Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Year that Was in the Performing Arts

by Susan Kepecs
Yikes, 2017. We lost Fats Domino. Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in week six. The once-great University of Wisconsin can now expel students for protesting, and the Board of Regents wants to hire “system leaders” from the private sector – no academic experience required. Just like in politics! Don’t get me started on hurricanes, wildfires, and the Paris agreement. The Dotard and Little Rocket Man are locked in a macho contest – which one has the biggest nuclear balls? Alt-right, white supremacist nazi thugs crawled out of the woodwork in droves this year. The State Senate has done its damndest to smack Madison in the chops for being a sanctuary city, and Scotty forked over to Foxconn some four billion hard-earned Wisconsin tax dollars for an industrial park like China’s “Foxconn City,” home of multiple suicide epidemics among underpaid workers on iPhone assembly lines.
That’s just an itty-bitty mini-list of the year’s most egregious affairs. The arts were there for us all year long, though, even in these new dark ages. Here, in no particular order, is my best-of-2017 list.

I fell madly in love with Pilobolus’ Shadowland, at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall
(Feb. 23), if only because it’s a dog story done in dance, and I’m a dancer dog person. I expected Shadowland to be slick and commercial, given this company’s TV appearances to that effect, but it was poignant instead. In the story, which bears metaphorical resemblance to the perilous pre-adoption life history of my own beloved rescue pooch, a typical teenage girl was transformed into a little prick-eared terrier. Dog Girl (Heather Jeane Favretto, whose grasp of dog behavior was phenomenal) fell into one dreamlike adventure after another. This was a complicated shadow show – the dancers achieved spatial magic through sleights of movement and perspective created by manipulating light, props, and positioning behind (and sometimes in front of) the screen. Pilobolus famously tailors Shadowland’s finale for every one of the hundreds of cities around the globe where it’s played in since its 2009 debut. For us there was a perfect shadow Capitol, Lady Rennebohm perched prominently on top. Union Terrace chairs, Bucky Badger, and Bascom Hall’s east façade (yes, with Abe Lincoln in front) cast their shadows. So did a protest march; the cast carried signs that read “Protect Trans Students” and “Black Lives Matter.” The marchers danced, and jumped for joy – and there was cheese. The audience roared. There’s something enormously powerful about seeing things you care about rendered in art. Shadowland caught Madison’s vibe and tossed it back at us, larger than life – humanity, dogdom, progressive values, our city. I’m not a crier, so I was surprised to find myself in tears as the house lights went up.

Madison Ballet, in a surprising break from its neoclassical and contemporary emphasis, offered four classical pas de deux – a history of ballet, of sorts – on its fall repertory program, Push, at the Bartell (Oct. 20). All were solid, though two stood out. The Black Swan pas, from that most famous ballet of all time, Marius Petipa’s 1895 Swan Lake, was danced by Madison Ballet newcomer Elisabeth Malanga and Jacob Ashley. Malanga was a spitfire of a black swan, furious and flirtatious by turns. Her sense of timing was striking and strong, her back so flexible you could easily believe she had wings. And her characterization of the role had a post-ABT, contemporary, bad girl quality that made this quintessential piece of Petipa’s 122-year old ballet look surprisingly new.  
But the showstopper was Agrippina Vaganova’s 1935 “Diana and Actaeon” pas de deux –
Quirk and Johnson  © Kat Stiennon 2017
originally a divertissement in her ballet La Esmeralda, based on an earlier Petipa production. Madison Ballet’s power pair, Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson, danced this bravura pas, its theme drawn from Vaganova’s garbled sense of Greek and Roman mythology involving Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon the hunter. The chemistry between Quirk and Johnson, and their balletic virtuosity both as individuals and as a pair, were cast in radiant light. Quirk bounded through space on legs of tempered steel, as only a goddess could possibly do. Johnson, playing his role to the hilt, soared in huge flying spins, legs in attitude; he spun a string of second position pirouettes and then took a knee, bowing to the deities. Quirk lept onstage; tour jetes became fouette turns. Johnson caught her mid-fouette and lifted her into a flying grand jete. A second later she shot him with an imaginary arrow as he lept offstage. Superb.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Bob Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret, based on the original 1966 Broadway musical rooted in a 1951 play taken from Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 Berlin Stories. New York non-profit Roundabout Theater’s raunchy, jazzy, award-winning Broadway revival of Cabaret (Overture Hall, March 21) was a 2014 restaging of that company’s 1998 revival of the original musical. How’s that for history?
         In Roundabout’s hands the power and immediacy of live theater – and its ability to bring on nightmares for days afterwards – is tremendous. This production didn’t have the magical Fosse choreography that hooked me on the movie, but the stage production’s awkward dirty dancing was, I’m forced to admit, more appropos of the show’s sordid gestalt. Roundabout’s set – the Kit Kat Orchestra was framed in marquee lights high above the stage, where the action swung from rooming house to nightclub at the drop of a hat – was a knockout. The singing (in particular Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles, Jon Peterson as the Kit Kat’s emcee) was spot-on. Yes, life may be a cabaret, old chum. But nazis goose-step around the edges of the story. People feel threatened; some disappear. The end of the Kit Kat’s desperate song and dance party is near, and nobody knows who’ll fall into the abyss next. In the finale, done in striped pajamas with a burst of strobe, a sizzling sound, then a blackout, life is a concentration camp.

