Friday, February 26, 2016

One More Time!

Cohen rehearsing her don Q variation for Encore
 © SKepecs
by Susan Kepecs
Lemons into lemonade.  I know it sounds trite, but that’s what keeps running through my head as I consider Encore, a ballet performance that’s taking shape under extraordinary circumstances and enormous time constraints.  It runs March 4-5 at Overture’s Promenade Hall. 
Some of the most interesting professional dance companies in the country give their dancers the opportunity to do dancers’ choreography showcases, which are like little hotbeds of fresh talent that gets to bubble up to the surface – Smuin Ballet of San Francisco does it; Chicago’s now-defunct Luna Negra, under the direction of Eduardo Vilaro (now artistic director of Ballet Hispanico in New York), used to do it.  Encore is a professional ballet dancers’ choreography showcase, but organizationally it’s a little different than most – it’s an independent production, put together by the dancers who were on 2015-15 contract with Madison Ballet until that company unexpectedly cancelled the rest of its season in January. Encore’s a collaborative production, but – and this is pretty much a law of human behavior – when you have more than six in the mix, you need someone to lead. 
In this case that leader is Elizabeth Cohen, formerly of Ballet Latino San Antonio, who was in her second season with Madison Ballet.  “We’re not working under the name Madison Ballet right now,” Cohen says.  “This is us, creating a group, though Madison Ballet has been very gracious, donating its studio space for rehearsal, giving us access to costumes, and helping us get the venue for this performance.  It’s totally heartwarming than I can feel good about going back to the place where I was employed, after the layoff.”
I interviewed Cohen at the Madison Ballet studio, where Encore was in rehearsal; I also got a sneak peak at the program.  Here’s what I came away with:

Cultural Oyster: It’s exactly a month since the announcement that the season was cancelled, and three weeks after the last performance (Repertory I, at the Bartell Feb. 5-6).  And now you have one week to go till showtime. How hard has it been to put Encore together under so much pressure and so little time?”

Cohen: The dancers had all these questions after the announcement.  We were all really upset – we were kind of in shock.  But underneath it all we felt like it was important to support each other, and out of that came the decision to be collaborative and show people what we can do with our talents even without time and resources.  Everyone is banding together to try to create something great – the whole mentality has changed.  We have something to do and everyone is happy because they’re being productive and creative.  And in the process we’ve discovered that we can put together our own show because we’re that passionate about dancing and performing.
The thing about Encore is that it’s an opportunity to do another performance.  Although the rest of Madison Ballet’s season is over, Encore extends the ballet season in town this year.  And it’s also an opportunity for some of the dancers, myself included, to choreograph for the first time ever on professional dancers – our peers – and to have our works performed in a great venue.  So it’s helping us all to be more well-rounded in our careers.

CulturalOyster: But it’s a whole lot of effort for just one weekend!

Cohen: We took on this challenge because we wanted to. We  really didn’t want to see the ballet scene in Madison just fall off and die.  The performing arts are important to me personally, and when I started organizing this I found out that a lot of people here feel the same way.  So many people in the community came up and told me how disappointed they were when they learned that Madison Ballet’s season was cut short.  This is a capital city, and it deserves a lively performing arts scene.  There’s been so much support for this show!  And if people want to see ballet we’re going to give it to them, because we’re a diverse group of professionally trained dancers, and we can do that.”

CulturalOyster: Is Encore one-shot deal?

Cohen: We were going to do this anyway – it was going to be in May, after the season was over, so it’s been an idea for a long time.  It just came about earlier in the spring than we originally thought it would.  But we’re associated with Madison Ballet, we want Madison Ballet to continue and thrive, and we hope Encore brings new attention to the organization – we’re really working hard to get the word out.  We’re all learning so much from doing this – next season I hope we still get opportunities to do this kind of showcase, along with everything else.”

CulturalOyster: What have you learned, personally, from organizing this production?

