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

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