Monday, October 10, 2016

Madison Ballet's "Black / White" Brings Balanchine to the Bartell

Quirk and Johnson rehearsing 3+2  © SKepecs 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison ballet’s 2015-16 season opens with Black / White, Oct. 14-15 at the Bartell Theatre.  The program title’s a nod to George Balanchine’s “black and white” ballets, those iconic, stripped-down masterpieces of balletic modernism that dismiss all distractions of costume and set, placing the focus entirely on the dancing body.  On the Black / White program are the three themes from Balanchine’s 1946 black and white ballet The Four Temperaments, plus a new piece by frequent Madison Ballet guest choreographer General Hambrick and two revisited works by artistic director W. Earle Smith.
“What’s fascinating about this program,” says Smith, “is that the theme of black and white is exposed in so many different ways.  It’s discovered through choreographic ingenuity, through individual dancers, through music, through attire and lighting – it really makes for a very complete evening.”
            The Four Temperaments, with a score Balanchine comissioned for this ballet by twentieth century German composer Paul Hindemith, is, in its entirety, a 30-minute work for a company twice Madison Ballet’s size.  The three themes excerpted from the full work – all pas de deux – were meant to introduce four larger sections evoking the medieval notion of elemental “temperaments” that determine a person’s psychological makeup.  The Temperaments pas de deux, like all of the other Balanchine works Madison Ballet has performed, are done with rights granted by the Balanchine Trust, and are set on the company by Balanchine Trust répétiteur Michelle Gifford.  In Black / White they’ll be danced by Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson (who last partnered as Mina Murray and Jonathan Harker in last year’s production of Smith’s full-length ballet Dracula); Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Brooks; and Kristen Hammer with newcomer Pablo Sanchez. 
“What I love about the Temperaments themes is their crispness and clarity, and how they exemplify Balanchine’s unbelievable musicality,” Smith says.  “What’s really difficult about dancing them is the simplicity in the choreography.  The hardest combinations for dancers to do, often enough, are the simplest ones.”
Hambrick’s piece, 3+2, is, like the abstract, otherworldly story dances edged in revelation we’ve seen from him before, anchored in the choreographer’s unique neoclassical vocabulary gilded in Alvin Aileyisms. But 3+2 is also a huge departure from those works.  “General told me laughingly that this is his homage to George Balanchine,” Smith says.
Set on Quirk, Reikersdorfer, Kelanie Murphy, Johnson, and Brooks, 3+2 has none of the narrative trappings we’ve come to expect from Hambrick’s works.  This is pure ballet – big, lush, bold, and very dancey.
Smith’s very neoclasical “Sonata No. 1 in F Minor” (2014), a textured, three-movement piece named for its Scriabin accompaniment, has Quirk in the soloist role with Reikersdorfer, Hammer, Murphy and newcomer Michaela King in the corps.  “What I love about revisiting any work of mine is to be able to shape it further,” Smith says.  “Sonata” was just real meaty piece, and very challenging athletically.  I really wanted to see what these dancers would do with it.
Only Quirk has danced in this piece before, and the solo is new for her – but but in rehearsal she makes it look effortless, switching easily from off-center lunges to luxurious, perfectly centered arabesque turns.  The corps work is difficult, demanding unison and merging angular, staccato vocabluary with softer, more lyrical steps.
Johnson and Brooks rehearsing "Street" © SKepecs 2016
 “It’s hard!” the very able Reikersdorfer says after a grueling run-through. 
“The trick is getting the legs consistently where they need to go,” Smith replies, scissoring his arms, as choreographers do, to demonstrate what he means.    
Jackson Warring, Reikersdorfer and Andrew Erickson
rehearsing "Street" © SKepecs 2016

Smith’s other piece, “Street,” premiered as the finale for the company’s 2013 spring repertory show.  “It was a really uneventful piece for me,” Smith says.  “It was fun to do it, but I didn’t have much choreographic attachment to it until I saw the audience respond to it with delight.  That’s when I knew I wanted to expand it – to play with it more.”
The new, improved “Street” – it’s a neoclassical hip-hop mashup, and there’s beatboxing over violin in the score – sweeps and struts, with dancers moving in and out in shifting configurations.  There’s absolute whirlwind of a male variation for the terrific Johnson; in rehearsal, the studio air itself was supercharged by his powerful, airborne steps.  The dancers, sitting on the sidelines, cheered for him at the end. 
Johnson's "Street" variation © SKepecs 2016

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