Cohen: It’s difficult and empowering to organize a group, and to create something from nothing.  I’ve learned that my fellow dancers and the community agree with me – they don’t want to see professional ballet disappear in Madison.  People in the community are very much into this, which I think is a big deal.  So many people have reached out to us – way more people than I ever thought we could draw in.  They want to be involved in the project, in all kinds of different ways.  People we didn’t even know before, and our friends outside ballet, and the parents of our students at the School of Madison Ballet have all jumped in.  And the stagehand crew!  They were contracted out by Madison Ballet and with the season cut short they didn’t have a ton of stuff to do either, so they’re helping us – Encore wouldn’t exist without them.  They have a great relationship with Earle [Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith], and they keep telling me how this is their favorite group to work with.  And they work with every performing arts group in the city!  It’s really sweet.

Along with the stage crew I watched an early, very partial rehearsal.  The dancers told us a little about their works and showed excerpts.   There are 14 dances on the preliminary Encore bill, ranging from very contemporary to very classical. Some are uniquely personal; others are more formal.  And most are quite short, to accommodate the time constraints on this show.
Cohen and Cyrus Bridwell are working on Marius Petipa’s don Quixote pas de deux.  “Before the season started we were coming in for class and we were so gung ho about being in the company and loving being a dancer, we were like ‘let’s take the time to learn this pas,’” Cohen says.  “So we were doing it in September, but we let it go when we got busy with Dracula and Nutcracker.  We picked it because it was something each of us had always wanted to do.  We thought hey, we might as well teach it to ourselves! 
Petipa’s been dead since 1910; his works, of course, are in the public domain.  Cohen and Bridwell used YouTube videos to learn the pas, so this is their take on the original as already filtered through various major companies – it’s choreography “after Petipa.”  Bridwell wasn’t able to be at this rehearsal, but Cohen, who’s got a natural flair for escuela bolera-style ballet, showed the female variation, wearing a Spanish tutu from Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker kit.  
Jessica Lin – technically not a company member, though she’s a beautiful dancer and takes company class at Madison Ballet – spent her pre-professional years at Edward Ellison Ballet in New York; in her firey solo, “Carmen,” choreographed by Ellison and used with his permission, she dances in a flamenco skirt, with a chair.
Cohen choreographed a solo for herself, as yet untitled; the short excerpt she was ready to show was angular and contemporary, with very precise pointework.  “I’ve always wanted to create a dance with someone playing live music,” she says.  “The piece is abstract, but for me it’s about how you can try to make your life consistent, but there are always things that throw you for a loop.  In the end it’s about perseverance, you know, forging ahead.  Glenn Sparks is playing the piano; he’s a composer, a pianist, and an artist, and it’s really cool to collaborate with him.”
Kristen Hammer, just back from seeing Nashville Ballet perform with musicians from that city’s songwriters’ club Bluebird CafĂ© live onstage, has made a big, swinging, as yet untitled dancey dance to songs by country music supergroup Pistol Annies and set it on Annika Reikersdorfer, Kelanie Murphy, and Abigail Henninger.  Each dancer, she says, represents one of the Annies.  “It’s serious fun to make a piece that just makes everybody want to dance,” Hammer says.   
Reikersdorfer with Henninger and Murphy in Hammer's dance
Jackson Warring’s dance, called “Optimism,” is a love triangle piece set on Cohen with Joe LaChance and Cyrus Bridwell.  It’s stylistic kin to the works General McArthur Hambrick has set on Madison Ballet.  I see only a short segment, in which Warring stands in for Bridwell; it features some Hambrick-style death-defying lifts.  “I wanted it to have a strong narrative, like General’s pieces do,” Warring says. “When you see the whole thing, you see the movement shift as the narrative changes.”
Abigail Henninger’s “One” is a three-movement, eight-minute work with a score by The Piano Guys, for six dancers.  “It’s not a story line,” she says, “but we went through a difficult situation here, and my thought process is that we all have this one thing we run to in hard times, my boyfriend, or my new career – for me it’s a spiritual outlet, so that’s my “one.” 
In rehearsal she showed the second movement, with half the cast – Hammer, Reikersdorfer, and Rachelle Butler.  The dancers moved in and out of unison, mostly in petite allegro; stylistically it’s very Henninger – there’s a lot of the way she moves in it – but you can see the influence of both Earle Smith and General Hambrick, too.
            Kelanie Murphy’s large ensemble piece (for eight dancers) is barefoot and contemporary, and revolves around solos danced by Rachelle Butler.  And if it turns out to be OK to use tap shoes on the Marley floor the dancers will use, Murphy will contribute a second piece – an uptempo little 1950s tap duet with Jackson Warring, to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Butler’s contribution, “Jerry’s Songs,” “is a tribute to my dad, with music from his childhood,” she says.  “But the choreography’s about that relationship everybody’s had – you’ve been in love and you pull away and then it rekindles and then you split up.”  Butler’s dad obviously has great taste, since “Jerry’s Songs” has the best score ever – you just can’t go wrong with Motown and Memphis soul.  And Butler’s deep-rooted, Smith-influenced Balanchine sensibilities came out in full force in the pas de deux I saw, danced by Henninger and Warring.  “I always wanted to do a whole ballet to thank my dad for the support he’s given me,” Butler says.  “’Jerry’s Songs’” is an excerpt from that work I have in my head, which hopefully I’ll finish some day.”
Butler (right), rehearsing Henninger in "Jerry's Songs"
© SKepecs
There are other works listed on the preliminary program that I didn’t see. Shannon Quirk and Joe LaChance are doing the Sleeping Beauty wedding pas de deux, following Petipa.  The exceptionally creative Phillip Ollenburg is choreographing a piece called “Seasonal Beasts” on Quirk.  Jason Gomez is doing an as yet untitled pas de deux for himself and Henninger. 