La Santa Cecilia, courtesy of Criteria Entertainment
This was, thanks to narco cartels and government corruption, the most violent year in Mexico’s recent history. But the big, gorgeous country to our south has always been, from the preclassic days of its pre-Spanish history to the present, a hotbed of magnificent arts. And some of its most marvelous music – the boleros and rancheras of the likes of José Alfredo Jiménez, Lola Beltrán and Juan Gabriel – made news in Madison this year (Overture’s Capitol Theater, Oct. 6) in the hands of La Santa Cecilia, a sizzling, Grammy-winning band out of LA. La Santa Cecilia’s 2017 album Amar y Vivir, recorded live in Mexico City, rounds up some of the great Mexican standards and puts its own lush, Angelino stamp on them. I love this album, and I loved the band’s too-short show, except for the usual over-amped sound and strobes that flashed in the audience’s eyes like torches from the Spanish inquisition.
         La Santa Cecilia’s lead singer, Marisol (“la Marisoul”) Hernández, is like Lola Beltrán crossed with Janis Joplin. A natural star with a vibrant sense of style, she was decked out in a petticoted, flamenco-colored dirndl skirt and red cat-eye specs. The set included a few tunes from the band’s early days busking on the streets of Los Angeles, but also “La Negra,” a cumbia (off of its Grammy-winning 2014 album Treinta Días) on which Hernández scats like Ella Fitzgerald, and some tunes – I wanted more! – from Amar y Vivir, including the ranchera made immortal by Lola Beltran, “Leña de Pirul,” plus the title track, a classic ‘40s bolero. Activist at heart, La Santa Cecilia closed with a plea to support our local Dreamers, its heartbreaker off Treinta Días, “ICE el Hielo,” a corrido about “undocumented” life in the face of this country’s famously heavy-handed federal immigration and customs enforcers.

                                   Sidran, Patenaude, Hammes, Moran © SKepecs 2017
Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats, and Freethinkers (Sidran on vocals and piano, Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar and Todd Hammes on percussion) happened again this summer (June-August) in what used to be the back room of Cardinal Bar – it’s now the “Cardinal Ballroom” at Nomad World Pub (I’ll get to that later). Sidran’s theme this summer was Duke Ellington – “’cuz we’ve never done it before and it’s time for us to grow up.” This has always been a world-class quartet, but like magic, playing Ellington upped their game all around – even on the occasional Dylan piece and Sidran’s own songs, including his silly truth tune “College,” their musicianship was stratospheric this summer.
         The summer salons offer both boundless groove and respite from relentless idiocy. “Times are so trashy, we want you to imagine a little elegance,” said Sidran one 2017 July afternoon before launching into the Duke Ellington - Juan Tizol tune “Caravan.”
         “You’re in a little dive in Harlem and it’s 1930 and times are tough, but the music’s elegant, and people read books and discuss ideas.”

