Monday, February 5, 2018

She: Sassy and Smart

                                                 Les Noces                  © Kat Stiennon 2018

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s repertory program of works by women choreographers, SHE, at the Bartell last weekend (Feb. 2-3), was almost entirely wonderful.  But the real gems in SHE were the dancers themselves.  For the first time, this company – like all companies, a mix of dancers moving up the chain from apprentices to seasoned veterans – really gelled. Madison Ballet finally became what it’s always wanted to be. Gone were the traces of unevenness and amateurism that marred performances in the past. Even though none of artistic director W. Earle Smith’s own works were on the program, SHE revealed the full fruits of his long labors, just as his retirement looms on the horion.
There’s been a lot of uncertainty at Madison Ballet since Smith's announcement in October, which feels wrong when growing, thriving Madison finally has a ballet company that’s full-fledged and poised to fly higher.  And the city deserves no less.  The citizens have finally fallen in love.  Nutcracker isn’t so much about ballet as it is about Christmas – people with little interest in the intricacies of the steps or the stars of the big companies show up at Overture Hall for the holiday monster, but a year or two back there were plenty of empty seats at the repertory shows. For SHE the house was packed, even for the snowy Saturday afternoon show that I attended.
The only fly in the ointment was “Bow,” a piece meant to evoke the sea by hoofer / movement educator Katherine Kramer, whose fluency in the language of ballet left much to be desired.  The women were on pointe, but they didn’t need to be.  Pointework by itself doesn’t define ballet – in Balanchine’s (1970) Elegie, for example, the women are barefoot, their hair worn loose, but the elegance and complexity of the movement, plus the flow of the dance itself, are unmistakably neoclassical.  “Bow,” a long, simple, often static work, consisted mostly of wave-like undulations that changed in intensity to fit a storm-to-sun narrative. This would be a good piece to set on UW-Madison dance majors, but it didn’t belong in a Madison Ballet repertory show.
Watching “Bow,” I wondered why Smith chose Kramer for this program while overlooking noted postmodern ballet choreographer and UW-Madison dance department professor Marlene Skog, who’s set several of her thoughty works on Madison Ballet in the past.  Perhaps Smith was aiming to bring in someone new instead, but he did bring back for the fourth time Chicago/New York urban/contemporary choreographer Jacqueline Stewart, whose quirky un-ballets make expert use of the neoclassical vocabulary and the dancers’ talents.
Stewart’s “Gait N Heel,” a premiere, was the best piece I’ve seen from her – it popped with color and action, though I have to complain about the sexploitation in the first movement.  Lithe,
Rogers, Johnson and Erickson, Gain N Heel
© Kat Stiennon 2018
loose-limbed Catherine Rogers, in a hot pink leotard, tossed her hair, pouted, and stalked around three men – Shea Johnson, Andrew Erickson and Jackson Warring – then climbed onto their laps and let them manipulate her, their fingers in her hair, her legs gesticulating in second position as the soundtrack whispered “I have a new crush...” A couple of times she pushed them away, or lept over them, but these acts weren’t nearly enough to shift the emotional dynamic.  Rogers was terrific in the role, and OK, I get it – we’re supposed to be mad about the objectification of women. But in the age of #MeToo and #Time’sUp, do we really need to see it onstage?
The rest of Stewart’s piece, a tango of sorts, was dynamic, contemporary, and edgy as hell.  Its message (there were lyrics: “these girls, these golden girls who sparkle…”) was sexualized, but also diffuse and abstract. Five women in very high heels (Bri George, Kristen Hammer, Elisabeth Malanga, Mia Sanchez, Doria Worden) and three (Shannon Quirk, Annika Reikersdorfer, and Rogers) on pointe strode and stomped like Amazons and danced in varying combinations with each other and with the  men.  At the end Quirk and Johnson turned a short, angular bravura pas to a T as the women in heels stalked their perimeter. I’m not sure what it meant, but it was fun to watch.