And Gomez and Butler – who are both retiring from the stage after this performance – will dance Smith’s luxurious, pure neoclassical Caccini pas de deux to the Italian composer’s “Ave Maria,” which Smith choreographed on and for Butler in 2008.  The Caccini pas, again featuring Butler, was included as the centerpiece in Smith’s witty ensemble work “La Luce d’Amore,” the opener for Madison Ballet’s 2014 Repertory II show. School of Madison Ballet principal accompanist Marina Hegge will play the piece live at both of the evening shows in Encore’s three-show, two-day run.  .
In the end, Encore, despite its unusual circumstances, is the Madison Ballet dancers’ season finale – and it’s Gomez’ and Butler’s encore, too.  There’s more on both of them, below. 

You can help support Encore by visiting its GoFundMe page:

Rachelle Butler Retires from the Stage

Butler (center) as the Dewdrop in Madison Ballet's 2013 Nutcracker © SKepecs

CulturalOyster: How old are you now, at retirement?

Butler: I am retiring at 29, two months before my 30th birthday.

CulturalOyster: How old were you when you started ballet and where did you start?

Butler: I did pre ballet and level one when I was four to six years old.  But then I
Butler, age 4 or 5
stopped to pursue sports and other interests.  I began dancing again when I was 11, taking jazz classes at A Step Above, which was a Madison school directed by Melanie Kuzma.  Eventually I joined “A Step Beyond Competition Team” there, for which a requirement was to take ballet, and I fell in love.

CulturalOyster: What, or who (or both) inspired you to fall in love with ballet, to stick it out and make a career out of it?

Butler (right) at age 11, with sister Vanessa: their
first jazz performance! 
Butler: Having to work hard and really push myself throughout my training and career definitely made everything worthwhile. In addition, I was inspired by the support of my family.  When I got hired at Sacramento Ballet in 2007 my sister Vanessa moved there with me in order to supplement my income with her own so I could afford to dance.  I was also inspired by Artistic Director of Madison Ballet W. Earle Smith, who every time I doubted myself found a way to remind me of my love of ballet. Although sometimes it seemed like pulling teeth for him I'm sure, he was always there for me and continues to be there. In addition, the wonderful friends I've made throughout my career have helped me through thick and thin.

