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.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Interview: Choreographer General McArthur Hambrick

Meet General MacArthur Hambrick, versatile veteran of the Terpsichorean arts.  Among his many credits, Hambrick worked with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre; he was a soloist with Fort Worth / Dallas Ballet, now Texas Ballet Theater, and with Minnesota Dance Theater in Minneapolis; he’s been in major Broadway productions including Cats and Phantom of the Opera; he’s a professor of dance and musical theater at West Virginia University; and he’s a frequent guest choreographer for Madison Ballet.  That connection goes back a long way – Hambrick and Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith met back in the ‘80s, when both were dancing with Fort Worth / Dallas. 
Hambrick’s unique choreographic vocabulary pulls together the neoclassicism of Balanchine and the black church-inspired, ballet underpinned modernism of Alvin Ailey; Hambrick often wields this rich style in service of abstract narrative works steeped in mystery and edged with revelation.  He was just in town to set a new work, “Capricious,” on Madison Ballet, for the 2017-18 season debut concert, Push, set for Oct. 20-21 at the Bartell. 
I’m always surprised and delighted with Hambrick’s dances, and I wanted to know more about the artist behind those works.  I thought you would, too, so I interviewed him the other day.

CulturalOyster: Way back in the beginning, how did you get started in ballet?

Hambrick: I was a fashion design major at Texas Christian University.  My teacher came up to me one day and said “you look like you could be a dancer.” At TCU it was very specific – you either did ballet or modern, so I took ballet.  I immediately fell in love when they took me into that class.  I said to myself “this is where I’m supposed to be.”  I dropped fashion design the next year and changed my major – and they gave me a scholarship to do it.

CulturalOyster: You and Earle [Smith] go way back — do you have any stories to share about the two of you in the old days at Fort Worth / Dallas Ballet?

Hambrick: Just that we danced together.  I was really quiet back then.  I wasn’t a very technical dancer – I would watch those guys and try to simulate their classical training.  We were all friends, we always got along great, but I just didn’t hang out a lot when I was in Fort Worth, I didn’t do many social things with the other dancers, at least not that I remember – it was so long ago!

CulturalOyster: What are some highlights of your days as a dancer?

Hambrick: One highlight was when I was in Minnesota Dance Theater in Minneapolis.  I was given the lead in a Lar Lubovitch piece, “The Time Before the Time After (After the Time Before).”  But the biggest highlight was when I was in Martha Clarke’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” in New York – she was one of the original founders of Pilobolus and we flew all over the stage in that piece.  I got my first writeup in The New York Times for that (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/theater/reviews/20gard.html) and I was on the front cover – that was a real highlight. 

CulturalOyster: How did you make the jump from ballet to Broadway?

Hambrick: I left the ballet company for a modern dance company in Dallas but I wasn’t happy with modern, and I wasn’t making enough money to get by.  So one of my good friends, actually a stage manager, said Cats is coming through town!  So I took off one day and went to the audition at Dallas Music Hall – and out of 52 guys, I got called back!  I got to tour Cats and after that I just stuck with Broadway. 
I’d done musicals as a child – my mother was a performer.  They’d just throw me onstage as a little kid, I think I started in Showboat.  At TCU I got to be a pretty good dancer, and I’d audition for summer stock so I had musical theater in me, but I’d wanted to be a company member in Dance Theater of Harlem, or the Ailey company. That didn’t happen, but Broadway felt right.  I went from Cats to Miss Saigon and just kept going.  It all worked out for the best.

CulturalOyster: Did you do any Broadway choreography?

Hambrick: No, not on Broadway, but I did choreograph for smaller theaters. 

CulturalOyster: But now you have this really unique choreographic style that we see when you set your works on Madison Ballet.  When you’re making a dance, do you start with an idea and then find the music, or vice-versa?

Hambrick: I almost always find the music first – I’m inspired by a piece and then I see a theme or a story – I think maybe there was one time where I had an idea first and then looked for music, but that’s not normally how I work.

