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.

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