|Cohen, in Lancero Op. 1 © Kat Stiennon 2016|
by Susan Kepecs
If anyone thought Madison Ballet cancelled its spring season early in February because this city is just too small to support a company of professional ballet dancers on season contract, “Encore” – an independent choreographers’ showcase put together by the dancers of the shuttered company in two and a half weeks, in the aftermath of the cancellation announcement – proved them dead wrong. “Encore’”s three shows (March 4-5) packed Overture’s Promenade Hall, generously donated by the Overture Center for this benefit performance. Yes, it’s pretty late to be posting a review of a show that happened more than two weeks ago – I’ve been laid up with the devil’s own cold and a case of antibiotic-induced brain fog. But the local importance of this performance merits a review nonetheless. I attended the final, evening show on March 5, which was sold out – many people were turned away. Those lucky enough to get in were wildly enthusiastic, whistling and cheering even more than the audience with which I saw the touring production of Motown the Musical at Overture Hall on March 1.
That happy "Encore" audience owes a debt of gratitude to second-year Madison Ballet dancer Elizabeth Cohen, the lead organizer of this self-funded, collaborative effort. And also to the rest of the dancers, who, in the face of job loss, pulled together one more time to present professional ballet in Madison. They couldn’t let go without one more show – the bond that forms when you dance with people every day for a year, or several, is tough to break – and it’s that unity that makes a group of disparate dancers look like a company. Madison Ballet may soon rise, like the Phoenix, from its own ashes, but we will never see this whole, particular group of dancers together again. That, plus the fact that “Encore” was also a retirement performance for Rachelle Butler and Jason Gomez, made for a particularly poignant evening.
Thirteen short works were on the program. To make a blanket statement, the quality was uneven. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a showcase like “Encore,” presenting works by young dancers, many of whom have never choreographed before. But concerts of this sort offer a look at who the dancers in any given company really are – what interests them, and how they prefer to move. Stepping into the choreographer’s role pushes them to grow artistically. And seeing works made by young dancers inevitably points toward the future of ballet.
Three of the pieces weren’t originals. The short temporal space in which “Encore” was put together, coupled with the desire most ballerinas have to dance the great traditional roles, led to the choice of a pair of grand pas de deux in the public domain. Shannon Quirk and Joe LaChance, who partnered her all year, danced the lush, formal wedding pas from Sleeping Beauty, following the Petipa choreography. LaChance is not Quirk’s equal – his partnering, and his variation, were shaky. But Quirk, though she looked tired, held her own in the demanding, balance-fraught pas – and her elegance and precise footwork in the old-fashioned Princess Aurora variation drew cheers from the audience.
Cohen and Cyrus Bridwell recreated the Don Quijote Act III grand pas de deux (also after Petipa). This is a well-matched pair, and their pas was neatly done. Bridwell put some impressive loft into his bravura variation, but Cohen, formerly of Ballet Latino San Antonio, was unmistakably the star – utterly in her element, eyes sparkling, zipping through the saucy Kitri variation, fan flicking, one come-hither hand set defiantly on her hip.
Also in the Spanish vein, guest artist Jessica Lin offered a proud, flirtatious, flamenco-esque solo-with-chair, “Carmen Habanera” (to the eponymous piece from Bizet’s opera); it was choreographed by Edward Ellison, with whom she studied in New York.
Nine of the remaining ten dances were by Madison Ballet company members. A couple of them were disappointing. Phillip Ollenburg’s contemporary solo for Quirk was nicely evocative of a creature crawling from and returning to a habitat created with a string of LED lights reminiscent of sea phosphorous. But strings of lights are becoming cliché these days, and the dance itself looked hastily put together, failing to take full advantage of Ollenburg’s own prodigious creativity or Quirk’s considerable chops off pointe.
Kristen Hammer used a country-western song with really trashy lyrics about spousal abuse for her piece “Trailor for Rent” (trailor?), and asked Annika Reikersdorfer, Abigail Henninger and Kelanie Murphy to interpret them literally. The concept was sophomoric, but the contemporary ballet steps were nicely turned, and the dancers did a fine job with what they were given.
