Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Madison Ballet's Black / White Reveals Resilience

Quirk in Sonata © Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s black / white, at the Bartell last weekend (Oct. 14-15), had its flaws – but it also established clearly that the organization, which suffered a financial crisis and cancelled most of its spring programming this year, is on the road to recovery. 
Black / white was based on the idea behind Balanchine’s “black and white” ballets, those iconic, stripped-down masterpieces of balletic modernism that dismiss all distractions of costume and set, placing the viewer’s focus entirely on the dancing body.  Appropriately, the program opened with three pas de deux extracted from one of twentieth century master’s earliest black and white ballets, The Four Temperaments, from 1946.  These utterly sophisticated little pas de deux belong to the hopeful days right after WWII, when America was poised for new possibilities of invention.  As Balanchine was choreographing “Four T’s,” as the ballet’s affectionately called, Jackson Pollock was making his first action paintings and bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo created Latin jazz.
The three Four Temperaments pas go by in the blink of an eye, but they’re textbook studies of the way Balanchine seamlessly meshed classical elegance and angular, modernist, off-center moves.  Seventy years on these dances are miraculously fresh, still avant garde.  And they were performed impeccably.  In the first, danced by Kristin Hammer and Pablo Sanchez, a regal port de bras startled atop flexing feet that break the nineteenth century line.  The second is staccato and industrial; Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Brooks crossed each other in space, elbows bent at right angles; when hers were down, his were up.  In the third, the ideally paired Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson were luxuriously fluid – a single, four-limbed creature.
Frequent Madison Ballet guest choreographer General McArthur Hambrick’s 2+3, an ode of sorts to Balanchine, just popped with movement and light.  The title refers to the cast of three women (Quirk, Reikersdorfer, and Kelanie Murphy) and two men (Johnson and Brooks), who moved in and out of view in varying combinations.  The men lept, spun, thrusted their hips and cabrioled.  In one memorable pas de deux Johnson swirled Quirk off the ground, her legs out to the side parallel to the floor in a magical demonstration of centrifugal force.  For Reikersdorfer and Brooks there was an
Brooks and Reikersdorfer in 2+3  © Kat Stiennon 2016
adagio jitterbug – she fell backward into his arms, then was carried across the stage on his back.  The women pirouetted in an open semi-circle as the men, coming from behind, lept through them.  Quirk, in an elastic variation, swept her working leg up to a 90 degree second position and, resisting gravity, wrapped it marvelously into attitude. Murphy had a saucy little solo built on chugs, pique turns and little sissones, arms waving joyfully overhead.  Johnson and Brooks, who’s never looked stronger, challenged each other in a bold, playful duet.
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith revisited two of his earlier works.  Sonata #1 in F Minor, a three-movement piece, reveals his  deep-rooted musicality and his strong sense of neoclassical vocabulary.  But the work enticed me less this time than it did when it premiered in 2014.  The middle, presto movement is an absolutely lovely piece of choreography, and it looked breathtaking on Quirk.  Breaking the black / white theme in a bright blue leotard, she was, as always, the consummate ballerina, flowing through the music, celebrating her long, luxurious lines.  The andante and funebre movements surrounding this dance were disappointing by comparison, especially the latter, which sat unevenly on the corps (Reikersdorfer, Hammer, Murphy and newcomer Michaela King).  The relentless adagio looked long and repetitive, and lacked some of the strong presence and extraordinary physical control it would need to really work.
The program finale, Street – a piece for the whole company, plus apprentices – has a violin score that mixes Bach and Beethoven with contemporary urban street music.  Like everything else on the program it’s based on neoclassical vocabulary, though here it’s mixed with street gang struts and a twerkish booty roll that shows up in various forms.  It’s an odd step, neither sexy nor balletic, but it served at least one good purpose – a handful of mid-sized kids gleefully mimicked it out in the street after the show.  There’s an overdose of filler in this piece, but there was compensation for its flaws. A little pas de trois for Reikersdorfer with Jackson Warring and Andrew Erickson was flirty and spunky.  Reikersdorfer sparkled with confidence, hitting a perfect arabesque on pointe, partnered on each side.  When they let go she stayed, impossibly suspended, for a breathtaking moment.  And Johnson’s bravura variation, to an excerpt from Für Elise, was a show-stopper – he swept through space, tossing his hair, whipping off strings of pas de chats en tournant – you could imagine him snorting fire as he flew through the air, like some ancient mythological dancing beast.

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