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.

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