Several works were traditionally balletic. Abigail Henninger’s “One,” a pretty ensemble piece (Rachelle Butler, Hammer, Quirk, Reikersdorfer, LaChance) led by Gomez, who’s never looked better, was built of upward-reaching movements set on an adagio / allegro structure, and possessed with a transcendant sense of calm.
Kelanie Murphy also offered an ensemble ballet, “Looking Up,” which she set on Butler, Nancy Cole, Quirk, Reikersdorfer, LaChance, and Jackson Warring. Nothing about “Looking Up” made it stand out, but it was a satisfyingly active piece of choreography, simple but light and feathery, without pointework but making full use of classical vocabulary.
We saw a completely different side of Murphy in her sparkling two-minute jitterbug tap duet with Warring to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” It’s not the stuff of formal ballet repertory, but a pair of performers reveling in the delight of doing something they absolutely love is, without doubt, the purest form of dance there is.
Warring, and Cohen, are two new choreographers to keep an eye on. Cohen created a very short solo for herself, “Lancero Op. 1,” to a piano piece by local composer Glenn Sparks, who played it live. In plain white leotard and tights, with a wide white shawl, Cohen, a superb ballet technician who hasn’t yet had many opportunities with Madison Ballet to show what she can do, flowed like liquid – a lithe spirit dancing free, on pointe.
Warring’s very solid “Optimism” featured Cohen, Bridwell and LaChance in a dynamic love triangle. “Optimism”’s narrative base, its contemporary, off-pointe style, its crazy, athletic lifts, its quickly shifting action, and the electronic score by cellist Zoe Keating reflected the influence of frequent Madison Ballet guest choreographer General McArthur Hambrick. But its depth and substance also revealed Warring’s budding artistry in the choreographic realm.
Ballet veterans Gomez and Butler contributed noteworthy works that left me hoping both will continue to choreograph for Madison Ballet and other companies now that they’re retired from the stage.
Gomez choreographed a lovely, very Latin pas de deux, “Lejos y Cerca,” for Henninger and himself (in street clothes) to a nuevo flamenco piece by the eclectic Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. “Lejos y Cerca” was a dancey, happy, triumph of a pas, full of high overhead lifts and dips; Gomez and Henninger smiled throughout.
Rachelle Butler’s deliciously wild “Jerry’s Songs,” deeply rooted in Balanchine technique, was set to ‘60s soul. The concept’s not entirely original, since Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith did a fluffy neoclassical repertory piece, “Groovy,” to a set of ‘60s tunes a couple of years back. But Butler’s dance was much more from-the-heart; she chose songs her father loves, and the work was dedicated to him. “Jerry’s Songs”’ simple boy-meets girl, relationship goes bad, girls have fun theme was done tongue-in-cheek. In the first part, Henninger and Warring – a comic pair to begin with, since she’s tall and leggy, and he’s short (the mismatch is only visual) – stalked each other; Henninger repeatedly climbed up Warring’s back, snarling at him. In the second section Cohen, Cole, Hammer, Murphy and Reikersdorfer pranced and spun with glee, heads bopping – and in the end Henninger got a new man, LaChance, who carried her offstage.
Although she out-did him in the ‘60s department, Butler has always been Smith’s protégé, and Smith is a master choreographer. For her farewell, Smith gave her permission to dance, partnered by Gomez, his luxurious, pure neoclassical Caccini pas de deux, to the Italian composer’s “Ave Maria.” The pas was choreographed on and for Butler in 2008; she reprised it in 2014.
There’s great chemistry between Butler and Gomez, which began when they were paired in Smith’s jazzy “Expressions” for Madison Ballet’s 2015 Repertory II. That bond, strengthened by their mutual retirement, lent the dance a piercing sadness, heightened because Madison Ballet principal accompanist Marina Hegge, who knows these dancers well, played the piece live onstage. Butler has always danced this pas beautifully, but has she ever had a partner as steady and handsome as Gomez? Has her phrasing ever been so exquisite? Gomez dipped and swirled her, then swept her into a lift; she extended a leg, foot impossibly pointed; its retarded journey to the floor went on forever. I felt my throat catch. I was sitting next to former Madison Ballet dancer Jessica Mackinson; there were tears in her eyes.