CulturalOyster: Can you give me an insight or two into the new work you just set on Madison Ballet?

Hambrick: I heard this music [“Caprices for Violin,” an early nineteenth century work by French violinist / composer Pierre Rode] in a choreography class I was teaching.  I wanted my students to get away from pop and find something new.  One student brought in some of Rode’s music and I looked at the rest of the CDs he had and listened to the Caprices – they’re full of variations in emotion and attitude – and I said “oh! I can do little dances that are as surprising as the pieces he composed!”  So – not to give it away, but I made a series of little dances that are full of unexpected little shifts in tempi and that kind of thing.  I tried to work with the dancers on the idea of the emotions in the music.  Some of the Caprices are happy, some are what I’d call precious – there’s one, a solo I set in Jackson Warring, that’s filled with angst and not knowing where to go.  So for each one there’s a very abstract theme line.  And I wanted to go from old fashioned classical to neoclassical to contempory movement style, so the piece as a whole goes in and out of those styles.

CulturalOyster: Is there one overarching theme that ties your life’s work together?

Hambrick: Everything I do is for my mom.  She was a soprano, she did musicals and directed the church choir.  If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have gone into the theater – my life would have been totally different.
interview by SK

Sunday, September 24, 2017

La Santa Cecilia Set to Serenade at Capitol Theater

Rámirez, Carlos, Hernandez, Bendaña.  Photo courtesy of Criteria Entertainment
by Susan Kepecs
Saint Cecilia, venerated in the Roman Catholic church since the fourth century AD, was said to summon angels through song. For that reason she became the patron saint of musicians. Plaza Garibaldi[1], in mammoth Mexico City, is mariachi heartland, and every November 22, at the stroke of midnight, hundreds of mariachis gather there to serenade their guardian angel. Turning the tables, on Friday, October 6, at Overture’s Capitol Theater, Madison gets serenaded by La Santa Cecilia – a sizzling grammy-winning band out of East LA.
The core group is Alex Bendaña on bass, José “Pepe” Carlos on acordion and requinto, Miguel “Oso” Ramírez on percussion, and song sorceress Marisol (“la Marisoul”) Hernandez. The band’s been around for about a decade; its third album, Treinta Días, was the one that got the Grammy, for “best Latin rock / alt / urban,” in 2014. That made-up category doesn’t begin to describe La Santa Cecilia. Let’s try “So-Cal mexicanidad-plus, un poco jazzeado” instead.
On Treinta Días – a sophisticated, inventive album—there’s a cumbia called “La Negra” that features Marisol scatting like Ella Fitzgerald. And a heartbreaking song titled “ICE el hielo” about the uncertainties of “undocumented” life in the face of our famously heavy-handed federal immigration and customs enforcers. It’s a story song – a corrido – with rhythmic, melodic, and social consciousness echoes of those great old tunes by Panamanian singer/songwriter/activist Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar. “ICE” comes with a gem of a music video, directed by award-winning indie filmmaker Alex Rivera, which should be be subtitled in English and decreed required daily viewing in the White House.
Even better than Treinta Días is the band’s latest offering, Amar y Vivir. Recorded live in Mexico City early this year, this album – essentially La Santa Cecilia’s rendering of some of the greatest Mexican standards – is mind-bogglingly lush. The set list – 11 covers plus one original that rings absolutely true to the theme – is killer. The title track is a classic ‘40s bolero written by Consuelo Velázquez. You don’t hear this song a lot in gringolandia, but eveyone in the world knows Velázquez’ most famous composition, “Besame Mucho.” Also on Amar y Vivir is “Amor Eterno,” done as a lament for its composer, el Divo de Juárez Juan Gabriel, who died just a year ago and left all of Mexico heartbroken. In the video – filmed at night, in Plaza Garibaldi – a tear rolls down Marisol’s cheek, and you can tell it’s for real. Plus there’s José Alfredo Jímenez’ irresistable “En en último trago,” a hard-drinking ranchera covered by some of the greatest artists to ever sing a mariachi song, like Lila Downs, Concha Buika (with Chucho Valdés on piano), Lola Beltrán, and the legendary Chavela Vargas.
La Santa Cecilia’s reverent compilation of archetypal Mexican songs is tempered lightly with complimentary flavors, including a nod to Tex-Mex and a bow to the king of Motown, Smokey Robinson, because you got soul if you come from LA. You can check it all out on La Santa Cecilia’s YouTube channel – the stunning videos of these songs, shot at a series of iconic Mexico City locations, add a supersized load of sabor.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to interview bass player Bendaña over the phone. Here’s how our conversation went:

