Effortless dancing from Butler.
Madison Ballet closes its 2013-14 season with Repertory II, a program at the Bartell Theatre. It has three works, two from artistic director W. Earle Smith and one from iconic choreographer George Balanchine, and features former New York City Ballet principal dancer Charles Askegard. The last two performances are on Saturday, March 22, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Smith's 2006 piece "La Luce d'Amore" (The Light of Love) has been reworked for the Bartell's Drury Stage, but it feels a bit dated. While always a pleasant and well-danced work, the opening-night performance started to get a bit tedious with its barrage of Italian music and fluttering hair ribbons. Olive Garden commercials came to mind, and how sometimes this type of music feels like cheesy shorthand for conveying a sun-dappled frolic in Tuscany.
On the bright side we get to see very talented young dancers from Madison Ballet's school. They showed strong technique and held their own onstage with the company members. Other lovely things about "La Luce d'Amore" were Morgan Davison's breezy solo "Danzqa," and Rachelle Butler and Richard Glover's tender and romantic pas de deux to Caccini's "Ave Maria."
For me, this piece was about the small details, even though the bigger ones were nicely done as well. One lovely moment was when Butler's foot slid gingerly back to earth after a high passe in a sequence with a percussive arabesque. But it was a careful and quiet pause that said the most about the dancers' relationship to each other. The work's pas de deux is in Smith's sweet spot in terms of choreography, evoking romance and underscoring his musicality.
My hackles were up during the finale to "La Luce" because things took a turn toward the cutesy. There was a moment when the dancers started clapping, and the audience was invited to clap along. Though the dance was a lively tarantella, this move seemed a little disingenuous.
Last spring Madison Ballet capably presented its first Balanchine work, "Valse Fantasie," validating its status as a solid regional ballet company. This weekend, is a rare opportunity to see a Balanchine piece -- "Who Cares?" -- performed locally. Staged by Michelle Gifford from the New York City Ballet, this streamlined concert version of the original, which premiered in 1970, is playfully romantic and features a lush Gershwin score.
Askegard performs every male role. He is paired with Marguerite Luksik, Shannon Quirk and Butler, and he dances a swingy solo of his own, which is all smooth moves and laid-back command of the stage. The consummate partner, he showcases each of the female dancers' qualities. I never worried about him supporting the other dancers in demanding lifts, turns and dives. This allowed the women to commit more to the rigors of the work and develop their characters.
Quirk shines brightest here, perhaps because she most closely resembles a Balanchine ballerina. (I kept thinking of my obsession with New York City Ballet's Heather Watts during my youth.) Her legs are shapely daggers, and her bright eyes shine above her broad cheekbones. She was the most comfortable with sinking into her hips for shifts in weights and balances, as well as the off-kilter, sky-high extensions and the slinkiness and complexity of intertwining limbs. Luksik reveled in the lighting-fast demands of "Fascinatin' Rhythm," with its potentially confounding sections of petite allegro. She whipped out a series of good turns and changed direction on a dime. Butler fared well in the beginning of her solo but then started to unravel a little bit. She seemed confident again when paired with Askegard, though.
Smith's new offering, "Groovy," is set to '60s music with kaleidoscope colored costumes. There are kicky little dresses for the women, with bright tights and pointe shoes dyed to match perfectly. Sadly, the men are saddled with unfortunate and unflattering pants. The intent, I believe, is to let the audience feel like it has stumbled upon a groovy happening where friends gather together and are inspired to hop off of their floor pillows to start dancing to the hits of the era.
Sometimes this worked perfectly: Quirk's solo to the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" was excellent. Even though she's doing astonishing things technically, she still manages to look like a gentle hippie girl dancing on the beach. There was also a sweet and spirited pas de deux from McKenna Collins and Andrew Erickson to "Everybody Loves a Clown." Luksik's silly and frenetically fleet-footed "Red Rubber Ball" was enjoyable as well. Other times things felt flat (like when Butler had to play the wasted party girl) or felt forced (like the feigned wild abandon in the finale to "Devil with a Blue Dress On"). A friend of mine pointed out that when ballet dancers are called upon to do social dances like the Pony and the Jerk, it can feel too measured and contained. Luckily, some of the company members were able to really let loose.
If you've been curious about seeing ballet performed but feared it would be too stuffy, this program is accessible and inviting. You might enjoy seeing the dancers warming up in costume before performing. The intimate performance space is enjoyable, too. While the performers make the dancing look effortless, being able to hear their breathing makes you realize the demands of their craft.