We got more Ellington from the Darren Sterud Orchestra – the Ellington / Billy Strayhorn
Sterud (L) with one of his students 
arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, at the Brink, Dec. 19. The Ellington Nut made its debut last year at, yes, the Cardinal. Overnight, it became a new Madison tradition. The Brink was packed to the gills, the show completely sold out. The excellent Beloit Memorial High School Jazz Orchestra, featuring guest trumpeter Kenny Rampton of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, opened with a mix of holiday tunes, jazz and blues.
         And then there was Nutcracker. I’d reviewed Madison Ballet’s Nut two days earlier; the original score played live by the Madison Chamber Orchestra still sparkled in my ears. The Ellington / Strayhorn arrangement isn’t the whole ballet, it’s just the Overture, most of the divertissements, Waltz of the Flowers, and the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy (which Ellington brilliantly called Sugar Rum Cherry). But it’s a whole new world to hear this music swing.
         For an encore we were treated to the R&B standard “Merry Christmas Baby,” with Rampton on trumpet and Sterud, the wild man of the trombone, on vocals. And man, can he sing!

Castañeda's band (here you see Castañeda and Svanoe, with González 
and guests Ruben Márquez (guiro) and Roberto Rengel (in back)
© SKepecs 2017
The Last Cha-Cha-Cha, at the Cardinal Bar, Jan. 29, was the year’s most emotional event by far. The Cardinal, that bright bird of happiness, was a special place, a haven for jazz and Latin music, a social club, a cherished meeting spot for 42 years. Owner Ricardo Gonzalez, who’d just hit 70, was ready to retire; everyone was happy for him, though no Cardinal regular was ready to see his reign end. At the bittersweet farewell there was food, and cake, and Tony Castañeda and his Latin jazz band (Castañeda on congas, Dave Stoler on keys, Henry Behm on bass, Anders Svanoe on barritone sax), the Midwest kings of cha-cha-cha. When they played “Besame Mamá” González got up onstage, maracas in hand, and sang chorus, as always. And when they signed off, as always, with “Wachi Wara,” a tune Castañeda’s hero Cal Tjader made famous, tears were shed.

         The Bird is no more. It’s Nomad World Pub these days. The Cardinal’s old neon sign hangs across the back bar, but the place has a totally different vibe. This past year, following Cardinal tradition, Castañeda’s band played happy hour most First Fridays, and the second set, as always, ended with “Wachi Wara.” Still sabroso, but not the same. And – this just in – Nomad is discontinuing its Friday Happy Hours. Where we’ll go for saoco now, nobody knows for sure. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Madison Ballet's 2017 Nutcracker Marks Smith's Retirement