CulturalOyster: Where has your career in ballet taken you — where have you danced, as a student and as a professional? 

Butler: My career in ballet has taken me all over the US. I began my training in Madison at A Step Above, and then I met Earle and joined the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble studio company, which later became Madison Ballet.  I continued my training at The Rock School of the Pennsylvania Ballet, Miami City Ballet School and Ballet Chicago.  As I mentioned, I started my professional career at Sacramento Ballet, which increased my work ethic and ability to keep pushing even when I was exhausted. Finally I ended up at Madison Ballet, coming full circle to work with Earle again and to dance with some of the most giving and caring dancers I’ve ever known.

CulturalOyster: Tell me a little about a few of your very favorite career highlights – they don’t have to be “favorite roles.”

Butler: There have been countless great moments during my career. I've enjoyed
Butler, rehearsing the Mina
role in Smith's Dracula, with Matt Linzer
© SKepecs 
dancing a lot of amazing roles. At Madison Ballet I loved doing Mina, the lead female role in Earle’s Dracula: A Rock Ballet – and also dancing with Jason Gomez as the young lovers couple in Earle’s jazz ballet piece, “Expressions.”  I’ve done multiple principal roles in Balanchine ballets, during my training at all the places I already named and later, as a professional.
Some other great moments don't have to do with my roles but rather the pride I take in helping train two of the most wonderful Madison Ballet students, now company members, Annika Reikersdorfer and McKenna Collins.  I’ve also loved watching one of my best friends, Shannon Quirk, blossom into a rather exceptional artist, if I say so myself.  All of these experiences have allowed me to take my final bow with, not a feeling of sadness but, a feeling of utter appreciation for having been given these opportunities.

CulturalOyster: Retirement from the stage is a big step. How do you feel about it?

Butler: I am retiring from the stage with a sense of enlightenment, a feeling of joy and
Butler in Smith's "Expressions"
© Kat Stiennon
appreciation. Without all of the teachers, dancers, artistic directors, managers, registrars, family and friends who’ve been there for me along the way I couldn't have had the career, or the life I've led so far.  As dancers we live in a world that’s not just endless good days – there are days of loneliness, days when just making it through class is tough enough, days when you feel like you've not only let yourself down but everyone around you as well.  But I wouldn't change a single one!  The tough days are the ones you grow the most from, and I wouldn't give that up for anything in the world. So, to say it in one word, I feel grateful.

CulturalOyster: What’s next for you?

Butler: I plan to continue teaching and be a part of the Madison Ballet and Madison arts community.  I was born and raised here, and I hope to be a part of the growth of the arts here.  I have every faith that Madison Ballet will once again thrive, and I hope to be able to be part of that and give to others at least a fraction of what has been given to me.
                                                                                                   ------ interview by SK

Jason Gomez Retires from the Stage

Gomez and Luksik in Madison Ballet's Nutcracker 2014  © Natalie Armstrong

CulturalOyster: How old are you now, at retirement?
I am 32 years old.

Gomez: How old were you when you started, and where did you start?

I took my first dance class ever at age 15 with a performance group that did musical
Gomez in his first Nutcracker
revues called The Rising Stars of Texas, in San Antonio .  I got my first taste of "real" ballet at age 19 with a pre-professional company in Tallahassee, Florida called Pas de Vie ballet.  Charles Hagan and Natalia Botha, both former dancers with Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, started this company and it was under them that I learned the ropes of ballet life and saw and performed in my first Nutcracker -- and it's through them that I received my first job.

CulturalOyster: What, or who, or both, inspired you to fall in love with ballet, to stick it out and make a career out if it?