To add historical context to a program of women choreographers, Smith re-staged Bronislava Nijinska's (1923) Les Noces, with its relentlessly dramatic Stravinsky score.  It’s a powerhouse Bolshevik ballet, the modernist aesthetics of the Russian revolutionary avant-garde written in every move. Balanchine, and especially Martha Graham, were indebted to its new forms. 
In Smith’s re-staging Quirk and Johnson were the wedding couple, though the death-defying life-leaps they’re known for are absent in this ballet. In Les Noces, as in communism, the
                          Les Noces           © Kat Stiennon 2018
individual is (mostly) inseparable from the group (here the full company, plus two very advanced students from the School of Madison Ballet). Everyone’s essentially onstage all the time.  The ballet’s four movements are tribal, ritualistic, rhythmic.  The dancing is constant, the groups, shapes, and patterns through space ever-shifting, the counts wildly unpredictable. Arms sweep upwards over a thousand jumps in sixth position; little sideways bourées are punctuated with flicking feet; peasant steps mingle among pirouettes and saut de chats. The work demands strength, precision, and unwavering teamwork.  The company gave it all that, plus a lot of heart.
Les Noces was a triumph. 
For its sheer power, Les Noces should have been the finale. But the two works at the end of the bill were captivating in their own rights. First was “Mingus Dances,” a two-movement piece by New Orleans-based choreographer Nikki Hefko, whose deep neoclassical roots and bebop style were honed, at least in part, at Dance Theater of Harlem and Madison Ballet.  “Mingus Dances” played to both sides of that package.  It opened with revered bassman Charlie Mingus’s quiet, lush piano
D. Johnson and Schock  © Kat Stiennon 2018
improvisation “Myself When I Am Real,” which has a measure of swing but tilts toward toward modern classicism.  To this inspired score Hefko made a luxurious neoclassical adagio / andante pas de deux with short solo variations, which she set on Kaleigh Schock and Damien Johnson – powerful dancers making their debut as Madison Ballet soloists in this piece. They were perfectly matched and utterly transfixing together, investing the dance with all the tender emotional nuances of Mingus’s song.
Murphy in "Mingus Dances"  © Kat Stiennon 2018
And then suddenly there was Pepper Adams’ famous baritone sax line that opens Mingus’s “Moanin,” off his legendary 1959 Blues and Roots album, and Mary Bastian pranced in swingin’ ahead of a line of women – Reikersdorfer, Rogers, Michaela King, Mia Sanchez, and Kelanie Murphy – wearing short black dance dresses and reveling in the sound, digging hips and shoulders into their jivey moves.  Murphy’s solo was the standout here.  Grinning and delighted with herself she lept and spun, pushing through space – woman, dancing.
While Hefko’s piece was reminiscent of Balanchine on Broadway,  Stephanie Martínez’ “Non è Normale,” originally commissioned by Joffrey Ballet Chicago in 2015 and set for this show on
Quirk and ensemble, "Non è Normale" © Kat Stiennon 2018
eleven of Madison Ballet’s dancers, was angular, percussive, gestural, contemporary. Mylar-sliver skirts (on the women) and tights (on the men) caught the light, charging the atmosphere with visual electric buzz. The first segment was filled with  shifting patterns. Three men joined a line of women, morphing the movement into multiple pas de deux with changing partners.  At one point Erickson dipped Elisabeth Malanga into a deep penché and then zipped her into the air for an Italian pas de chat, that little kick at the end coming through like an electric shock.  There was a lovely pas de trois for Quirk with both Johnsons (Shea and Damien), who swept her high into the air.
Suddenly – like the break in Hefko’s piece – the flow stopped short and Murphy scored again, this time with Jackson Warring in the spunkiest little jitterbug ever. He slapped her butt, she kicked
Non è Normale © Kat Stiennon 2018
him in the chest, then wrapped her legs around his waist and pumped her fist in the air in triumph as he whirled her around.
The ensemble flow resumed, with a whole string of new patterns that rested smartly on the steps in the first two movements. 

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