Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Madison Ballet's "Bare," Last Week at the Bartell

Quirk, in "Limelight  © Kat Stiennon 2017
by Susan Kepecs
I went to see Madison Ballet’s repertory concert, Bare, at the Bartell last Saturday afternoon (Feb. 4).  Like all of the company’s performances so far this season, Bare was a mixed bag.
The show was supposed to open with the pas de deux from artistic director W. Earle Smith’s 2011 “Palladio,” which, for Bare, he had set on Annika Reikersdorfer and Shea Johnson.  Unfortunately for the small company Reikersdorfer was out with an injury, and no one else would do – so the pas was postponed till the season’s final performance of the season on March 31 – April 1. 
Bare opened instead with the program’s pièce de resistance – “Limelight,” a beautifully turned new wave neoclassical ballet that marked Johnson’s debut as a choreographer. This sparkly piece had an easy, love-to-dance look that defied its choreographic complexity; its music comes from Charlie Chaplin movies, its movement vocabulary from Balanchine, Robbins, and Bournonville. 
Limelight’s structure is like a sandwich, with opening and closing pas de deux for Johnson and Madison Ballet reigning queen Shannon Quirk, the first pas featuring variations for each and a tender waltz, the second a showcase of breath-catching lifts.  These two dancers are like magic together, their work brimming with confidence and rich with musical nuance. 
In between the two pas sits a flowing, varied corps section built on threes – pas de six for three couples, (in one such segment, the men lifting the women into second position splits and then tossing them over their shoulders), men’s dances (for three), women’s dances (for three) – and an adorable, flirtatious, finger-snapping pas de trois in which Kristin Hammer lept onto the stage, flicking come-hither feet; Andrew Erickson and Jackson Warring swaggered after her, and, catching her, daringly tossed her back and forth. 

Quirk, in "Grit," in a pas with Erickson
© Kat Stiennon 2017
On the heels of that balletic beginning I was jarred by the hard-edged “Somewhere Between Grit and Grace,” the third piece New York and Chicago-based urban contemporary choreographer Jacqueline Stewart has set on Madison Ballet. This jagged work for six dancers (four women on pointe, two men) had a mismatched soundtrack, harsh light, and inexplicable costumes – what were those white heiroglyphs bordering the brief black dance outfits on Hammer and Kelanie Murphy, why was the number 83 plastered across Quirk’s chest, and why was Catherine Rogers, whose dancing in this piece was minimal, wearing an enormous red skirt?
And yet, at the center of this odd piece was Quirk, showing off her tremendous contemporary chops, moving creaturelike, the way the dancers in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet do, snaking along the stage in a crouch, then suddenly, like a sped-up time lapse of a growing organism, shooting up onto pointe.  She’s spectacular.  You can’t take your eyes off her. 

"Re-Place" © Kat Stiennon 2017

UW-Madison Dance Department chair Jin-Wen Yu’s “Re-Place” was by far the best of the three pieces he’s set on Madison Ballet over the last few years.  Yu, a postmodernist, can be masterfully musical, like the great ballet choreographers – and “Re-Place” is the most musical work I've seen from him since the middle of the last decade, when he was working with two marvelous dancers in his own company at the time, Collette Stewart and Yun-Chen Liu.  In the staccato, allegro “Re-Place,” five Madison Ballet dancers – Erickson, Murphy, Rogers, Warring, and Mia Sanchez, wearing plain black dancewear -- read like notes on a clef, popping in and out of synch.  Warring and Erickson leapfrogged over each other in a particularly playful pas, but the standout here was Murphy, spritelike and pert.  In a bright pas de deux she balanced horizontally across Warring's strong shoulders, one leg pointing skyward; in a later section she whipped off a string of her famous fouette turns, then flipped jauntily over his back.

Smith revisited his 2014 season finale, “Groovy,” an ode to the hippie ‘60s with day-glo costumes and a score of (mostly) bubblegum hits supporting twenty-plus minutes of solos, pas de deux, and ensenble numbers. The company gave it all up for this piece, though too many of "Groovy"’s dances were bland and repetitive. The full ensemble movements were uniformly bouncy, and consisted mostly of unison work – and most of the solos, taking up the full two to three minute span of the original 45 rpm songs, would have been better if they’d been half as long.  A solo for Rogers to the metaphorical marijuana tune “Green Grass,” in which she stumbled around as if retchingly drunk (c’mon, to a song about pot?), should have been cut altogether.
Other numbers were much better. “Color my World,” set on Mia Sanchez, was balletic and well delivered.  Hammer and Erickson were light and free dancing to to “Everybody Loves a Clown,” and the timing sometimes stretched beyond the anemic beat, adding a bit of creative tension to this little pas de deux. 
Taken one by one the many little dances in “Groovy” seemed disparate in 2014, but this time around – a big change, and a saving grace – the work as a whole was loosely structured around Quirk and Johnson, their romantic narrative strung like random beads among the rest of the dances. From the original "Groovy" Quirk reprised her loose, free-spirited dance to the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” She reveled in her powerhouse strength to Leslie Gore’s 1964 chart topper “You Don’t Own Me;' the dance was a shining example of the Smith / Quirk collaboration, with its trademark chugs and arabesque turns.  And Johnson and Quirk miraculously managed to carry off a true neoclassical pas de deux – lots of syncopation and tricky lifts – to the insipid Liverpool pop tune “Ferry Cross the Mersey.”  Hallelujah for that. 
Quirk, in Groovy © Kat Stiennon 2017

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