Sunday, April 12, 2015

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

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