Monday, December 21, 2015

Nutcracker 2015 Sparkles with Surprises

Quirk, in Snow                © Kat Stiennon 2015
by Susan Kepecs
On the surface, Madison Ballet’s Balanchine-based Nutcracker (through Dec. 27, Overture Hall) looks like tradition set in stone.  Every year, Maestro Andrew Sewell and the Madison Chamber Orchestra, with its light, sparkly touch, save Tchiakovsky’s familiar score from ending up as supermarket muzak cliché.  Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith’s choreography always has the same slightly unconventional neoclassical look, though it changes (almost imperceptably) to highlight the strengths of dancers new to particular roles.  The sets have been around since 2004, but they still pop with holiday glitter.  The dancing always looks competent, often lovely, though it’s never perfect all the way through (someone’s arms will lag behind on a corps port de bras; someone’s battus will flop), and somebody inevitably slips – the floor on Overture Hall’s stage is less than ideal. But there are always surprises hidden in predictability.  In order not to miss out I saw both casts, back to back, on Sat., Dec. 12.  Here are this year’s revelations:
The party scene – that seemingly intermniable prologue to Nut’s real dancing, fun to see only if you have little kids in the cast – seemed a little shorter and brighter this year thanks to Jason Gomez, who’s always superb in character roles, as Drosselmeyer.  The part’s been done for years by local celeb actors who never quite seemed to fit right in the context of ballet, so it was a relief to see a dancer, with a balletic sense of timing and elegance, orchestrate the scene.  Plus Gomez has a flair for magic tricks, and he really knows how to fling a cape.
Phillip Ollenberg, who’s done the Russian divertissement as a solo for the last four or five years, beamed with confidence as he turned in (as always) a bold bravura performance.  
Madison Ballet’s hired several new men this season, but the ballerinas are still the heart of the company.  Two of them, both in their second MB season, blossomed in this ballet.  In the Arabian pas, Abigail Henninger furled and unfurled around her partner, newcomer Jordan Nelson, with exotic lushness, miraculously achieving with her long, supple body the curlique lines of ancient Moorish calligraphy.  Nelson’s partnering added mystery to this feat; sometimes his hands were almost hidden behind Henninger’s back, making it appear as if she were floating, unsupported.  
And Elizabeth Cohen – the Dewdrop in “Waltz of the Flowers” in the evening show – excels at moving through the music with loose pleasure.  There’s a dash of Latin sassiness in her style, honed during two seasons with Ballet Latino de San Antonio that preceeded her move to Madison last year.
But the big story in the current Nutcracker production is about three ballerinas who occupy special places in Madison Ballet history.  One is veteran Rachelle Butler, who plans to retire after the 2015-16 season.  Butler’s the company’s backbone – she’s the one the dancers follow in company class, relying on her command of Balanchine technique and Smith’s choreography.  As Dew in the afternoon show she revealed that treasure trove of experience in her arms and back, and it was obvious that she carries this choreography deep in her bones. 
     The other two in the aforementioned trio shared the principal Snow Queen / Sugarplum Fairy role this year.  Annika Reikersdorfer came up through the School of Madison Ballet and joined the company last season.  She’s one of those very rare dancers who discovered her artistry early; at 17 she was dancing soloist roles – she was Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother last spring. Now 18, she just sparkled in Nutcracker’s principal part.  In the Snow pas, absolutely calm and self-possessed, she wrapped an attitude leg behind her partner (Ollenberg); he lifted her, feathery and spirit-like, into an arcing grand jeté.  Her Sugarplum variation was fresh and full of grace; the delight she took in every step, from simple piqué turns to a twinkling gargouillade, was palpable.  In the pas de deux she flew into a triumphant shoulder sit; Ollenberg spun her into a deep fish dive as the audience whistled and clapped.
        Madison Ballet isn’t built on hierarchy – in the course of any season everyone does both corps and solo parts.  But in every sense except title there is a principal ballerina, instantly recognizable to the public at large, and that’s Shannon Quirk.  For her, the Snow pas seemed effortless.  She sailed, she floated.  The joyful flourishes that adorned her port de bras were pure Balanchine.  The audience held its collective breath as she soared into high, arched lifts or flew, fearless, into a fish.  And the long adagio Sugarplum pas was all about her.  The regal way she swept into penché, then dipped luxuriously into her cavalier’s arms, left no doubt – Quirk is the reigning empress of Madison Ballet.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Li Chiao Ping's Bright, Shiny Armature

