Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Look at Madison Ballet's 2017-18 Season

Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson last season in General Hambrick's 2+3
© Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s 2017-18 season is an exercise in time travel.  Artistic director W. Earle Smith leads audiences through the artform’s past, present, and future over the course of just four shows.  Packed into this ambitious calendar are traditional nineteenth century classics, archetypes of early twentieth century avant-garde, neoclassical confections heavily influenced by the mid-century American works of George Balanchine, a pas de deux by red-hot choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (a first for this company), and pieces by pointe postmodernists of several stripes.
The company will be bigger this year than last. All of last season’s dancers, including power pair Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson, return.  Three new company members bring solid professional resumes to the table – Bri George, who comes to the company from Ballet Arizona, Elisabeth Malanga, from Pennsylvania Ballet, and Kaleigh Shock, from Nevada Ballet Theater. Three new apprentices round out the corps: Mary Elizabeth Bastian and Doria Warden, who come with extensive pre-professional experience elsewhere, plus homegirl Cecilia Monroy, who came up through the ranks of the School of Madison Ballet and performed onstage with the company all last season. 
Adding six women should help overcome a long-standing issue for this company. Traditional, full-length story ballets like The Nutcracker rely on having a large corps – think “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.”  In the past, Smith’s had to stretch the corps with upper level students, some of whom haven’t been quite up to the challenge. “What’s going to change Nutcracker this year,” Smith says, “is that with an expanded company you’ll see a rich, full corps.”

Except for this upgrade, Nutcracker (Dec. 9-26, Overture Hall) is likely to hold few surprises.  But three challenging repertory programs promise to be real revelations – about the artform, about the choreographers whose works are represented, and about the dancers.  First up this year is a program titled Push (Oct. 20-21, at the Bartell).  “For me,” Smith says, “repertory evenings typically have been about new works, usually edgy and athletic ones.  On this program I’m pushing the repertory concept into new territory.  There’ll be four pas de deux that are quintessential classical ballet.”  
Madison Ballet, known for its Balanchine-based (neoclassical) and contemporary repertory, has done true classical work only once before – the adagio from the White Swan pas de deux (from Marius Petipa’s 1895 Swan Lake) was on the program for the Repertory II concert in spring, 2015. The four pas de deux on the Push program – most will be excerpts from the full grand pas you’d see if these ballets were performed full-length – are fascinating choices because they traverse the full history of classical ballet. One is the sexy, glittery Black Swan pas from Swan Lake, which looked to the past with its darkly romantic story line, and into what was then the future with its rigorous classical dance technique. Petipa’s most famous work is the ultimate example of the formalized, fin-de-siecle evolution of the artform, which remains the basis of ballet as we know it today.
Also on the bill is the pas de deux from Act II of Petipa’s Giselle (1880, revived for the Imperial Russian Ballet from a work that premiered in Paris in 1841). Petipa’s Giselle pre-dates Swan Lake by just 15 years, but his Giselle choreography retains many of the soft, romantic gestures of the ballet's earlier incarnation. Ultimately the stylistic contrast the audience will see in the Push performance depends on how Smith reconstructs these dances, but at heart the Giselle pas is a glance back in time to the aesthetic of premodern ballet.
Adding another layer to this parfait of pre-Balanchine ballet is Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose, choreographed in 1911 for impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (which, though its origins were Russian, was based in Paris). Fokine, who had studied with Petipa, was a man of his time – an experimentalist involved in the birth of modernism, along with American dance pioneers Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn; European composers from Debussy to Stravinsky; breakaway painters like Matisse and Picasso. Le Spectre de la Rose, one of the first modernist ballets, is neo-romantic rather than classical, and starring, in the original production, legendary mad genius Vaslav Nijinsky as a bravura-dancing rose.
The fourth pre-Balanchine pas de deux on the Push program is “Diana and Acetaeon,” a 1935 showcase of classical technique by Soviet choreographer Agripina Vaganova, who perfected and standardized the Russian ballet technique that originated with Petipa.
Of course, no Madison Ballet repertory program would be complete without neoclassical works steeped in the Balanchine tradition.  To that end there’s a new piece by frequent guest choreographer General Hambrick, who’s a wizard at blending Balanchine with Alvin Ailey-isms, to an early nineteenth century score by French composer / violinist Pierre Rode. “This is interesting just in the fact that for Madison Ballet, General has used more contemporary composers in the past,” says Smith, whose own contribution to Push is Concerto Veneto, to Alessandro Marcello’s early eighteenth century Oboe Concerto in D Minor. Smith’s piece premiered in 2008, when Madison   Ballet, as a professional company, was brand-new. “I’m going to remount it and expand it choreographically,” Smith says. “It’s very neoclassical, basically a leotard ballet in all white; it’s an exercise in movement and patterns and musicality.” 
Smith reconstructing Concerto Veneto in the studio
©SKepecs 2017

