Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Madison Ballet's 2017 Nutcracker Marks Smith's Retirement

Annika Reikersdorfer (Sugarplum Fairy) © Kat Stiennon 2017

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith is retiring at the end of the 2017-18 season, and the company’s current production (at Overture through Dec. 26) is his farewell Nutcracker, as all of the city’s dance audience knows by now.  Smith has directed 14 Nutcrackers, from pre-professional productions in the studio company days (2004-2007) through Madison Ballet’s decade as resident, fully professional, growing company.  I’ve seen and reviewed them all.  Some years, the show’s been better than others. Beyond shadow of doubt the quality of the dancers has risen consistently over the years, but the 2017 production was not the brightest, shiniest of them all. 
In part, the feel of this production was melancholy, at least for me. I’ll miss the characteristic Smithian touches – those slightly jazzy steps rooted in the neoclassical idiom that weave through his choreography, rendering what is otherwise a very conventional Nutcracker Smith’s own.  The Snow corps choreography is, hands down, one of Smith’s best works – there’s a sparkly magic to these fairies cavorting in falling snow.  Near the end of this dance there’s a quintessential Smith step, one he often gives in class – chug, chug, faille, faille, back soutinue, sauté arabesque, faille, faille. I felt a little sad, watching that sequence for the last time.
Other issues stood in the way of a rave review. For one, the company this year is very is strong on tall, talented ballerinas, but lacks tall men to partner them.  Smith had to make several plot shifts to accommodate the company’s current composition.  The Snow pas de deux became a Snow Queen variation, danced in the Saturday matinée performance by the lovely, talentd Shannon Quirk.  If Madison Ballet were ranked, as bigger companies are, Quirk would be a principal –in fact, the principal in this outfit.  But the choreography for the new Snow solo was short, plain and simple; it looked like an afterthought. Quirk, characcteristically, made it look utterly effortless, but I was disappointed that this was all she got – there wasn’t even a bow for her in the grand finale (although Quirk,  partnered by the inimitable Shea Johnson, who was out of town earlier this month doing Nutcracker with another company, will dance this season’s final Sugarplum pas de deux this coming weekend, Dec. 23-26). 
The divertissements – Nutcracker’s “little entertainments” – were uneven. I’m  not sure why Smith set the Thai dance on three company members (Mia Sanchez, Catherine Rogers and Andrew Erickson) instead of on the mid-level students who’ve always done it before. The piece is too short to let us see what professional dancers might do with it, and really too cutesy for them – it looks much better on kids. Elisabeth Malanga did a spicy job with the Spanish solo – she’s got bone fide escuela bolera flair. But – just as last year – only the Arabian pas (Michaela King, Jacob Ashley) was pitch perfect.  Ashley’s done this dance for years – it runs deep in his bones. This is the second year he’s done it with King, who’s blessed with remarkable extensions that allow her to melt, stretch, and slink in unimaginable ways. 
Little Clara – Genevieve Raasch, a level 3B student at the School of Madison Ballet – had a bold stage presence and nice balletic lines, waltzing with aplomb and riding Drosselmeyer’s sleigh into the sky with her Nutcracker cavalier, Lucas Benhart. 
The Snow and Flowers corps – always an opportunity for the most advanced students in the school as well as for the company – were unusually clean this year.  And I’d only seen Bri George before in the Giselle pas de deux in the company’s fall repertory show, Push.  Giselle was all partnered work; as Dew, George got to reveal her bone-deep confidence and well-honed skill.
Annika Reikersdorfer, who rose through the ranks at the School of Madison Ballet to become one of the company’s top soloists, has danced the Sugarplum Fairy role in alternating performances for the last three years.  A fairy princess at heart, she palpably loves this role, flaunting her faultless Balanchine lines, her spot-on musicality, her adamant perfectionism.  And yet, if you looked closely, the sheer joy that should personify Sugarplum wasn’t quite all there. Perhaps, her career having been shaped and encouraged all these years by Smith, she was feeling wistful over his retirement.   Nevertheless, the Sugarplum pas was just lovely.  Reikersdorfer’s cavalier, Havana-trained Carlos Quenedit, retired last spring from San Francisco Ballet, where he'd been a principal since 2014 (it’s the first time Madison Ballet has had to hire a guest principal since its studio company period). Though Reikersdorfer and Quenedit had never danced together before and had almost no time to rehearse, they were beautifully matched.  Quenedit was a superb partner, and his variation, punctuated with remarkable quintuple pirouettes, was clean, crisp, proud, and strong.

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