Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Season is Changing: Madison Ballet Brings Primavera to the Bartell

                                                     Las Cuatro in rehearsal  © SKepecs 2017
by Susan Kepecs
The days are lengthening, little green stalks poke up out of the ground, and the end of Madison Ballet’s 2016-17 season is upon us.  Next week – March 31 – April 1, at the Bartell – the company serves up a repertory show aptly called Primavera. The title’s taken from the program’s pièce de resistance, Las Cuatro, choreographed by artistic director W. Earle Smith to Astor Piazzola’s “Las cuatro estaciones porteñas,” known in English as the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. But more on Las Cuatro later.
In a lighthearted vein, the program features three excerpts from Peter Anastos’ blithe Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Anastos set in full on Madison Ballet in 2004 (the company performed the ballet again in 2011). From Midsummer Smith chose Titania’s Fairy Dance, with sparkly Kelanie Murphy as the Fairy Queen, reigning over a corps of six; Puck’s variation, a trickster’s bravura dance that sits perfectly on long-time company member Jackson Warring; and the pas de deux for Titania and the bumbling Bottom (danced by Andrew Erickson), the weaver who Puck’s turned into a donkey. 
In rehearsal, Smith gives good-humored direction: “On the penché, drop your head,” he tells Murphy.  “You’re Titania – you can do whatever you want!  You’re the queen!”  He turns to Erickson. “Don’t bounce too much on the prances,” he says – “the ears [on the donkey head] are designed to bounce, so if you bounce too much they’re gonna fall off!” 
Local musical theater choreographer Cindy Severt premieres a fluffy, fun-to-dance piece in a completely different vein, “Up All Night.” It’s a jazzy, jitterbuggy work that uses most of the company and features Kristen Hammer and newcomer Adam Bloodgood, along with Warring and Murphy. It doesn’t bear much stylistic resemblance to Balanchine’s neoclassical ballet-based works of musical theater, but the approach fits into a broader conceptualization of Balanchine that meshes with Smith’s vision for the company.  It’s a great chance for the dancers to stretch out in another genre, he says. 
The rest of the program is more serious. Smith’s new Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, which follows the Midsummer excerpts on the program, rounds out his nod to the Bard.  It’s a big, bold, neoclassical allegro, filled with sweeping turns and daring, high lifts.  And it’s set, of course, on reigning Madison Ballet queen Shannon Quirk, partnered by Bloodgood.  It’s a strenuous piece, and after the runthrough I watched the two were huffing and puffing from exertion.
“I’ve always wanted to do the balcony scene from that ballet,” Smith says.  “It’s one of Prokofiev’s signature pieces – it’s exquisite music.  I’ve seen it done very light – Romeo just runs around the stage, very flowy-shmoey, so I decided to put more dancing in mine – it’s very hard partnering.”   
Also on the program is the luxurious, lush-lined, adagio pas de deux from Smith’s Palladio, much reworked from its 2011 premiere for a new generation of dancers (Annika Reikersdorfer and Bloodgood perform it in this concert).  Palladio’s hard in its simplicity, and Romeo is hard in execution,” Smith says.  “With Palladio I was really going for movement that complements the music, whereas in the Romeo choreography the partnering defines the music.  For me, it’s two very different approaches to choreographing a pas de deux.”
The Romeo and Juliet pas is followed, in program order, by a stark departure, “Internal Divide,” a new work choreographed by UW-Madison Dance Department prof Marlene Skog and set on the utterly versatile Quirk. It’s an angular temper tantrum of a dance that demands a powerhouse performer of extraordinary capabilities, and looks daunting to do – Quirk spun and flailed across the studio floor as if literally being blown apart by hidden forces.
Las Cuatro, which premiers in this program, and also ends it, has four movements – “Verano,” “Otoño,” “Invierno,” and “Primavera” – set on the full company. Watching it you can feel
Las Cuatro, rehearsal  © SKepecs 2017
Smith’s delight at working with Piazzola’s tango accent, which lends itself to his flair for syncopation and his trademark neoclassical, slightly jazzy, music-made-visible approach. But it’s also, in some ways, a departure for him – there’s an edge of Latin sabor here that’s new, and the work’s varied structure is bigger, fuller, richer in power and movement than many of his other repertory ballets.
What was the inspiration for Las Cuatro?  “I was drawn immediately to the music,” he says – just the passion and the sexiness of it. It’s full of emotion. I wanted to choreograph a meaty piece.  It’s 28 minutes long, and there’s a lot in it choreographically – adagios, allegros, petite allegros, lots of changing combinations of dancers. In it, I’ve gone from solos to pas de deux and pas de trois to – whatever nine is.  Pas de neuf.”

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