Thursday, April 6, 2017

Madison Ballet Springs into Spring with "Primavera"

                             Las Cuatro, Quirk front and center   © SKepecs 2017
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Primavera, last weekend (March 31 – April 1) at the Bartell, marked the end of an uneven season. But by far, this was the best of it.  The company lost more than half of its dancers last year during a financial crisis, and it needs more time to bring newer hires up to par.  But the organization has some spectacular seasoned dancers, and the Primavera program was interesting and varied.  I attended Friday night.
The highlight, for me, was a pair of neoclassical pas de deux, both choreographed by artistic director W. Earle Smith.  Much has been written, both positive and negative, about Balanchine’s famous axiom “ballet is woman.”  In the twentieth century master’s pas de deux the ballerina is always the star, though she often appears to be passive, an object both controlled and revealed by her male partner.  This is an illusion, of course, since being partnered demands phenomenal amounts of strength, control, and fearlessness.  Nevertheless, in the twenty first century the gender politics of pas de deux would relegate the artform to the dustbins of history, if not for this: we watch sports to see fit, trained athletes perform feats our lumbering selves can only dream of.  A good pas de deux is a sport of sorts, but when you add the grace and artistry of ballet done well, the effect is nearly transcendental.  Smith’s two pas de deux on the Primavera program achieved that elusive end. 
The short, slow, elegant pas from his 2011 “Palladio,” this time set on Annika Reikersdorfer and newcomer Adam Bloodgood, opened the show. Lithe, light Reikersdorfer is a perfectionist with a musician’s sensibilities; she luxuriated in every nuance of the score.  Bloodgood’s partnering was strong and understated.  He lifted her in pas de chat; she floated across space, extending her legs into second and landing in arabesque.  She leaned, deeply off balance, into his arms, one pointe-shod foot on the ground, the other crossed in fifth and resting on top; he swiveled her around like a gentle breeze.  
The other – the premiere of Smith’s Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, which he’s long wanted to choreograph, was a joyful romp, set on Bloodgood and Madison Ballet reigning queen Shannon Quirk.  
Romeo and Juliet pas © SKepecs 2017
Here the partnering was bolder, and where Palladio is cool as a cucumber, the Romeo and Juliet pas demanded top acting chops. There’s an interesting dichotomy here – these are supremely confident dancers, but the whole piece is charged with tender, shy sweetness.  In real life Quirk is worldly, and blessed with a wry sense of humor. But as Juliet, hair loose, soft white dress flowing, she was 18 and in love. Bloodgood lifted her high overhead, swept her into a fish, tossed her onto his shoulder, swirled and flipped her.  She flew into a mid-height, lifted and carried grand jeté, opening slowly into infinite extension while sailing, radiant, across the stage.

Internal Divide © SKepecs 2017
The Romeo and Juliet pas was followed by a stark departure – UW-Madison Dance Department professor Marlene Skog’s “Internal Divide,” a repertory piece of postmodern ballet set on Quirk, hair still loose, pointe shoes on.  The striking contrast with the Juliet role spotlighted Quirk’s remarkable versatility.  “Internal Divide” is a staccato, angular, temper tantrum of a dance – a feat of core strength in which, as its name implies, the dancer’s body appears to be possessed by opposing impulses.  Quirk flailed, spun, marched; she spidered along the floor, then sprung, extended, to her feet. Sometimes an arm or a leg initiated the movement – a staple in the Dance Department’s postmodernist vocabulary.  There were flic-flac turns, straight out of ballet but done with flexed feet.
I wondered, since Skog’s subtly invoked environmental crises in dance before, if her inspiration this time was – well, political.  It represents everything, she told me, laughing. But her original point of departure for this piece was folía, an Iberian Renaissance dance of insanity (folía essentially translates from Portugese or Spanish as “folly”).