CulturalOyster: Have you been with La Santa Cecilia since the beginning?

Bendaña: I came in a couple of months after they started the band. Marisol and Pepe grew grew up together, learning to play traditional music. They would go out and play on Placita Olvera [a market street in the heart of old LA, established in 1930 as a shrine to the city’s Mexican history]. Then they met Miguel, the percussionist. I was playing in Afro-Latin ensembles at Cal State LA at the time. I came into the picture a couple of months after they started playing together as La Santa Cecilia. I had an instant connection with them. We all had this urgency to play – we’d all been in different bands before we got together, and we all wanted to write our own songs.

CulturalOyster: What made you pick the bass as your instrument?

Bendaña: In junior high I had a friend who was already a musician. He invited me to his house one day. He had a bass and keyboards – he was already in a norteño band. He showed me the bass, he said “hey man, you wanna learn how to play this instrument?” I said sure, so he let me take it home for a week. I didn’t know I could actually play an instrument and once I started I realized it’s a form of expression. It helped guide me to where I needed to be – it helped me stay out of trouble. I started playing in reggae bands and I was playing norteño at weddings and quinceañeras and then I went to college and learned Afro-Cuban jazz and Brazilian.

CulturalOyster: So you switched from norteño to reggae and Afro-Cuban, and now you’re playing mostly Mexican music again.

Bendaña: Thanks to my friends I grew up with the roots, las raíces. They were playing Juan Gabriel, they were playing José José, and lots of cumbias. I didn’t realize till later how enriched my childhood was in music. When we’re kids we think oh man, my friends’ music, you know, what their parents are into, is so boring, and then when you get older you realize oh man, this music is such beautiful stuff – I fell in love with it.

CulturalOyster: I wasn’t aware of La Santa Cecilia before Treinta Días won the Grammy. They called the category something like Latin alt-rock, and the media described the band “cumbia, reggae, soul, tango...” I’m a purist – I’d never have been drawn to that description, which sounds like so many dime-a-dozen Latin fusion bands on the world music circuit these days. But Treinta Días is so much better, so much more sophisticated than that description. So – my question is, since I really don’t know – what was La Santa Cecilia like before that album?

Bendaña: It was really diverse. Marisol and Pepe had been playing rancheras and boleros – traditional Mexican; Miguel was playing in funk and soul bands, and when I met them I was playing jazz and Afro-Latin. The great thing was we all had different inputs. It was kind of chaotic at first. We’d be playing different rhythms and Marisol would come in and sing like a mariachi or do rock because she really loved stuff from the ‘60s, like Janis Joplin. It was creative and chaotic and like cooking. Everybody would put in their different ingredients and sometimes it’d be flavorful and sometimes it was like “hmm, I don’t know about that.” But it led us to create our own identity. We all grew up so much with Treinta Días. That album really defined us as a bicultural band – we’re all bilingual kids of immigrant parents and we’re all rich from the diversity of having grown up in LA.

CulturalOyster: I like Treinta Días a lot, but Amar y Vivir is a whole other story. Anybody who can put José Alfredo Jiménez, Juan Gabriel, and Smokey Robinson on the same album is my friend for life. But more than that – this album is the real thing, and it’s everything this band is – mexicano, chicano, angelino – without being fusion at all. Smokey’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” is done so honestly – and it’s exactly what Poncho Sanchez does, playing Cal Tjader and James Brown in the same set. How did the set list for the album get picked?