Except for Vaganova, all of the choreographers on the Push program are men. The second repertory concert of the season, She (Feb. 2-3, at the Bartell), turns that gender bias on its head. “To give historical context to this program,” says Smith, “we’re doing Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces.” 
Nijinska – sister of Nijinsky, and, like him, a member of Ballets Russes – became a choreographer for that company after Fokine. Les Noces (1923) – with a Stravinsky score and a Russian peasant wedding theme – was one of her first ballets.  “The Stravinsky / Balanchine relationship makes this piece a natural for us,” Smith says.  “And I also danced it, as as choreographed by Paul Mejia, at Texas Ballet Theatre (formerly Fort Worth – Dallas Ballet) back in the late ‘80s. I’m going to restage Nijinska’s choreography myself, and bring it into the modern era.”
Four female dancemakers working today will contribute works to this program. One is Nikki Hefko, whose performance career spans classical, neoclassical, and contemporary repertory with Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she danced for for a number of years, and with Madison Ballet, during the company’s first few professional seasons (she was Madison Ballet’s Peter Pan in 2008).  Hefko is now the artistic director of the New Orleans School of Ballet, and she runs her own company, Nikki Hefko & Dancers. The New York Times has run several articles on the general lack of women choreographers in ballet, but Hefko has been choreographing ballet repertory for nearly a decade. A versatile choreographer, she set her frothy little neoclassical frolic, “Mandolin Amble,” to Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C, on Madison Ballet in 2014.  In another vein, her acclaimed 2012 pas de deux “myself when I’m real,” to the Charlie Mingus tune of that name, is very fluid and athletic.
            Also contributing a piece to the She program is Chicago / New York choreographer Jacqueline Stewart, who, like General Hambrick, is a frequent guest at Madison Ballet. Her quirky dances run from extremely angular un-ballets to a quasi-balletic contemporary oevre that bears comparison to early Hubbard Street pieces.
            New to Madison Ballet is jazz/tap dancer / choreographer Katherine Kramer, who’s recently settled in the Madison area. Kramer has an impressive resumé going back to the ‘70s, when she studied with ace hoofers Brenda Bufalino and “heelology” virtuoso Ralph Brown. “Kramer’s background is tap, but I don’t want to categorize the work she’s doing for us,” says Smith.  “She’s setting a piece on the company called “Bow,” which she’s already done and which she wants to explore further. This is the first time she’s set her work on a professional ballet company.”
Also new is Windy City choreographer Stephanie Martínez, who danced with River North Dance Chicago and the now-defunct but once wonderful company Luna Negra.  She started choreographing in 2008, when she created, with fellow Luna Negra dancer Francisco Aviña, a piece called “AviMar” for that company’s tenth anniversary show.  Since then, Martínez’ success has snowballed.  She’s setting a piece on Madison Ballet called “Non e Normale,” which Joffrey Ballet Chicago commissioned from her in 2015. 

The third and final repertory show of the season is Rise (March 30-31, Capitol Theater, Overture Center).  “It’ll be nice to be back on a larger stage for a repertory evening,” says Smith.  “It’ll run from expansive, large cast works to pas de deux – there’s nothing like an intimate pas on a large stage to bring out all the emotion in the dance.” 
Three repertory ballets by Smith are on this bill. One Waltz is a new work. “I’ve choreographed waltzes throughout my career,” Smith says, “but I’ve never done a full waltz ballet – so what I want to do is take what I’ve done over the years and bring it all together, give the pieces some continuity, and make an evening of it.  It’ll be women in long white waltz gowns with opera-length gloves and stylized hair with feathers and jewels – and men in white tuxes.”
Smith’s also bringing back two of his earlier ballets.  One is Nuoto (“Swimming”), which premiered in the spring of 2015. There’s a lot of humor in this lighthearted little neoclassical work adorned with the jazzy little accoutrements Smith loves and costumed in 1930s swimwear.
The other is Rhythm, Where Are You? (2011) – a suite of ensemble dances, duets, trios and   “I’m in awe of Tim’s footage,” Smith says of the inspiration for this piece.  “Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers – it’s where Michael Jackson got all of his moves.” 
quartets, performed before a giant video screen showing footage (restored and compiled by Timothy Tomano) of Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Cole Porter and other greats from the era of big band swing.
Featured on the Rise bill will be Christopher Wheeldon’s “The American” pas de deux. The timing couldn’t be better, since Wheeldon’s Tony award-winning musical, American in Paris, plays Overture Hall a month earlier (Feb. 27-March 4).  The Wheeldon pas – which doesn’t come from the musical – will be set on Madison Ballet by Michelle Gifford, who’s danced this piece herself (with Shea Johnson) for Avant Chamber Ballet in Dallas.  A repetiteur for the Balanchine Trust, Gifford has set several Balanchine works on Madison Ballet in recent years.

A little romp from Nuoto © SKepecs 2015

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