Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dance Preview: Madison Ballet's Repertory I

Quirk and Ollenburg rehearsing "Zero Hour"   © SKepecs 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s upcoming 2016 Repertory I concert – Feb. 5-6, at the Bartell – offers the premiere of two new works by artistic director W. Earle Smith, and expands on the company’s growing relationships with outside choreographers General MacArthur Hambrick and Jacqueline Stewart, both of whom were represented on the 2015 Repertory I program. 
Hambrick's worked with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, Texas Ballet Theatre (where he danced with Smith), and on Broadway. Currently, he teaches at West Virginia’s School of Theatre and Dance. Stewart is the director of Jaxon Movement Arts, an urban, avant-garde company based in Chicago and New York. 
Hambrick’s and Stewart’s works on last year’s bill were opposites: Hambrick’s piece, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” – a mix of neoclasical ballet and Alvin Aileyisms (with the women on pointe) – carried an abstract narrative of mystery and otherworldliness.  Stewart’s dance, “Jiffy Pop,” was the anti-ballet – all angles and grotesque gesticulations, no pointework.  This year, the two dancemakers offer works on more similar wavelengths – both are angular and contemporary, yet balletic.  Hambrick’s, “Zero Hour,” is less otherworldly than “Brother’s Keeper;” Stewart’s “On the Surface” – a premiere – is less hard-edged, much more balletic than “Jiffy Pop.”  And for Stewart this time, the women dance on pointe; for Hambrick, they do not. 
In “On the Surface,” Stewart works with the abstract qualities of tension, letting the idea take various forms.  And Hambrick’s big, active “Zero Hour” is about tension and release, cast within a classic Hambrickian hidden narrative. 
The rest of Rep I is pure Earle Smith – neoclassical to the core.  Madison Ballet’s reigning empress, Shannon Quirk, reprises the feathery, playful adagio solo Smith made for her to Tomaso Albinoni’s “Oboe Concerto in D Minor;” its 2013 premiere marked her as a rising star at the end of her first season with the company.  “This time around,” she says, “it’s about finding a way to make [the dance] different artistically – finding all the nuances in the piece and exploring it to the fullest.  Last time, I focused so much on the physical aspect – now, I’m trying try to approach it with the growth I’ve made over the past few years.”
And there are two Smith premieres – Jux I (for five women), and Jux II, for all six of the company’s men.  The women’s dance is shorter, running about 10 minutes.  It’s a feast of flashy neoclassical allegro, tinged with contemporary tone and predicated on a challenge – the necessity of maintaining tight corps work despite the speedy, layered rhythms of the contemporary chamber score Smith’s selected. 
Jux II (which runs 26 minutes) has tricky counts, too – it’s extremely rhythmic and syncopated – but despite its big steps it’s softer, waltzier, jazzier than the women’s piece.  And no, it’s not a gender-bender – Jux II absolutely requires the sustained, muscular strength of men.  
Unlike Jux I, Jux II has solos, including a a long, fluid, dramatic variation Smith choreographed on and for Phillip Ollenburg.  Since Madison Ballet technically doesn’t have principals, call him Quirk’s counterpart – the company’s reigning emperor.  And he gets enough leeway to make this dance his own.  “Learning Earle’s musicality is like learning a language,” says Ollenburg, who’s in his sixth season with Madison Ballet.  “It’s as if Earle’s taken me through a series of grammatical excursuses, and I’ve acquired conversational fluidity after years of study. I’m using the musicality he’s taught me more as an operating system than as a specific program when running the Jux II solo. That allows for some choices, rather than a set regimen of timing.”
 “It’s nice to see guys dancing,” Smith says.  "Men don’t always have to just partner, or do bravura.” 

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best Performances of 2015

Afro-Cuban All Stars, Overture Hall                                                 © SKepecs 2015
by Susan Kepecs
Well, we’ve come to the end of another year under the nefarious thumb of transnational capitalism.  I thank my lucky stars, Bernie Sanders, and the performing arts for what little sanity I have left. Without further comment, here’s my Best Of 2015 list from that latter, life-affirming realm: 

The Juan de Marcos González UW-Madison Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Residency this fall, in all its multifaceted splendor. The concert by his brilliant big band, the Afro-Cuban All Stars (Overture Hall, Oct. 2), was a blitz of aché the likes of which we haven’t seen here in years, displayed in a splurge of styles culled from the complex evolution of the big island’s music – bolero, cha-cha-cha, guapachá, batumbatá – with a surprise retro ending: a pair of beloved sones from the original Buena Vista album, “El Cuarto de Tula” and “Chan Chan.”
Juan de Marcos with Pellejo Seco  © SKepecs 2015
Equally inspired were Marcos’ intimate public lec-dems (Tuesdays, Sept. 22-Nov. 10 at
Marcos and Abreu, demonstrating danzón
© SKepecs 2015
Music Hall and the Memorial Union’s Frederic March Play Circle
), layered with little-known stories, laced with informational gems, and illuminated with immense generosity of spirit and good humor.  Marcos often was accompanied onstage by tremendously talented Cuban musicians including his wife, Gliceria Abreu, and their two conservatory-trained daughters, Gliceria and Laura González; the Afro-Cuban All Stars (the week they were here for the concert); San Francisco-based son septet Pellejo Seco; and Cuban hip-hop queen Telmary Díaz.   