Puck variation © SKepecs 2017
Also on the bill were three excerpts from Peter Anastos’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Madison Ballet performed in full in 2004 and 2011. Puck’s bravura woodsprite variation, with its  cabrioles, grand soubresauts and gargouillades, was a perfect fit for Jackson Warring, who looks like he was born for jester roles. Kelanie Murphy, who’s come into her own as a soloist at the end of her second season with the company, looked like she had a touch of opening night jitters in the fairy variation, though what really dampened the dance was the inconsistent corps. But Murphy sparkled in her silly pas de deux with Bottom (Andrew Erickson), the bumbling weaver turned into a donkey by the mischievous Puck.  

Up all Night (Murphy, Bloodgood) © SKepecs 2017
Up All Night (Warring, Erickson) © SKepecs 2017
Murphy again proved herself a star, dancing in a red dress on a tabletop in “Up All Night,” a premiere by local musical theater choreographer Cindy Severt.  Severt made great use of ballet-trained dancers and the rock n’ roll they carry around inside themselves in this spunky jitterbug of a crowdpleaser piece. “Up All Night” was a little show in itself, with a lotta swing and a strong narrative about a cocktail waitress longing for showbiz fame. It featured Kristen Hammer (as the waitress) with Warring and Erickson as her suitors – plus Murphy and Bloodgood as a pair of bona fide celebs who dropped into the joint for a little jive time.

If there’s an echo of Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free in “Up All Night” – at least in the bar, and the bop – the program’s finale, Smith’s 28-minute repertory ballet Las Cuatro, evoked Martha Graham.  Certainly not in the sense of Graham’staunch anti-ballet stance – Las Cuatro is pure neoclassical ballet with an escuela bolera tang on a tango base (Astor Piazolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas).  Las Cuatro is an expression of sultry brio, not (as in Graham) Jungian angst.  But Las Cuatro has commonalities with Graham’s modernist works, particularly “Steps in the Street” (1936), which Kanopy performed so magically at Overture’s tenth anniversary event in 2014. 
Las Cuatro © SKepecs 2017
      Before I get carried away, let me say that I don’t think Smith was thinking of Graham, or “Steps in the Street,” when he choreographed Las Cuatro.  But perhaps the parallels are the result of the great universal unconscious, which Graham herself believed in. We’re living in politically stressful times, and “Steps” was Graham’s response to the tensions of the lead-up to World War II, in particular the Spanish Civil War. Her intent wasn’t Latin, but Spain was woven into her concept.  The score for Graham’s piece, by American modernist composer Wallingford Riegger, is no tango, but like Piazolla’s work it’s percussive and complex.  Graham’s “Steps in the Street” features a corps of 11 women, often moving in unison, their shifting, complex patterns punctuated by a soloist; Smith’s Las Cuatro has a corps of 11 (eight women, in red; three black-clad men), its shifting, complex patterns often done in unison and punctuated by Quirk. Even some of Smith’s gestures – women marching forward, arms raised before them at 45 degree angles; the way their soft long skirts, draped over working legs in arabesque, formed bell shapes – are Graham-like in both vocabulary and intensity. 
I found this comparison as fascinating as Las Cuatro itself, with its Latin rhythms, its Spanish embellishments – foot flicking, hand claps, the women manipulating those long red skirts like bullfighters’ capes.  Sometimes pointe shoes served as percussion accompaniment.  The corps packed the stage and filled the eye with constantly shifting movement.  The women formed a pair of diagonal lines; the men, one at a time, lept high into the air between them. Two women stepped up into pique arabesque as three more returned to faille, Quirk in the lead. 
I loved the complexity and drama of this piece. In some ways it’s quite a departure for Smith – not overtly jazzy or Balanchine-esque, and much more emotional that anything I’ve seen from him before – though it sticks to his prime tenet of choreography, “dance is music made visible,” which he takes from Balanchine.  That said, I do have two complaints. Las Cuatro is a bit long and slightly repetitive – it could be edited back a bit. And the corps – uneven all season – was still that way at the end.    
                                   Las Cuatro © SKepecs 2017 

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