Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's 2016 Nutcracker

Quirk, as the Sugarplum Fairy.  © Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s very traditional Nutcracker, choreographed by artistic director W. Earle Smith, is a bright, lavish production, filled with music, color and movement to delight the senses. Last winter the company was composed of polished performers, most of whom were at least in their second Madison Ballet season.  The troupe, fresh from its fall production of Smith’s campy Dracula, had gelled to perfection.  Thanks to that, plus Maestro Andrew Sewell and the Madison Chamber Orchestra, with their light, crisp take on Tchaikovsky’s legendary score, the tired old holiday ballet sprang to life.  This year, as last, the production was flashy, the MCO wondrous. But the dancing fell a bit flat.  The organization’s still digging out of its spring, 2016 slump. While many of the dancers in the slightly thinned ranks are Madison Ballet veterans, new company members and apprentices have yet to hit their stride in terms of Smith’s demanding neoclassical style.
And no matter how sparkly the show, the party scene – that long, dull, Victorian, 20-minute prelude to the parts that makes Nutcracker a bona fide ballet – fills me, an annual audience member, with dread.  It relies, for the most part, on community members to play the parents; it’s only fun if you’re in it, or charming if you’re the real-life parent of one of the little ballet student tots, for whom Nut is a first onstage opportunity.  This year’s “Dance of the Parents,” despite some choreographic changes, looked disorganized, and I was more annoyed than usual by the nineteenth century conceit of sweet little girls waltzing gently with dolls while wild little boys careen around on hobby horses, wielding swords.  This action is built into the score, but dancers are taught to dance off the music as well as on it; in the twenty-first century, can’t girls go a little nuts, too?
The only real ballet in the party scene comes from the dancing dolls (company veterans Kristin Hammer and Jackson Warring, who’ve done these parts before), wheeled out to entertain the guests. Hammer has grown a lot in her three years with Madison Ballet; she was inspiringly lithe and graceful as the ballerina, and Warring excels at soldierly cabrioles and tours en l’aire.
Like a bad hostess, though, I’m immensely relieved when the party guests are gone.  The rats in the second scene of the first act bring a welcome blast of imagination – I love them for their ratty tails, their leaping feet, their red button shields.  But Nut’s real magic, at least in theory, is what happens post-rat.  Smith’s choreography for the corps de ballet – the “Dance of the Snowflakes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers” – is lovely, sweeping, eye-enticing.  Because Madison Ballet’s a small company, a few advanced students from the School of Madison Ballet have always filled in, to make a corps of 12.  These dancers in training generally blend into the mix, but this year the corps was choppy. Except for Hammer and Kelanie Murphy the snowflakes and flowers were all newcomers, apprentices, or students.  I tried to transcend the decidedly uneven dance quality by squinting my eyes and concentrating on the lyrical swirls of color and movement.  Most of the time, that helped.
Similar problems plagued the divertissements.  Only the Arabian dance stood out, done as a pas de deux (by newcomer Michaela King, who was appropriately limber, partnered by Jacob Ashley) when I saw the matinee on Dec. 11,  and – even better – as a solo variation for Murphy (because the company is low on men) when I went again on the afternoon of Dec. 18. You wouldn’t expect the good-natured, sunny-faced Murphy to be a sultry, seductress type, but she’s great at it onstage – her slinky Arabian, with its sensual, arms-up arabesque turns, rivaled her bawdy performance as one of Dracula’s brides in 2015. 
And Madison Ballet, despite the tribulations of its transition, still has Shannon Quirk and Annika Reikersdorfer.  The small company isn’t ranked – everyone gets a shot at solo and corps work – but these two bright ballerinas almost always get the lead female roles.  For this year’s Nutcracker run, Quirk and Reikersdorfer alternated weekends as the Dewdrop (in Waltz of the Flowers) and the Snow Queen / Sugarplum Fairy.
Reikersdorfer is a natural fairy princess, born to do parts like Dew and Sugarplum.  She’s a perfectionist; the impeccable, slow attitude turn in her Snow variation was proof.  She’s lithe and twinkly, a true Balanchine dancer; she embodies even the smallest nuances in the music, her feet are fleet, her arms expressive and articulate. 
The strong, elegant, long-limbed Quirk is, in some ways, more at home in contemporary works.  But she’s found her perfect cavalier in former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson, who came to Madison Ballet last year.  Johnson’s not just good at partnering – he’s the best male bravura dancer the company’s ever had.  He can literally fly through space, as he did in this fall’s repertory show, “Black/White” – and in his Nutcracker Sugarplum variation.  Quirk, dancing the Snow and Sugarplum pas de deux with Johnson, flung herself into lifts and dips with the full confidence a great partner inspires. The two do tour jetes in unison in Sugarplum; you could see how beautifully matched they were.  At the end of that final, pre-coda sequence, Quirk flew into a perfect, long-lined fish dip.  The audience cheered. 

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