Annika Reikersdorfer (Sugarplum Fairy) © Kat Stiennon 2017

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith is retiring at the end of the 2017-18 season, and the company’s current production (at Overture through Dec. 26) is his farewell Nutcracker, as all of the city’s dance audience knows by now.  Smith has directed 14 Nutcrackers, from pre-professional productions in the studio company days (2004-2007) through Madison Ballet’s decade as resident, fully professional, growing company.  I’ve seen and reviewed them all.  Some years, the show’s been better than others. Beyond shadow of doubt the quality of the dancers has risen consistently over the years, but the 2017 production was not the brightest, shiniest of them all. 
In part, the feel of this production was melancholy, at least for me. I’ll miss the characteristic Smithian touches – those slightly jazzy steps rooted in the neoclassical idiom that weave through his choreography, rendering what is otherwise a very conventional Nutcracker Smith’s own.  The Snow corps choreography is, hands down, one of Smith’s best works – there’s a sparkly magic to these fairies cavorting in falling snow.  Near the end of this dance there’s a quintessential Smith step, one he often gives in class – chug, chug, faille, faille, back soutinue, sauté arabesque, faille, faille. I felt a little sad, watching that sequence for the last time.
Other issues stood in the way of a rave review. For one, the company this year is very is strong on tall, talented ballerinas, but lacks tall men to partner them.  Smith had to make several plot shifts to accommodate the company’s current composition.  The Snow pas de deux became a Snow Queen variation, danced in the Saturday matinée performance by the lovely, talentd Shannon Quirk.  If Madison Ballet were ranked, as bigger companies are, Quirk would be a principal –in fact, the principal in this outfit.  But the choreography for the new Snow solo was short, plain and simple; it looked like an afterthought. Quirk, characcteristically, made it look utterly effortless, but I was disappointed that this was all she got – there wasn’t even a bow for her in the grand finale (although Quirk,  partnered by the inimitable Shea Johnson, who was out of town earlier this month doing Nutcracker with another company, will dance this season’s final Sugarplum pas de deux this coming weekend, Dec. 23-26). 
The divertissements – Nutcracker’s “little entertainments” – were uneven. I’m  not sure why Smith set the Thai dance on three company members (Mia Sanchez, Catherine Rogers and Andrew Erickson) instead of on the mid-level students who’ve always done it before. The piece is too short to let us see what professional dancers might do with it, and really too cutesy for them – it looks much better on kids. Elisabeth Malanga did a spicy job with the Spanish solo – she’s got bone fide escuela bolera flair. But – just as last year – only the Arabian pas (Michaela King, Jacob Ashley) was pitch perfect.  Ashley’s done this dance for years – it runs deep in his bones. This is the second year he’s done it with King, who’s blessed with remarkable extensions that allow her to melt, stretch, and slink in unimaginable ways. 
Little Clara – Genevieve Raasch, a level 3B student at the School of Madison Ballet – had a bold stage presence and nice balletic lines, waltzing with aplomb and riding Drosselmeyer’s sleigh into the sky with her Nutcracker cavalier, Lucas Benhart. 
The Snow and Flowers corps – always an opportunity for the most advanced students in the school as well as for the company – were unusually clean this year.  And I’d only seen Bri George before in the Giselle pas de deux in the company’s fall repertory show, Push.  Giselle was all partnered work; as Dew, George got to reveal her bone-deep confidence and well-honed skill.
Annika Reikersdorfer, who rose through the ranks at the School of Madison Ballet to become one of the company’s top soloists, has danced the Sugarplum Fairy role in alternating performances for the last three years.  A fairy princess at heart, she palpably loves this role, flaunting her faultless Balanchine lines, her spot-on musicality, her adamant perfectionism.  And yet, if you looked closely, the sheer joy that should personify Sugarplum wasn’t quite all there. Perhaps, her career having been shaped and encouraged all these years by Smith, she was feeling wistful over his retirement.   Nevertheless, the Sugarplum pas was just lovely.  Reikersdorfer’s cavalier, Havana-trained Carlos Quenedit, retired last spring from San Francisco Ballet, where he'd been a principal since 2014 (it’s the first time Madison Ballet has had to hire a guest principal since its studio company period). Though Reikersdorfer and Quenedit had never danced together before and had almost no time to rehearse, they were beautifully matched.  Quenedit was a superb partner, and his variation, punctuated with remarkable quintuple pirouettes, was clean, crisp, proud, and strong.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's Push Repertory Program