Bendaña: Marisol and Pepe grew up playing those songs – “Amar y Vivir,” “Nuestro Juramento” – that’s what they started with on Calle Olvera. They’d pass the bucket and people would request them. And all of us were playing those songs for weddings and funerals long before La Santa Cecilia, so they’ve been ingrained in the repertoire from the start. Our foundation is really traditional music. So when we decided to do this album it was really easy to choose.
We added a few others, like Café Tacvba’s “Ingrata” – we love that band, it’s a big influence on us. They fuse a lot of styles and their version of “Ingrata” is punky, but to us it really sounds like a ranchera so we wanted to strip it down and sing it like José Alfredo Jiménez would want to sing it. And Marisol singing it makes it even cooler.[2]

CulturalOyster: Is your stop in Madison essentially part of the Amar y Vivir tour? Will you mostly be doing the songs off that album? Given what’s going on politically you kind of have to do “ICE El Hielo,” right?

Bendaña: We hope that one day we don’t sing that song, but – it depends. We do play it most of the time, and we definitely talk about the issue and what’s going on around us. But we play a little from all our albums onstage – our shows are a mix, but there’s a section where we do Amar y Vivir so we can share those traditional songs. They have a message, too. The topic of immigration important, but we also need to remember where we come from. The more we remember our roots, the more confidence and pride we have in who we are. We want the next generations to know where the music comes from and how much power it has – how it’s our identity, and the identity of the place we come from.

CulturalOyster: The publicity for Amar y Vivir calls it a “visual album.” Obviously the YouTube channel fills that role, but is the album itself a double – CD / DVD?

Bendaña: There’s a version in Mexico that was released with a documentary that shows how the songs were recorded. In the States so far there’s just a vinyl record. Since we were going back to the old songs we wanted a traditional album, with an A side and a B side.
Making it was an amazing experience – being in Mexico City and being able to record live so we could see the vibrancy of the city and really feel its vibe while the recording was going on. It’s completely live – we only did two or three takes of any song. The imperfections are what make this album perfect.

CulturalOyster: The band often performs with other featured artists. Is just the core group coming to Madison?

Bendaña: It’s the core group plus we always have a guest guitarist and drummer, so you’ll get the full experience of La Santa Cecilia. And we love our music. Our shows always make people dance and cry, we make people feel any emotion you can imagine.

CulturalOyster: One last question. What’s next for La Santa Cecilia?

Bendaña: We’ve been doing so many beautiful things – so many opportunities have been given to us to play our music – but one cool thing is that we’re going to play the Hollywood Bowl! That’s a big thing for us ‘cause we’re an LA band. We’re super excited – you go there to see Smokey Robinsin or a mariachi group and then one day you’re playing there! We’re going with Café Tacvba and Mon Laferte. We’re also going back to Mexico for a couple of festivals – that’s really important to us because Mexico has really opened its arms to La Santa Cecilia. We’ve got a couple of shows in Ireland and we just did a couple in Canada. We’ve only just begun – we want to get to Europe, and to South America. We’re so excited to be sharing our music all the time.

[1] I’m looking at a map of damages from the 7.1 earthquake that rocked Mexico City on Sept. 19 – it’s posted on AristeguiNoticias.com, one of the best news sources in Mexico. Although the central city is covered in markers indicating collapsed buildings, gas leaks, and more, no damages have been reported in the immediate vicinity of Plaza Garibaldi – Santa Cecilia at work.

[2] The lyrics to this song of love and rejection, written from the point of view of a man, contain a threat of gun violence to the woman. This wouldn’t be surprising in an old ranchera, and Café Tacvba was a young band when it wrote the song. Social consciousness of the problem of femicide in Mexico has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and Café Tacvba stopped playing the tune. La Santa Cecilia has worked miracles on this song, and on Amar y Vivir it’s sung as a duet by Marisol and sultry Chilean songstress Mon Laferte (who now lives in Mexico City), which shifts its implications into new territory.