Poncho Sanchez, Shannon Hall      ©SKepecs 2015
Tony Castañeda, Shannon Hall       © SKepecs 2015
El gran soul vato Poncho Sanchez and his regular septet served up a sparkling set at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on May 9, with a snazzy warmup by our own Tony Castañeda and his Latin Jazz Band.  Castaneda’s outfit was super tight, turning out tunes like saxman Anders Svanoe’s “Volando Alto,” and “Pantano,” off Cal Tjader’s best-selling album, Soul Sauce (Verve, 1964).  And Sanchez, with his miraculous, bandaged fingers – ¡que ritmo! – showed off his versatility, playing the cha cha cha “Ven pa’ Bailar,” off his Latin Soul album (Concord 1999); Coltrane’s “Liberia,” latinizado to the hilt; Cheo Feliciano’s bolero “Aunque Tu;” and, dipping into the old soul bag – ¡thunder, lightening! – Eddie Floyd’s 1967 Stax/Volt hit “Knock on Wood.” 

Mahlasela (L) and Masekela.  Press photo

Hugh Masekela, the grand old man of South African township jazz, and Vusi “the voice” Mahlasela, played the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on March 6.  The raison d’ être for this joint appearance was their Twenty Years of Freedom show, a jubliant tribute to the day in May, 1994, that Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, ushering in democracy and ending 50 brutal years of apartheid.  “Twenty Years of Freedom” was an assemblage of greatest hits – the high holy music of township sound civil rights, as resonant and universal today as it was decades ago.  A luta continua.
            Mahlasela sang “When You Come Back, which he performed at Mandela’s inauguration; Masekela played his ’68 hippie anthem “Grazin’ in the Grass,” his iconic trumpet still wailing gloriously almost 50 years later.
Once, before a different concert, I asked him why his songs, written in the grim context of struggle, were so joyful.  “Many artists find the quality of joy when they’re oppressed and inspired,” Masekela replied.

Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats, and Freethinkers, ongoing at the
Sidran and company.  Hammes, unfortunately,  is hidden behind Moran.
© SKepecs 2015
Cardinal Bar since 2012 on Tuesday afternoons, June-August, is a weekly summertime meetinghouse for a hard-core group of regulars (many of whom lived in Miffland a lifetime ago, groovin’ to “Knock on Wood” and “Grazin’ in the Grass”) – and a hot drop-in spot for luminaries from near and far.  The salon is church for the emancipated, with music provided by Sidran on keys and vocals, Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar, and Tod Hammes on percussion (need I say more?) – and an inspirational message in the form of Sidran’s signature rant.  One Tuesday late last August when I actually took notes, Sidran took on all those Facebook addicts who live online and lose out on real life, then swerved into the wisdom of the great neurologist / wordsmith Oliver Sacks (who’d just died), paraphrasing gems from Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Vintage Books, 2007).  From there the rant ran to racism (ultimately we are all out of Africa), and finally fixed on the folly of Scotty’s then-in-full-swing presidential bid before morphing into two sets – bebop to doo-wop tunes this particular week by Sidran, Dylan, and yes, even the Spaniels – of sheer and utter head-boppin’, jivin’, jitterbuggin’ groove.

Li Chiao Ping Dance presented the last in its 20-year retrospective series, Armature: in media res,
Li, in "in media res"  © Craig Schreiner
at Overture’s Promenade Hall, Dec. 11-13.  Chiao Ping’s choreography is brainy and complex.  Her postmodernist deconstructions of ballet speak volumes about dance.  Her company is strong.  And she shines as a soloist.  Her latest work, “in media res” – a solo for herself, a sort of Pilates table dance for the intelligentsia – summed up who she is as a dancemaker: strong, fearless, ingenious. 

"Expressions"    © SKepecs 2015
I loved Madison Ballet’s Repertory II, April 17-18, at the Bartell – especially the finale, “Expressions,” artistic director W. Earle Smith’s jazz standards ballet.  Reminiscent of Balanchine’s Broadway ballets of the ‘30s and ‘40s, “Expressions” sizzled and smoked in all the right ways.  And then there’s the full-length work I consider this company’s greatest hit, Smith's Dracula, at Overture’s Capitol Theater, Oct. 16-17.  The whole show was a spooky delight, and the chemistry, especially between Madison Ballet’s stunning Shannon Quirk (as Mina Murray) and bedroom-eyed former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson (as Jonathan Harker), was superb.  I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again – if Balanchine had created a sex-oozing rock n’ roll ballet in the twenty-first century, this would be it. 
Quirk and Johnson in Dracula  © Kat Stiennon 2015