'Go, attack! Commit to that pas de basque! Dance it!'
W. Earle Smith, artistic director of Madison Ballet, leads a Cinderella run-through in his cheery yellow studio over Westgate Mall. Sweat flies off dancers' faces, and the work's about to pay off ' the curtain rises on a full-scale, high-value production on March 31 and April 1 in Overture Hall. Joffrey Ballet conductor Leslie B. Dunner and the Madison Symphony Orchestra bring Prokofiev's lush score to life. The upscale sets and costumes were purchased for the '05 premiere of Smith's Cinderella from his former home, Texas Ballet Theater.
As in '05, Madison girl gone pro Genevieve Custer has the title role. Custer, who's freelancing after two years with Oakland Ballet, never fails to sparkle on her hometown stage. Last time around, Cinderella was pretty much Custer's show. Two years later Smith's studio company is more developed, so expect a richer production.
Smith's flamboyant take on George Balanchine's famous style is finally rubbing off on his eager corps of young local dancers. He imbues the master's essential neoclassicism with a campy sense of fun. His Thursday night company classes are tough and fast-paced. Dancers bite their lips in utter concentration through barre, adagio and pirouettes. Smiles finally break out as class wraps with a big throw-the-technique-away-and-go grand allegro.
Like Balanchine and his taste for Broadway jazz, Smith's got a soul jones. 'Let's hear some gospel!' he'll say, punctuating with an excited clap. Everyone grins. In a typical class finale the accompanist fires up a boogie-based 'Amazing Grace.' Smith marks out a step ' glory arms over a beat-switching 16-count combination ending in leaps. 'Oh, let's end with a Suzanne Farrell flip!' he'll decide, flinging his arms overhead and thrusting a hip in homage to Balanchine's main muse and prima ballerina.
'It's not sleazy, it's slinky!' Smith's likely to yell as dancers swoop down the long floor, executing the pattern. 'Let the soul out! Don't do those balancÃs like a UW pom squad!'
Before the final reverence he lays out the lesson in this madness, which goes like this: 'It's fine to get loose, but the point is to put that kind of energy into true classical ballet. Imagine applying that amount of oomph to a white swan. That's what it's about. You gotta let it rip!'
Will the Madison Ballet Studio Company rip on Overture's stage? The 32-member troupe of teens is a mixed batch, though if they're as generous in performance as they are in class they'll all look pretty good. But there's a hierarchy, and at the top this season is Rachel Butler, who's been traveling around the country auditioning for apprenticeships with professional companies between rehearsals.
'She's ready,' Smith says. 'I consider her a professional. She's in love with dance. It's a treat to have her in this production.'
In Cinderella, Butler's both Spring Fairy and Spanish soloist. At a rehearsal, she goes over a fairy waltz. Smith's doing the steps in front so she can track his style. 'Calgon, take me away!' he sighs, sweeping into a balancÃ. Butler absorbs the fabric softener suggestion, floating over her steps.
Butler, 20, is just back from an audition with Sacramento Ballet and off to another with North Carolina Ballet before Cinderella. She was 13 when she joined Smith's studio company in '99. A year later she took the Philadelphia-based, Balanchine-oriented Rock School's prestigious summer program. 'They asked me back on scholarship for the whole year. I was 14. I was there two years. At 16 I went to Miami, but I ended up with an injury. I spent three years with Ballet Chicago [the Windy City's Balanchine-based pre-professional school and company], but I had so many injuries and problems, I wasn't happy.'
Smith offered to work with her while she was looking for a job, so she came home this year. It turned out to be a great move. 'I've dealt with so many dance teachers who are horrible to work with,' Butler says. ' Earle isn't like that at all. For the first time in ages I feel like I'm respected as a dancer.'
Another dancer to watch in Cinderella is Maddy Kasprzak, 16. 'Maddy's got lots of guts,' says Smith. 'She was 10 when she auditioned for the studio company. She was half the size of everybody else. She wasn't ready, but she kept coming back. She got in when she was 13.'
At the end of her first studio company year Kasprzak was champing at the bit to go to Ballet Chicago. The School of Madison Ballet opened just in time to keep her here during the year. But like Butler, she seeks out summer intensives at the country's top schools. Last year she went to San Francisco to work with Alonzo King, who's brought ballet into the 21st century. This time, she's going to Alvin Ailey's studio in New York.
Kasprzak is the harlequin in Cinderella, for the second time. 'The choreography's pretty much the same,' she says, 'but I've matured as a person and as a dancer, so it's a completely different ballet for me,' she says.
New for her is the Fall Fairy role. 'I rechoreographed it to suit her,' Smith says. 'She's a phenomenal jumper and turner. She's got a lot of fire, and she's growing fast ' she's learned to dance outside the box this year.'
