Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Madison Ballet's Repertory I: Ephemeral

Ollenburg and Quirk in "Zero Hour" © Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Dance is an ephemeral art.  Thanks to today’s technology we can record and recreate it better than ever before, but dancers never step in the same proverbial river twice.  The same choreography will look distinct on different dancers, and, because the instrument of dance is the human body, with all its physical and emotional fluctuations, a single dancer will bring something different to the same piece every time s/he performs it.  By extension, Madison Ballet’s Repertory I concert, which ran last weekend (Feb. 5-6) at the Bartell (I went to the Saturday afternoon show), was a transient moment, never to repeat.
Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas also are ephemeral – have you ever seen monks painstakingly creating with tiny grains of colored sand the most gorgeous hallucinations, only to destroy them later in a ritual meant to underscore the impermanence of all things?  Well, ballet companies can be ephemeral, too.  The name “Madison Ballet” has been around a long time.  Under its current artistic director, W. Earle Smith, it began, in 2004, as a student “studio company,” attached to the School of Madison Ballet and fronted in performance by one-night-stand guest artists, usually retired principals from major ballet organizations.  In 2007 Madison Ballet went to a pickup model, bringing in casts of professional dancers for three paid weeks prior to performances.  But the outfit we know as Madison Ballet today, with professional dancers (some of whom come up through the School) on season contract – the holy grail, since having dancers in residence for months on end is the only way to build a unified company and provide time for choreography to seep into everyones’ bones – is only four years old.
In those four years the company’s been transformed; today any mid-sized, thriving city (which ours is, theoretically) would count an organization like this among its high cultural treasures. So it came as a shock when, two weeks ago, out of the blue, the powers that be delivered a cold shot, canceling the season post-Repertory I. Three more shows had been slotted for spring – a tour for Smith’s sexy steampunk rock n’ roll ballet Dracula, an updated version of his family-oriented Peter Pan, and the now-traditional season finale for this company, the Balanchine-based Repertory II program. 
Financial malfunctions are clearly the culprit, though much of the story remains mysterious.  But it’ll be a long time, if ever, before Madison Ballet steps again in any similar river – and fifteen beautiful, hardworking young dancers are left out in the street, pondering the impermanence of all things and wondering where their next jobs will come from. 
In the face of all this adversity, Rep I, miraculously, went on without a hitch.  The program began with the exquisite Shannon Quirk performing the very neoclassical “Adagio de Quatres, Fourth Movement,” which Smith choreographed on and for her in 2013.  This dance, settled deep in her bones, appeared unpremeditated, natural, transcendant – a light, sweeping ode to attitude turns adorned with sublimely expressive arms.  Music made visible; woman, dancing. 
“On the Surface,” a new work created for Madison Ballet by Chicago and New York-based urban contemporary choreographer Jacqueline Stewart, was a much better fit for this company than her offering last year, the quirky “Jiffy Pop,” which she originally made in 2010 for Chicago’s contemporary dance troupe Thodos.  “Surface” – a play on all sorts of surface tensions – featured eight dancers (Cyrus Bridwell, Elizabeth Cohen, McKenna Collins, Jason Gomez, Abigail Henninger, Kelanie Murphy, Jordan Nelson, and Phillip Ollenburg) in simple black dance clothes.  Their angular, spiky moves were amplified under high-contrast, gold-toned light.  Cohen, partnered by Bridwell, slid stiff-legged, on pointe, across the floor.  Ollenburg lifted Henninger, long legs scissoring like a skimming waterbug, dangerously overhead.  Collins and Gomez stalked each other in a bright spotlight to an electronic tango.  The whole piece, drawn directly from the contemporary idiom, was less avant-garde than I expected, more like works from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s earlier repertory than “Jiffy Pop.”    
Like Stewart, General McArthur Hambrick, whose résumé spans the worlds of ballet, Broadway, and gospel, had a piece in last year’s Rep I.  His new work, “Zero Hour,” also a premiere, looked surprisingly similar to Stewart’s, on the surface – dancers in simple black dancewear, high-contrast, gold-toned lighting, and an eclectic electronic score.  But “Zero,” like the previous piece Hambrick set on Madison Ballet, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper,” told an abstract story steeped in mystery and edged with revelation.  “Zero”’s large cast – Bridwell, Collins, Henninger, Murphy, Nelson, Ollenburg, Quirk, Rachelle Butler, Joe LaChance, Annika Reikersdorfer, and Jackson Warring – plus its sequences of big, unison movements – gave it a palpable sense of power.  The dancers moved in lockstep, then in circular swarms; one at a time, Bridwell and Reikersdorfer were lifted to the top of the hive, then dropped to the ground.  With a shout (though it seemed muted – more emphatic delivery would have heightened the drama) the swarm broke apart, revealing freedom: rock n’ roll, festooned with leaps and cartwheels. 
A pair of new works by Smith, “Jux I” (for five women) and “Jux II” (for the company’s six men), ended the program.  Each was built on repeated sequences and featured dancers in plain white dance clothes.  “Jux I,” a pretty, allegro piece to a difficult, rhythmically layered contemporary classical score, was Balanchine-esque, recalling the master’s penchant for the flexed wrists, entwined arms, jutting hips, and sixth position prances that appear in dances like Apollo and The Four Temperaments.  “Jux I” demanded tight corps work, and Cohen, Collins, Murphy, Reikersdorfer, and Kristin Hammer were marvelously meticulous, popping in and out of synch like jazz musicians wildly improvising.
Jux I             © Kat Stiennon 2016
The music for “Jux II” was gentler, allowing the men, with their longer limbs, more leeway. The choreography was more substantive, its corps work punctuated by solos.  As in “Jux I,” repeated patterns were done in and out of synch.  A little judicious editing would have helped – by the end I’d had time to memorize some of the steps.  But in the big picture, that barely mattered.  There wasn’t a lot of bravura – what was lovable about this dance was its ebb and flow, its surprising playfulness, and the indelible image of six men waltzing.  Jordan Nelson, dancing solo, free and easy, swept left, then right, then flew into a series of turns.   Phillip Ollenburg, agile and strong, stole the show, flinging himself boldly into arabesque turns or riding the rhythm on strings of little brisés. Music made visible.  Man, dancing. 

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