Li, in "Tome"     © Craig Schreiner
by Susan Kepecs
Li Chiao Ping Dance presented Armature: in media res, the final installment of the company’s twenty-year retrospective, at Overture’s Promenade Hall last weekend (Dec. 10-13 – I attended on Dec. 11).  Li is a powerful performer and a major force in the world of second-wave postmodern choreographers. Her modus operandi is intellectual and kinetic, achingly personal and/or oddly abstract. Her idiosyncratic vocabulary melds a buff, angular, egalitarian aesthetic with a quasi-classical countercurrent.  Autobiographical solos, dances devised over spoken-word works, and dada-esque ensemble un-ballets are her bailiwick.
Only one piece on this program, “Past Forward,” which I described after its 2006 premiere as a happy demon dance (for three), fell flat – the dancers were strong, but the work itself this time around struck me as simply a vehicle for Li’s movement style, lacking the meaty content that defines most of her oeuvre.
The rest of the bill was compelling, featuring dances old and new that I was delighted to see again, or to experience for the first time.  “Aqueducks,” an absurd divertissement excerpted from Li’s 2010 holiday un-ballet, The Knotcracker, lacked the layers of intellectual nuances that prevailed elsewhere in this program, but it exemplified Li’s razor-sharp sense of humor – and in these dark times if you can make your audience laugh at a postmodern dance concert, you’re onto something.
“Cline,” choreographed this year, was built around the company’s six current core dancers plus Li, whose powerful presence bookended the corps performance.   Like “Past Forward,” “Cline,” a minimalist piece, was essentially a vehicle for Li’s vocbulary.  But its formal structure was engagingly complex, built like a Balanchine ensemble ballet with groups of dancers crossing in space while executing different but related moves, or moving in unison, or mirroring each other in pairs and trios.  Sets of Li-isms – spin, fall, fling, run; rollover, shoulder stand, push-pull, carve through space – meshed seamlessly with artifice-less balletic references (little coupe jeté turns; a promenade in low arabesque; brief pas de deux with small, low lifts).
Li excerpted three substantive solos, strung together like pearls on a string of dancing soliloquys, from her autobiographical exposé Yellow River, originally an evening-length solo program that premiered in San Francisco in 1991 and which she performed herself.  I’ve seen extracts from this work before, but never so many at once.  Taken together, these dances deftly dissected the Chinese-American experience.  East met west; superstition clashed with science.  Li ran in place, center stage, spouting a string of old wives’ tales – a metaphysical net from which she tried to break free.  The following solo, titled “I can feel the rings” – set to a remarkable field recording of Chinese Gypsy women recorded by Li’s father – was set on Toronto-based guest artist Susan Lee, whose grasp of its content was primordial; dancing as if driven by external forces, she exposed a veiled edge of violence shot through with pleas to invisible deities.  From traditional China the story lept to the modern West; the Mozart-driven “Exact and Precise,” danced by LCPD veteran Liz Sexe, was playful, with patterns that repeated but became more complex – dance as music made visible, as Balanchine liked to say.  Finally, “Tome” featured Li, small but mighty, with a big old dictionary that served as a low pedestal on which she pivoted, or crouched, or balanced on one foot in penché, working leg in low arabesque – so hard! –  while reciting mathematical constructs. 
“Refrain,” choreographed in1999 (though I’ve never seen it before), was bravely performed by Megan Thompson, who’s danced with LCPD on and off for years.  She wore a deconstructed tutu of the sort Li often uses to signal her un-ballet genre – red tulle pinned in odd spots over a burgundy-toned leotard.  A round spotlight like a full moon projected on the backdrop hightened this dramatic – ok, operatic – dance, set (what else?) to Wagner.  Balletic components – cambrés, port de bras, second position pliés – were channeled through Li’s angular style.  Thompson’s ironic facial expressions underscored the tongue-in-cheek intent of this piece. 
“Gó” (1995), an un-ballet named for the ancient Chinese board game played with black and white stones, underwent slight modifications in the early 2000s and then disappeared from Li’s active repertory.  The 2015 version, “Gó Redux,” was mostly its sassy old self – a double whammy that deconstructs ballet both avant-garde and nineteenth century classical. With dancers in black halter tops, little white tutus, and combat boots, this witty work flaunts – in Li’s vocabulary – the rhythmic, tribal thrust of the 1913 Stravinsky / Nijinsky collaboration Rite of Spring (to which Li paid direct homage during its centennial year), plus some beloved clichés from the 1895 Tchiakovsky / Petipa Swan Lake including the famous dance of the four arms-crossed cygnets.  “Gó” is dynamite dancemaking, eye-popping and filled with references that click. I was mystified, though, when “Gó Redux” ended with a trick seemingly lifted from the Hubbard Street Dance vocabulary – empty dresses traveling across the stage (here, on a clothesline).  We’ve seen variations on this theme in Jirí Kylian’s signature piece, “Petite Mort,” and in other works staged by Hubbard in the early 2000s.  Knowing Li, the reference probably was intentional, but it felt like an afterthought – a non-sequitur among the brighter puns in this piece.
The pièce de resistance in Armature was the world premiere of the title work, “in media res.”  For sheer physiopsychological challenge it bore relation to Elizabeth Streb’s “Board” – a dance featuring a soloist, a mat, and game of chicken with a spinning two-by-four that I’ve seen Li perform twice.  “In media res” is a strong, resonant piece, threaded with spoken words in nonsensical sequences that evoked its title or its actions.  It featured a fearless Li at the peak of tensegrity, performing impossible feats with a small, plain work table; she lifted it on her shoulders like Charles Atlas, slid beneath it and hung off its edge, went from downward dog to headstand on its top,
Li, "in media res"     © Craig Schreiner
promenaded there in low arabesque, slid backwards to hang off its edge, teetering on the small of her back, then fired up her core to spring up – a Pilates teaser – before leaping to her feet on the tabletop and jumping down, to vanish and re-emerge, mysteriously, framed in a string of lights.