Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Year that Was in the Performing Arts

by Susan Kepecs
Yikes, 2017. We lost Fats Domino. Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in week six. The once-great University of Wisconsin can now expel students for protesting, and the Board of Regents wants to hire “system leaders” from the private sector – no academic experience required. Just like in politics! Don’t get me started on hurricanes, wildfires, and the Paris agreement. The Dotard and Little Rocket Man are locked in a macho contest – which one has the biggest nuclear balls? Alt-right, white supremacist nazi thugs crawled out of the woodwork in droves this year. The State Senate has done its damndest to smack Madison in the chops for being a sanctuary city, and Scotty forked over to Foxconn some four billion hard-earned Wisconsin tax dollars for an industrial park like China’s “Foxconn City,” home of multiple suicide epidemics among underpaid workers on iPhone assembly lines.
That’s just an itty-bitty mini-list of the year’s most egregious affairs. The arts were there for us all year long, though, even in these new dark ages. Here, in no particular order, is my best-of-2017 list.

I fell madly in love with Pilobolus’ Shadowland, at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall
(Feb. 23), if only because it’s a dog story done in dance, and I’m a dancer dog person. I expected Shadowland to be slick and commercial, given this company’s TV appearances to that effect, but it was poignant instead. In the story, which bears metaphorical resemblance to the perilous pre-adoption life history of my own beloved rescue pooch, a typical teenage girl was transformed into a little prick-eared terrier. Dog Girl (Heather Jeane Favretto, whose grasp of dog behavior was phenomenal) fell into one dreamlike adventure after another. This was a complicated shadow show – the dancers achieved spatial magic through sleights of movement and perspective created by manipulating light, props, and positioning behind (and sometimes in front of) the screen. Pilobolus famously tailors Shadowland’s finale for every one of the hundreds of cities around the globe where it’s played in since its 2009 debut. For us there was a perfect shadow Capitol, Lady Rennebohm perched prominently on top. Union Terrace chairs, Bucky Badger, and Bascom Hall’s east façade (yes, with Abe Lincoln in front) cast their shadows. So did a protest march; the cast carried signs that read “Protect Trans Students” and “Black Lives Matter.” The marchers danced, and jumped for joy – and there was cheese. The audience roared. There’s something enormously powerful about seeing things you care about rendered in art. Shadowland caught Madison’s vibe and tossed it back at us, larger than life – humanity, dogdom, progressive values, our city. I’m not a crier, so I was surprised to find myself in tears as the house lights went up.

Madison Ballet, in a surprising break from its neoclassical and contemporary emphasis, offered four classical pas de deux – a history of ballet, of sorts – on its fall repertory program, Push, at the Bartell (Oct. 20). All were solid, though two stood out. The Black Swan pas, from that most famous ballet of all time, Marius Petipa’s 1895 Swan Lake, was danced by Madison Ballet newcomer Elisabeth Malanga and Jacob Ashley. 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 122-year old ballet look surprisingly new.  
But the showstopper was Agrippina Vaganova’s 1935 “Diana and Actaeon” pas de deux –
Quirk and Johnson  © Kat Stiennon 2017
originally a divertissement in her ballet La Esmeralda, based on an earlier Petipa production. Madison Ballet’s power pair, Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson, danced this bravura pas, its theme drawn from Vaganova’s 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.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Bob Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret, based on the original 1966 Broadway musical rooted in a 1951 play taken from Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 Berlin Stories. New York non-profit Roundabout Theater’s raunchy, jazzy, award-winning Broadway revival of Cabaret (Overture Hall, March 21) was a 2014 restaging of that company’s 1998 revival of the original musical. How’s that for history?
         In Roundabout’s hands the power and immediacy of live theater – and its ability to bring on nightmares for days afterwards – is tremendous. This production didn’t have the magical Fosse choreography that hooked me on the movie, but the stage production’s awkward dirty dancing was, I’m forced to admit, more appropos of the show’s sordid gestalt. Roundabout’s set – the Kit Kat Orchestra was framed in marquee lights high above the stage, where the action swung from rooming house to nightclub at the drop of a hat – was a knockout. The singing (in particular Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles, Jon Peterson as the Kit Kat’s emcee) was spot-on. Yes, life may be a cabaret, old chum. But nazis goose-step around the edges of the story. People feel threatened; some disappear. The end of the Kit Kat’s desperate song and dance party is near, and nobody knows who’ll fall into the abyss next. In the finale, done in striped pajamas with a burst of strobe, a sizzling sound, then a blackout, life is a concentration camp.