I look forward to the time when Butler and Kasprzak, like Custer, now 25, come home to Madison as guest artists. Growing up, Custer studied with Charmaine Ristow of Ballet Madison and Kate McQuade, currently on the School of Madison Ballet faculty. At 15 Custer went to Ballet Chicago. She stayed five seasons, while doing summer intensives with Suzanne Farrell, American Ballet Theater and San Francisco Ballet Theater. She signed a contract with Oakland Ballet, but a year later the company went on hiatus, came back briefly, then went belly up.
Today, Custer freelances. Her frequent guest appearances with Madison Ballet give her a base. 'I get to come home during the year. I get to perform with live music ' Madison Symphony or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra ' and you don't find that everywhere. I've been able to structure my own season and get really challenging roles. I did Dracula with Inland Pacific Ballet for the second time this season. Right before that I performed with San Francisco's Dance Through Time at the Napa Valley Mozart Festival. I did Nutcracker here and a 'Salute to Vienna' New Year's performance in Calgary. After Cinderella, I'm dancing in a new work by Ballet Chicago director Daniel Duell for the studio company's 10th anniversary. It's been a busy year.'
Custer and regular pas de deux partner David Bier of the San Francisco Opera Ballet Company, who reprises his Prince Charming role in Cinderella this weekend, started rehearsing in San Francisco in February. Memory and a DVD of the '05 production were their guides. For the last three weeks Custer's been in Madison, rehearsing with Smith several hours a day.
'Going back to a role that was choreographed on you is always a treat,' she says. 'Earle was pretty happy with it the first time, but he's tweaking little things. Overall it'll be more polished. You always get to go in a little deeper and put a nicer finish on everything the second time around.'
For a new touch this year, guest artist Jennifer Tierney, who's danced with Milwaukee Ballet and Oakland Ballet, brings strong, lithe technique to the Fairy Godmother role. Tierney made her first guest appearance with Madison Ballet last year in Smith's 'Night Dances,' showcased in the Valentine's Day repertory concert 'Evening of Romance.'
Local actor/dancer Cindy Severt returns as the tailor. 'She's wonderful in that fat-suit character,' says Smith. Veteran Madison actor Patricia Whitely's back as the wicked stepmother. And there are swarms of little bugs, vegetables and timekeepers ' 152 roles in all (Nutcracker has more like 190, Smith says).
Smith's having fun with this production. 'It's nerve-wracking to mount a brand-new ballet, but now that we've done this one and we know how everything fits on the Overture stage, it's a pleasure. This time, I get to make little refinements, change a step here and there to show off a dancer, or just decide on a whim to try something different. That's how ballets evolve.'
Like Cinderella, Madison Ballet, an Overture resident organization, is evolving. 'We're financially stable,' says executive director Brian Johnson. 'Ticket sales for Cinderella are okay, though the performance dates coincide with the first weekend of spring break, which makes reaching our 75% capacity goal for the two performances challenging. Nutcracker ticket sales were up 6% over last season.'
Making ends meet as an arts organization is always a struggle, Johnson says, but Madison Ballet's fared pretty well. 'Financially we're probably somewhere on the front side of middle in the pack of local arts groups. We currently have no debt and are projecting a modest cash surplus for the year, which sets us up for another round of substantial growth in '07-'08. We have a good plan, and we've been able to execute it, so far.'
Madison Ballet's been moving forward at a steady pace. 'In the last two years we've done some huge milestones,' Johnson says. 'Overture's opening, a new Nutcracker, a new Cinderella, two repertory evenings last season, and opening the School of Madison Ballet.'
The school, offering six levels of pre-professional training, officially opened its doors in fall 2005, with 100 students. That number's since doubled. Smith added a boys' class to the curriculum this year. The children's and open divisions are thriving: The former has programs for kids 2 to 6; the latter, Smith says, 'has classes for all levels, from adult beginners through those of us aging dancers who still can't put our dance clothes away.'
This year the organization aimed for stability, letting the school flesh itself out and doing Cinderella again. But big changes are on the horizon. To fatten up the organization's finances and fuel its next round of growth, there's a major high-profile, nonprofit fund-raiser in the works ' a November holiday market extravaganza at the Alliant Energy Center.
Starting in '08 Madison Ballet's summer program goes national, with a competitive lineup of guest faculty. And for its spring '08 show Smith's choreographing a new Peter Pan production. Flying by Foy, the theatrical effects company that flew Mary Martin, does the magic for this show.
That's not all, Smith says. Stay tuned for surprises. 'We're making some philosophical changes in how the organization is managed artistically, so we can take it to the next level. I've been pacing things ' I don't want to bite off more than I can chew ' but I've got to keep up with Madison's growth. The ballet audience is growing, and I want to constantly whet its appetite.'