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.” 

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