|Madison Ballet's Dracula © John Urban|
by Susan Kepecs
Vampires, hip-hop Bach on pointe, sugarplum fairies, an imperial ballroom waltz, crocodiles and pirates, a set of Balanchine pas-de-deux. No, it’s not a hallucinogenic adventure—it’s Madison Ballet’s surprise-stacked 2015-16 season.
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith’s bold, fresh, sexy, fast-paced steampunk ballet, Dracula, returns to Overture’s Capitol Theater on Oct. 16-17, just in time for Halloween. I fell head over heels in love with this ballet when it premiered at the same venue in March, 2013. Its production values are as good, its content more sophisticated, than some of the Broadway tours that swing through town – and it’s totally a local production featuring Smith’s action-packed choreography, a robust rock n’ roll score by Michael Massey (played live onstage by his band), Karen Brown-Larimore’s over-the-top nouvelle-Victorian costuming, and a big Broadwayesque aluminum-truss set by the late Jen Trieloff.
“I always love it when one of my ballets comes around after not having seen or worked on it for a while,” Smith says. “Dracula’s still really new, so it’ll be fun to make the changes that jump out and beg for my attention, and to tailor it to different dancers. Some of them may have done the same parts before, but they’re stronger and in a different place artistically than they were two years ago. That’s what’s exciting about bringing a ballet back to life.
“We knew we had something special with Dracula the second it went onstage the first time,” Smith continues. “Gretchen Bourg, our general manager, worked tirelessly for two years to get this ballet on the road – it’s extremely difficult to get a production of this size on tour, and she did it! We’re so grateful to her.”
Dracula plays Oshkosh’s Grand Opera House (Oct. 21-22) and then goes to to the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts in Springfield, MO., on March 16. “I have to be aware of how it fits,” Smith says, “not just here at home but in other theaters – Oshkosh is a smaller theater with about 600 seats; Juanita K. Hammons seats 2,200, so it’s twice as big as Capitol Theater. So it has to be do-able in three very different venues; each one will have its own issues and plusses.”
The annual national holiday ritual – The Nutcracker – runs Dec. 12-27 in Overture Hall; Maestro Andrew Sewell and the Madison Chamber Orchestra play Tchiakovsky’s famous score live. You’ll find Nutcracker ballets everywhere from high school assembly halls to Lincoln Center; though they’re all based on the same ETA Hoffman tale they’re as varied as the domesticated dog genome. Smith’s version has its own look, but it’s very traditional, within the Balanchine stylistic canon. It premiered during Overture’s opening season (years before Madison Ballet became a fully professional company with dancers on season contract), and it’s come a long, long way since then. It sparkles. But it won’t look much different than it did last year, when it was updated with new costumes in honor of Overture Hall’s tenth anniversary. “Nutcracker’s been very successful over the last few years,” Smith says. “Madison audiences love it, and I want to keep giving them an exceptional holiday experience.”
The season’s third story ballet (this is the first time Madison Ballet has done three full-length productions in one season) – Peter Pan (March 19-20, Overture Hall) – is a different animal altogether. In 2008, when Madison Ballet was still a pickup company, Smith choreographed a version of this ballet that premiered at Overture’s Capitol Theater. The sets and costumes were spectacular, and the ZFX Flying Company, out of Louisville, KY, came in to rig the stage for flight (and to teach the dancers how to navigate in the realm of ropes and harnesses!) “As a choreographer,” Smith told me before that show, “your parameters are gravity, space and the dancer. You take away gravity, it opens up an unbelievable realm of possibilities.”
But the Capitol stage turned out to be too small for great flying effects, and also, back then, Smith only had three weeks before any given production to work with the dancers. Peter Pan came off more like a theater piece than a ballet.
The choreography for the Peter Pan you’ll see in March will essentially be all new, made on and for the resident company and scaled for Overture Hall’s ample stage. “We haven’t done it again until now because it’s expensive – it has to be rigged for flight, and to have live music,” Smith says.
But finally, the time is right. Maestro Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will be on hand to play the score – it’s by contemporary opera composer Stewart Wallace, who wrote it originally for Texas Ballet Theater. “The music’s very contemporary, yet has really beautiful melodies that tell the story,” Smith says. “It’s playful and mischievous for Peter Pan – it can be very funny – and it’s scary and dangerous for Captain Hook and the crocodile. When a character flies, the music soars. It’s a tough production, but it’s such a great story. Everyone wants to fly. Everyone wants to be a lost boy, or a pirate, or a mermaid!”
Two repertory programs round out the season. “Probably the biggest success we’ve had, artistically speaking, is with our repertory shows,” Smith says. “The variety of choreographic styles in these programs shows off the versatility of the dancers. And we’ve risen to the challenge of doing difficult Balanchine repertory – we’re doing this work, and we’re doing it well. To me, the repertory programs are where we’ve really grown immensely over the years.”
The programs aren’t set in stone yet, but Repertory I (Feb. 5-6 at the Bartell) has become a choreographers’ showcase, featuring works by invited dancemakers who lead their own companies, and whose styles range from contemporary to neoclassical. This year’s Rep I will include pieces by two choreographers who first set their works on Madison Ballet last season. One is General Hambrick, whose Balanchine background and work in both Broadway and gospel music makes for mysteriously soulful neoclassical / contemporary works. The other is Jacqueline Stewart, artistic director of Jaxon Movement Arts in Chicago and New York, whose urban / contemporary works bristle with edge. “I wanted both of them to come back right away; the first year is about getting to know the dancers and building a relationship with them, and the second year they know who they’re working with,” Smith says. “Returning choreographers know how far they can push the dancers, and they understand better than before where they can take them artistically.”
Smith also plans to create a new work for this show. “It’s an all-male ballet,” he says. “Right now, that’s all I know about it.”
Repertory II (April 22-23, at the Bartell), closes the season. It’s become a showcase for Madison Ballet’s growing Balanchine repertory as well as Smith’s own neoclassical pieces. It ends, traditionally, with a rousing finale that leaves the audience dancing in the aisles. This year’s Rep II will include Smith’s inevitably deeply neoclassical tribute to the Viennese waltz, based on dances he made years ago, when Madison Ballet was just a pre-professional studio company. The finale will probably be an expanded version of his 2013 neoclassical hip-hop ballet Street – classic Smith, with a score that mixes Bach and Beethoven with contemporary urban street music.
And then there’s the pièce de résistance. “We’re a small company, so the Balanchine repertory is limited for us,” Smith says. But since 2013, each Rep II concert has included at least one Balanchine masterwork. For Rep II, the Balanchine Trust has granted Madison Ballet the right to perform the three themes from the master’s 1946 The Four Temperaments, one of his early, avant-garde, black-and-white ballets, with a score by Paul Hindemith. Like the other Balanchine works Madison Ballet’s done, this one will be set on the company by Balanchine Trust répétiteur Michelle Gifford.
“Temperaments” refers to the medieval notion of elemental “humors” that determine a person’s character. The full ballet runs 30 minutes and requires 25 dancers; the three themes Madison Ballet will perform are pas de deux that, if you see the work in its entirety, introduce the “temperament” variations. “It’s wonderful to have a relationship with the Trust, and to have the opportunity to do Balanchine ballets – it’s an important part of who we are,” Smith says.
“In the words of Dracula,” he continues, wrapping up, “this is the biggest season we’ve bitten off to date. It will test us as an organization and as artists. It’s nervewracking, it’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be challenging. But I am 100 percent confident in everyone here. The success of the season will show up on stage because that’s what we always do. The season is going to be exciting for the organization, for the dancers, and for the audience.”