Diana and Actaeon  © Kat Stiennon 2017
by Susan Kepecs
I saw Madison Ballet’s first repertory show of the season, Push, at the Bartell on October 20.  The program featured three neoclassical pieces by two choreographers working today – company artistic director W. Earle Smith, and frequent guest General Hambrick – plus four classical, pre-Balanchine pas de deux.  The neoclassical works were not the best I’ve seen from either choreograher, and for the most part they were overshadowed by the selection of classical standards. 
Smith’s French Suites (to J.S. Bach’s eponymous music), revised from its 2008 premiere, was the weaker of his two works, and the women were unfortunately costumed in long dark blue dresses with Empire waists that all but completely obscured their dancing.  A perky little allegro dance by Kelanie Murphy, Michaela King and Elisabeth Malanga was good enough to overcome the limitations of the outfits, and a floaty pas de deux by Kristin Hammer and the solid Jackson Warring was sweet and clean. Three long solos – “woman, dancing” variations for Hammer, Catherine Rogers, and Mia Sanchez – had some nice passages, but largely served as filler and should have been pared down substantially.
In Smith’s other piece, Concerto Veneto, to the Marcello Oboe Concerto in C Minor (also a 2008 premiere), the ensemble choreography in the first of the work’s three movements was repetitive,  
Concerto Veneto © Kat Stiennon 2017
static, and overly reliant on the spatial device of two diagonal lines. But the piece possessed a pair of saving graces – live accompaniment by members of Wisconsin Chamber orchestra with Naomi Bensdorf Frisch on oboe, and the pas de deux at its core danced by the lovely Annika Reikersdorfer, partnered by Jacob Ashley. Reikersdorfer, uncharacteristically, held back back a bit in the adagio; perhaps she was subdued by the marked plaintiveness of the music. But she sparkled in the third, allegro movement, pirouetting flirtatiously in the midst of the corps and flying across the stage in grand jeté, lifted by Ashley, who’s never looked stronger.  He was terrific here too, showing off his bounding cabrioles and second position pirouettes.
Hambrick’s piece, Capricious, a premiere (set to Pierre Rode’s violin caprices) served as the program finale, but was misplaced as such; it had much more in common with Smith’s neoclassical dances than with the set of classical pas de deux it followed -- it should have preceded them.  Hambrick knows how to use movement and space, and his piece – a play on what dancers do between class and rehearsal – was dynamic, but atypically light.  The narratives he always hides in his dances were there, but they concerned the friendships and rivalries among dancers in a company instead of the larger, more abstract, revelation-tinged mysteries we’ve seen in previous works he’s set on Madison Ballet. 
The four classical pas de deux – excerpted and adapted by Smith for this show – were a radical departure for Madison Ballet, and a tall order for his Balanchine-oriented dancers.  Given the deep historical value of these works I wondered about the order in which they were presented, since the first one up was Fokine’s 1911 Spectre de la Rose, followed by the pas from the second act of Petipa’s (1894) Giselle. This didn’t seem logical, since Giselle is the epitome of romanticism – highly emotional and fantastical – while Spectre – post-Petipa, neo-romantic, and a product of avant garde artistic exploration in early twentieth century Europe – challenges the credo of classical ballet in its choreographic freedom as well as in the fact that the danseur, not the ballerina, is the star of the piece.
Spectre de la Rose © Kat Stiennon 2017
Smith’s recreation of Spectre, set on Shea Johnson and Michaela King, neatly captured Fokine’s confection.  Johnson, as the spectre, imbued his performance with the spirit of the original.  You could tell he’d studied the famous photo of Nijinsky, on whom the role was created, wearing the original rose petal costume, forearms crossed over his head, hands framing his face like big rose petals.  It’s a pose Johnson, whose sense of drama is equal to his ability to launch himself into the air, struck repeatedly. King, convincing as the smitten somnambulist, cavorted with him, waltzing, being lifted and dipped and showing off her remarkable extensions – all with eyes seemingly shut.  Then she dropped, dead asleep, into her chair. 
The adagio plucked from the grand pas de deux of Giselle’s second act, set on Bri George and Andrew Erickson, was less successful. In the second act of this ballet the title character is a ghost; this pas is all about death, and the inability of the living to transcend its boundary.  The performance was technically solid; Erickson has grown dramatically as a dancer this year, and George, with soft arms sweeping through third position and her deep penche arabesques, arms crossed demurely in front of her chest, echoed the antique look Petipa himself was after when he recreated this ballet in 1880 from the 1841 original. But the emotional weight of peak romanticism didn’t come through – where was the great pathos this pas requires?
Black Swan © Kat Stiennon 2017
If the Giselle pas lacked drama, Swan Lake’s black swan pas de deux, danced by Elisabeth Malanga and Ashley, had it in spades. Malanga was a spitfire of a black swan, furious and flirtatious by turns. Her sense of timing was striking and strong, her back so flexible you could easily believe she had wings.  And her characterization of the role had a post-ABT, contemporary, bad girl quality that made this quintessential piece of Petipa’s 1895 ballet – perhaps the best-known pas de deux of all time – look surprisingly new.   
Agrippina Vaganova’s 1935 “Diana and Actaeon” pas de deux – originally a divertissement in her ballet La Esmeralda, based on an earlier Petipa production – was the showstopper, and it should have been the Push program’s finale.  Who else but Madison Ballet’s power pair, Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson, could dance this bravura grand pas, its theme drawn from Vaganova’s somewhat garbled sense of Greek and Roman mythology involving Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon the hunter?
The chemistry between Quirk and Johnson, and their balletic virtuosity both as individuals and as a pair, were cast in radiant light.  Quirk bounded through space on legs of tempered steel, as only a goddess could possibly do.  Johnson, playing his role to the hilt, soared in huge flying spins, legs in attitude; he spun a string of second position pirouettes and then took a knee, bowing to the deities. Quirk lept onstage; tour jetes became fouette turns.  Johnson caught her mid-fouette and lifted her into a flying grand jete.  A second later she shot him with an imaginary arrow as he lept offstage. Superb.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dance Preview: Madison Ballet's "Push" Program

