|Kaleigh Schock and Damien Johnson rehearse |
"Mingus Dances" in the studio © SKepecs 2018
by Susan Kepecs
The headlines, on any given day, reveal an unprecedented wave of women standing up to male entitlement. The uprising you see on TV is centered on politics and pop entertainment. In the more rareified world of ballet, the making-art part – choreography – has been (mostly) the province of men. Marius Petipa. Michel Fokine. Anthony Tudor. George Balanchine. Jerome Robbins. Alonzo King. Justin Peck. Alexei Ratmansky. Christopher Wheeldon. And that’s just a few. Two years ago, playing off this fact, The New York Times ran an article called “Breaking the Glass Slipper: Where are the Female Choreographers?" This is partly hyperbole, since women do choreograph ballets and have throughout history, but still, change is in the air. New York City Ballet is showing works by several emerging female choreographers this season. Dallas’s Avant Chamber Ballet, the home company for Madison Ballet alum Madelyn Boyce and current Madison Ballet soloist Shea Johnson, has run a Women’s Choeography Project for the last three years. And Madison Ballet spotlights women choreographers in its second repertory show of the 2017-18 season, She, Feb. 2-3 at the Bartell.
“It’s a show I’ve wanted to do for years,” says artistic director W. Earle Smith. “I’m really excited about it. This show will go down as one I’ll be forever glad that I did. I think it’s an important show; we need to support women choreographers and give them opportunities to show their work. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the show develop – these women are very diverse, and each brings a different voice to her work. The result is really compelling.”
Former Madison Ballet board president Betty Custer, who’s also chair of the Overture Foundation board and a community leader in many other ways, introduces the performance. “She’s going to speak to why it’s important to support women in leadership roles in the performing arts,” Smith says. “There’s no better person to do this. Her introduction is an important aspect of the show.”
On the bill are works by four female dancemakers working today. One is Nikki Hefko, whose performance career spans classical, neoclassical, and contemporary repertory with Dance Theatre of Harlem, with which she danced for for a number of years, and 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 also of her own company, Nikki Hefko & Dancers.
Also contributing a piece to the She program is Chicago / New York choreographer Jacqueline Stewart, who frequently sets her quirky, quasi-balletic contemporary works on Madison Ballet.
New to the company is Katherine Kramer, whose background is tap – she studied with ace hoofers Brenda Bufalino and “heelology” virtuoso Ralph Brown. This is the first time she’s set her work on a professional ballet company.
Windy City choreographer Stephanie Martínez, who danced with River North Dance Chicago and the now-defunct but once wonderful company Luna Negra, sets one of her works on Madison Ballet for the first time. “Non è Normale” originally was commissioned by Joffrey Ballet Chicago in 2015.
Finally, for historical context, there’s Bronislava Nijinska’s Stravinsky-scored, peasant wedding-themed Les Noces. The work was created for the Paris-based, avant-garde, early twentieth century Ballets Russes (for which Balanchine also choreographed in the 1920s), and it premiered in that city in 1923. But Nijinska had only left Kiev two years earlier, and Les Noces – like her brother Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, which premiered a decade earlier (and caused a riot with its startling modernism) – reflects the anticapitalist, anti-patriarchy exuberance of Bolshevik art.
“The Stravinsky / Balanchine relationship makes this piece a natural for us,” Smith says. He’s restaged Nijinska’s work for this program.
I watched an early runthrough of the program last week; the dances weren’t done in the order in which they appear on the playbill, but this is how I saw them. Martínez’ “Non è Normale” is contemporary but balletic. Its timing is stretchy and varied, its flow gratifyingly constant. It’s mostly set to a contemporary Italian classical score, but a playful jitterbug to the title track danced by Madison Ballet’s best jitterbuggers, Kelanie Murphy and Jackson Warring, breaks the piece in the middle and adds unexpected angles that deepen the experience of watching the work unfold.
Kramer’s contribution, “Bow” (the title refers to boats, not reverence), is modern dance, with lots of undulations. It counterbalances the rest of the show – there’s not much here that’s balletic, though the women are on pointe.
Stewart’s piece, “Gait N Heel,” featuring three women on pointe and five in (very) high heels, plus three men, is likely to provoke feminist controversy. I’ll reserve judgement till I see it onstage, but Smith loves it. “I have to tell you,” he says, “it’s one of her best pieces. The dynamics between the women on pointe and the others in heels is very true to form in terms of her style and voice.”
Hefko’s two-movement “Mingus Dances” is neoclassical bebop – how great is that? It starts with a stunning adagio pas by Kaleigh Schock and Damien Johnson, powerful dancers making their debut as Madison Ballet soloists in this piece. The pas is followed by a fast ensemble foxtrot that’s loaded with Harlem style.
For Les Noces, which is set on the whole company and which I saw last, only the fourth movement (the wedding feast) had been sketched out. The counts are astounding. “Two phrases of six, then six fives and four sixes,” Smith said, clapping out these shifts. There are lots of small jumps and stomps in sixth position that feel utterly tribal, an echo from Rite of Spring.
“One two three, one two three, one two three four five six seven eight nine,” Smith counted, as the group marched forward, then back, then to the side. It was hard, the dancers didn’t know it yet, and everyone was laughing. “We’ve got plenty of time,” Smith said through his own giggles, kicking the hilarity up a few notches.
Les Noces isn’t the program finale, but it should be. By the time we see it onstage it’ll probably be wonderful.
 Women were (and still are) pioneers in the modern dance movement (think Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, just for starters), but they’ve have also made their mark in ballet choreography. Agrippina Vaganova, best known for standardizing Petipa’s ballet vocabulary, created her own versions of Swan Lake and Esmeralda for the Kirov in the 1930s. Between the 1920s and the 1940s, Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, choreographed some 80 ballets for Ballets Russes, Paris Opera Ballet, the Polish Ballet, and other companies. American dancemaker Twyla Tharp, whose choreographic career began in the realm of 1960s postmodernism but runs the gamut, has created ballets for ABT, NYCB, Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the Joffrey, among other companies. Jessica Lang set her contemporary ballets on companies across the world for two decades before starting her own outfit in 2014; Jessica Lang Dance performs at the Wisconsin Union Theater in March. But – this is the point – by comparison to the number of male choreographers working in the ballet idiom, the number of women creating ballets is miniscule.
 Les noces is French for “the wedding,” or “the nuptuals.”