed to have a good time. 
                                                      - interview and transcription: Susan Kepecs
More good music news: Madison's own Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Band -- Castaneda on congas, Dave Stoler on piano, Henry Boehm on bass, Anders Svanoe on sax, Louka Patenaude on guitar, and special guest Raj Mehta
(formerly of the TCLJB, now teaching percussion on New York) on timbales.  ¡A bailar!

Preview: Madison Ballet's Repertory II

Quirk and Ollenburg rehearse Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux
© SKepecs 2015
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Repertory II concert, the 2014-15 season finale, happens at the Bartell this coming weekend (April 17-18).  In diverse ways, this program is all about George Balanchine.
Among the five offerings on the bill are two beloved Balanchine works, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (1960) and Elégie, a section from a longer ballet, Tchaikovsky Suite Number 3 (1970), painstakingly staged for Madison Ballet by Balanchine Trust répétiteur Michelle Gifford, who danced with New York City Ballet from 1989 through 2000.  Gifford never met Balanchine (he died in 1983), but she was witness to the company’s post-Balanchine transition; she had the great fortune to be in the company when dancers who did know him were still around, and she was there when two of his greatest ballerinas, Patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell, gave their farewell performances.
“It’s a great honor to be a répétiteur,” Gifford says. “It means a lot to me to be able to share these ballets, to preserve what Mr. Balanchine left to us, and to be a part of and keeping the integrity of the work without anything getting lost and misconstrued.”  Gifford is very humble about her position in the Balanchine Trust hierarchy: “There are men and women who’ve been staging these ballets all over the world for 40 years.  At this point I’m only staging for small companies, and I’m open to criticism – I want to get it right.  I hope the opportunity to share the gift of Balanchine’s ballets grows for me.”
Gifford’s developing career as a répétiteur has been part of Madison Ballet’s development, too; she staged the first Balanchine ballets in the young company’s repertory, Valse Fantasie (in 2013) and the concert version of Who Cares? (in 2014). The Balanchine Trust does not bestow the rights to perform these works lightly, and Gifford’s work with Madison Ballet has paid off; the acquisition of Elégie and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux this year announces that this is a company to take seriously. 
Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – in a way, a missing piece of Swan Lake, since the music was composed for that ballet in 1877 but omitted from the score Marius Petipa used in 1895 – is easily understood as a showcase of virtuoso technique for both dancers.  Elégie is its opposite, dreamlike and mysterious, and a stark departure from the rest of Balanchine’s oevre – all the women (there’s a corps of four, plus the male and female principals) are barefoot, their hair let down.  
Elégie: Quirk is second from R.  © SKepecs 2015
What was Balanchine’s intent?  Elégie is about longing and love lost,” Gifford says.  “It begins with a man alone and forlorn, who encounters a mythical, mystic woman.  It’s very sad, and the music is big music, the movements are big and spacious.  The women are glamorous – Mr.   Balanchine loved glamorous women.  People say he never told a story.  Karin [Von Aroldingen, a Balanchine Trust trustee and the former New York City Ballet principal on whom Elégie was choreographed] asked him, ‘Mr. Balanchine, what is this about, it’s so different from anything you’ve ever choreographed?’ And he said ‘You have ears, dear, listen to the music and you’ll figure it out.’” 
        Madison Ballet’s Shannon Quirk dances the female lead in both Balanchine ballets on this program.  What does that require of her? 
“She has to change gears completely,” Gifford says. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is the epitome of a Balanchine pas, a signature pas that every ballerina wants to do – you have to pull out all the technical finesse you’ve got.  Elégie is about letting it go.  You really have to do Tchai Pas [as the piece is affectionately known] first, it would be so hard to go from Elégie’s big, expansive movements to having to contain yourself and not fall over on pointe.  If it were me doing both pieces on the same night, I’d be so tired after Tchai Pas that Elégie would be like a dream, because you don’t have to worry about it – you can let all your emotions out and be exhausted and free and just feel the music and dance.” 
In addition to the two Balanchine works, Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith made the astute choice of the White Swan Adagio Pas de Deux from Petipa’s Swan Lake.  Balanchine never   knew Petipa, but as a boy in Russia he danced Petipa’s ballets, and the Petipa / Tchaikovsky creations loom large in Balanchine’s work.  The White Swan pas, with its famous, swan-y stylizations – those birdlike port de bras and lifts like flight – is all about the ballerina, in this case the very versatile Marguerite Luksik.  
Luksik, Cody Olsen, White Swan pas
© SKepecs 2015
And there are two Smith ballets on the program.  Palladio, a pure neoclassical work, premiered in 2011.   Rachelle Butler, Abigail Henninger, Kristin Hammer and Annika Reikersdorfer perform the demanding dance, which overflows with pretty petit allegro steps done in unison and mirroring patterns with echoes of both Balanchine’s brilliant corps choreography in Concerto Barroco and the slightly jazzy yet very classical petit allegro combinations Smith loves to give in company class.
Like Balanchine, whose jazziest side busted out in his Broadway-inspired works like Who Cares?, Smith has a great affinity for black American music. Madison Ballet always ends its seasons with a big feel-good piece, and Repertory II wraps up this year with Expressions, which, like Palladio, premiered in 2011.  Expressions is a suite of full-out jivey, slinky little dances to smoky 1940s standards; it’s a real strut-your-stuff ballet, and by the time it’s over the audience should be dancing in the aisles.  
Expressions finale  © SKepecs 2015