La Santa Cecilia, courtesy of Criteria Entertainment
This was, thanks to narco cartels and government corruption, the most violent year in Mexico’s recent history. But the big, gorgeous country to our south has always been, from the preclassic days of its pre-Spanish history to the present, a hotbed of magnificent arts. And some of its most marvelous music – the boleros and rancheras of the likes of José Alfredo Jiménez, Lola Beltrán and Juan Gabriel – made news in Madison this year (Overture’s Capitol Theater, Oct. 6) in the hands of La Santa Cecilia, a sizzling, Grammy-winning band out of LA. La Santa Cecilia’s 2017 album Amar y Vivir, recorded live in Mexico City, rounds up some of the great Mexican standards and puts its own lush, Angelino stamp on them. I love this album, and I loved the band’s too-short show, except for the usual over-amped sound and strobes that flashed in the audience’s eyes like torches from the Spanish inquisition.
         La Santa Cecilia’s lead singer, Marisol (“la Marisoul”) Hernández, is like Lola Beltrán crossed with Janis Joplin. A natural star with a vibrant sense of style, she was decked out in a petticoted, flamenco-colored dirndl skirt and red cat-eye specs. The set included a few tunes from the band’s early days busking on the streets of Los Angeles, but also “La Negra,” a cumbia (off of its Grammy-winning 2014 album Treinta Días) on which Hernández scats like Ella Fitzgerald, and some tunes – I wanted more! – from Amar y Vivir, including the ranchera made immortal by Lola Beltran, “Leña de Pirul,” plus the title track, a classic ‘40s bolero. Activist at heart, La Santa Cecilia closed with a plea to support our local Dreamers, its heartbreaker off Treinta Días, “ICE el Hielo,” a corrido about “undocumented” life in the face of this country’s famously heavy-handed federal immigration and customs enforcers.

                                   Sidran, Patenaude, Hammes, Moran © SKepecs 2017
Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats, and Freethinkers (Sidran on vocals and piano, Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar and Todd Hammes on percussion) happened again this summer (June-August) in what used to be the back room of Cardinal Bar – it’s now the “Cardinal Ballroom” at Nomad World Pub (I’ll get to that later). Sidran’s theme this summer was Duke Ellington – “’cuz we’ve never done it before and it’s time for us to grow up.” This has always been a world-class quartet, but like magic, playing Ellington upped their game all around – even on the occasional Dylan piece and Sidran’s own songs, including his silly truth tune “College,” their musicianship was stratospheric this summer.
         The summer salons offer both boundless groove and respite from relentless idiocy. “Times are so trashy, we want you to imagine a little elegance,” said Sidran one 2017 July afternoon before launching into the Duke Ellington - Juan Tizol tune “Caravan.”
         “You’re in a little dive in Harlem and it’s 1930 and times are tough, but the music’s elegant, and people read books and discuss ideas.”

We got more Ellington from the Darren Sterud Orchestra – the Ellington / Billy Strayhorn
Sterud (L) with one of his students 
arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, at the Brink, Dec. 19. The Ellington Nut made its debut last year at, yes, the Cardinal. Overnight, it became a new Madison tradition. The Brink was packed to the gills, the show completely sold out. The excellent Beloit Memorial High School Jazz Orchestra, featuring guest trumpeter Kenny Rampton of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, opened with a mix of holiday tunes, jazz and blues.
         And then there was Nutcracker. I’d reviewed Madison Ballet’s Nut two days earlier; the original score played live by the Madison Chamber Orchestra still sparkled in my ears. The Ellington / Strayhorn arrangement isn’t the whole ballet, it’s just the Overture, most of the divertissements, Waltz of the Flowers, and the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy (which Ellington brilliantly called Sugar Rum Cherry). But it’s a whole new world to hear this music swing.
         For an encore we were treated to the R&B standard “Merry Christmas Baby,” with Rampton on trumpet and Sterud, the wild man of the trombone, on vocals. And man, can he sing!

Castañeda's band (here you see Castañeda and Svanoe, with González 
and guests Ruben Márquez (guiro) and Roberto Rengel (in back)
© SKepecs 2017
The Last Cha-Cha-Cha, at the Cardinal Bar, Jan. 29, was the year’s most emotional event by far. The Cardinal, that bright bird of happiness, was a special place, a haven for jazz and Latin music, a social club, a cherished meeting spot for 42 years. Owner Ricardo Gonzalez, who’d just hit 70, was ready to retire; everyone was happy for him, though no Cardinal regular was ready to see his reign end. At the bittersweet farewell there was food, and cake, and Tony Castañeda and his Latin jazz band (Castañeda on congas, Dave Stoler on keys, Henry Behm on bass, Anders Svanoe on barritone sax), the Midwest kings of cha-cha-cha. When they played “Besame Mamá” González got up onstage, maracas in hand, and sang chorus, as always. And when they signed off, as always, with “Wachi Wara,” a tune Castañeda’s hero Cal Tjader made famous, tears were shed.

         The Bird is no more. It’s Nomad World Pub these days. The Cardinal’s old neon sign hangs across the back bar, but the place has a totally different vibe. This past year, following Cardinal tradition, Castañeda’s band played happy hour most First Fridays, and the second set, as always, ended with “Wachi Wara.” Still sabroso, but not the same. And – this just in – Nomad is discontinuing its Friday Happy Hours. Where we’ll go for saoco now, nobody knows for sure. Stay tuned.

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