Quirk and Johnson in Diana and Acteon  © SKepecs 2017
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s season opener, Push (at the Bartell, Oct. 20-21), may be the most diverse repertory program the company’s ever done.  On the bill are two works by artistic director W. Earle Smith, four classical pas de deux from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a dance by frequent guest choreographer General Hambrick. 
Both of Smith’s pieces are highly neoclassical in style, and both premiered in Madison Ballet’s first repertory program, Pure Ballet, during the company’s debut season as a professional organization in 2008.  Madison Ballet has come a long way since then, and Smith has pushed these dances into new territory with expanded solos and much more challenging choreography.  In French Suites, named for the Bach work that accompanies the piece, dancers – solo or in small groups moving in and out of unison – navigate shifts in direction and tempo; at the heart of this work is an adagio pas de deux by Kristin Hammer and Jackson Warring.  It’s a luxurious piece, though in rehearsal Concerto Veneto, to the Oboe Concerto in C Minor by Alessandro Marcello, looked more polished; it revolves around a rich, complex grand pas de deux featuring Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Ashley. In performance, Concerto Veneto will have an added attraction – the score will be played live by members of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
King and Johnson © SKepecs

Smith’s neoclassical works are followed, on the playbill, by four pas de deux Smith has adapted from classical ballets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – a radical departure from the Balanchine-based, neoclassical style Madison Ballet is known for.  I wrote quite a bit about these pas de deux (Fokine’s  Le Spectre de la Rose; the Act II grand pas from Petipa’s Giselle; Petipa’s Black Swan pas, from Swan Lake; and Agrippina Vaganova’s “Diana and Acteon” pas) in my season overview, which you can read here. After watching an early run-through of the Push program, I am positive that the Vaganova pas is the perfect vehicle to showcase the
Malanga and Ashley © SKepecs
virtuosity of company power duo Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson.
  The Fokine looked fresh and free on Michaela King and the inimitable Johnson.  And experienced newcomers Bri George (with Andrew Erickson in the Giselle pas) and Elisabeth Malanga (with Ashley, in “Black Swan”) brought new surprises to the table; it should be exciting to see them in their first performance onstage with the company.   
The Push finale is the premiere of Hambrick’s new work, Capricious, which I wrote about in my interview with the choreographer last week. Capricious, in rehearsal, was playful and lively, sweeping through space. And like all of Hambrick’s ballets it has subtle narratives built into its six movements for the viewer to discover.