Gomez: My love and passion for ballet was fostered with Pas de Vie ballet, though I was still in school at Florida State University completing my Music degree and following a pre-med curriculum.  After college, I got a job with a psychiatrist back in my hometown, San Antonio. My mom worked for Dr. Escamilla, and he was the one who had guided me on my pre-med track in high school.  While I was working for him, I got news that a local ballet company was in need of men and I should send a video.  Dr. Escamila met with me and encouraged me to pursue dance if it was a passion.  He's a musician as well as a doctor, and he's in a band, so he understood.  He told me not fully pursuing music was something he regretted, and that if I worked hard enough medicine would always be there for me to enter into at any age. That gave me the push to send my video and take my first professional job.

CulturalOyster: Where has your career in ballet taken you – where have you danced, as a student and as a professional? 

Gomez: I love that I had the opportunity to travel with ballet.  Through Pas de Vie ballet in Florida, I made connections and got training at Nutmeg Conservatory in Connecticut.  I also spent some summers with The Joffrey Workshop in San Antonio.  I danced professionally with Ballet San Antonio before they became a full-time company, and then with Ballet Quad Cities in Iowa, where I danced six seasons.  After leaving BQC I joined Missouri Ballet Theatre in St. Louis, under Adam Sage.  I spent two seasons there.  Then I auditioned here in Madison and joined Madison Ballet in 2014.

CulturalOyster: Tell me a little about a few of your very favorite career highlights.  They don’t all have to be “favorite roles!” 

Gomez: I have so many memories.  One of my favorite roles was Oberon, in Adam Sage's A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Also, getting to dance Madison Ballet's principal male Nutcracker role with Molly Luksik at Overture Hall, with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra – because that was largest venue I've danced in, I didn't often have
Gomez soaring at Ballet Quad Cities
live music in the
Nutcrackers of my career, and I enjoyed the partnership I had with Molly.  Offstage, I will always remember all the laughs.  At Ballet Quad Cities I had to rehearse the Arabian pas [in Nutcracker] with one of my good friends (we were like brother and sister) and we could not look at each with the passion that’s needed for Arabian.  We spent the first few weeks of rehearsal just giggling uncontrollably, much to the frustration of our director.  Also, I'll never forget laughing every year in Iowa when we'd learn Russian for Nutcracker and we’d all have to watch a video of me tripping in those abominable puffy trepak pants.  

CulturalOyster: Retirement from the stage is a big step.  How do you feel about it?

Gomez: There a mixed emotions with retiring from full-time dance.  I feel fulfilled with a lot of the experiences and opportunities I've had over the years, and I've known for a few years that this transition was coming because I have another career that I've wanted to pursue since the age of five, that I've put on hold.  Of course, the dancer in me can't
Gomez dancing with Shannon Quirk at Madison Ballet
© SKepecs
imagine not taking class everyday, and the same dread that comes over me in the summe
rs – that question of “how will I stay in shape?” – is creeping into my head now.  Dance is physically demanding and truly does encompass all aspects of your life. With age you grow as an artist, but the physical demands become steeper, and I am wanting more than the "dancer lifestyle" that's easy to accommodate in your younger years.  I'm ready to let that go and follow another dream. 

CulturalOyster: What’s next for you?

Gomez: Though I thought I'd want to pursue medicine in a medical school, over the years I've gained a huge appreciation for and love of nursing.  I plan to go to nursing school and hopefully to continue on to become a nurse practitioner.  I'm already signed up for prerequisites I need for a masters program at Ohio State.  It’s a good school for nursing with a perfect program for someone like me who has no previous nursing degree or experience but already has a bachelors’ degree.  It just so happens too that we want to move closer to my husband's family, who also live in Ohio.  I have an new flame burning, a drive, that excites me and I feel blessed to know it and have opportunity to pursue it.
At Madison Ballet 2016  © SKepecs

                                                                                                       ------ interview by SK