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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Choreographer for hire
Maureen Janson cobbles together a dance career in an unlikely place: Madison
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Credit:Claude Heintz

It's dark in Lathrop Hall's Margaret H'Doubler Performance Space. From the shadows, Maureen Janson counts "four, five - go deeper into that plié!" Two dancers, lit by a single spot, sweating, start to laugh. They've run through this sequence a half-dozen times, but there's humor in perfectionism. Janson laughs too. She jumps into the scene, demonstrating with lean, muscular arms the quality she's looking for in this knee-bend move.

Janson is rehearsing "Catch and Release," which premieres at this weekend's UW Dance Program Spring Concert. It's a rare chance to see her work on campus. As a lecturer in the UW Dance Program and coordinator of dance and fitness for the UW's Division of Continuing Studies she can choreograph for this show, though the Fall Faculty Concert is reserved for academy elite. But that's okay. The freedom to freelance suits Janson's style - her artistic span stretches way beyond the underpaid, untenured, part-time faculty life.

If you've been following Mad City's Terpsichorean arts for any length of time you know that Janson's the artistic director of a local company called SMARTDANCE. But we haven't seen much of her troupe lately - the last time SMARTDANCE did a full program was during the Promenade Hall dance showcase for Overture's opening week in 2004. Supporting a dance company's been tough in the days of W. But that hasn't stopped Janson, who started using her head early in life.

"As a kid I excelled at standing on my head. It was entertainment for the adults. I'd do my handstand on the stairs and flip my way up," she says.

Gymnastics appealed to her, but Janson's parents (her mother acted in college and her father was a well-known Chicago actor) insisted on ballet classes at the neighborhood dance academy. The ballet barre quickly replaced the balance beam. As a fledgling bun head (hair pinned up, shoulder bag bulging with leg warmers and pointe shoes), Janson was at the studio every night, following after-school rehearsals for plays and musicals.

In the late '70s, as a high school senior, she toted her dance bag across town on the subway to the Loop studios of the influential Ellis DuBolay School of Ballet (which closed its doors in the '90s). "I also took class at Hubbard Street Dance, when it was still little and still on Hubbard Street," she says.

Janson enrolled in Indiana University's ballet program, where she studied with Paris Opera Ballet-trained Anna Paskevska. "She had very old-school Russian/French structure, but a contemporary mind. She was a big advocate of ballet technique as the foundation for all dance training, and she created pointedly modern repertory."

Working with Paskevska foreshadowed Janson's modern-dance conversion, but the actual shift came by chance. Post-college, she met Mary Ward, a former member of modern-dance pioneer Paul Sanasardo's company, in a Chicago ballet class.

"Mary had a ballet foundation and a body like mine - spindly, though definitely taller than me. She was teaching a modern class at Hubbard Street, and she had her own company. Modern wasn't my thing, but I really wanted to take her class. It took me a long time to work up to it. When I finally went, the first class was horrible. I couldn't grasp the combinations or concepts, but Mary was encouraging, so I went back."

Janson got hooked. A year later she was working with Ward's company. "That was the late '80s. I was close to 30. Subconsciously I was thinking, 'Okay, ballet performance is for young people.'"

So she ended up with a University of Michigan MFA in modern-dance performance and choreography. After graduation came the search for a tenure-track job and an underemployed gypsy life that slowly settled on Madison.

Before the 90s, Kanopy and Jazzworks were the only non-UW, non-ballet dance shows in town. Urban growth brought new dancers and choreographers to try their luck in our soon-to-be ex-cow town.

"I had a boyfriend here, and I wanted to see what the dance scene was like," Janson says. She networked like crazy, gathering up an eclectic group of choreographers for the Madison Dance Project, a small showcase at Kanopy's old Henry Street space.

"It was this smashing success. We turned people away. I was in the market for a tenure-track job, but I thought okay, there's an audience in Madison - why not send out résumés from here?"

The UW Dance Program had nothing, but Janson was persistent. "Sally Banes was chair. Every couple of months I'd send her an updated résumé, and after about a year she called to say there was an opening for a lecturer in modern dance. I said, 'Wow, why are you calling me?' And she said, 'Well, you keep sending me your stuff.' So I started in '94, at 20% employment. Since then it's gone down to 10%. But I stayed in Madison, and that's when I started SMARTDANCE."

SMARTDANCE was a success. Janson held regional auditions to find trained dancers. Among those who first came to town to dance with her was Kanopy Dance associate director Robert Cleary. With support from the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Madison Arts Commission and Janson's own pocketbook, the company had a good run.

"I produced us in Chicago and Minneapolis, and in New York at Eden's Expressway, one of the many performance lofts on Broadway. I maxed out my credit card, but life was interesting."

Times change. The new millennium political-economic shift made touring too expensive. The company went from a three-show local season to an event every two years. But Janson had met her match, UW Dance Program lighting designer/theater manager Claude Heintz. They got married in '05.

"I was committed to staying in Madison. I started pounding the pavement. I get the genes from that from my dad - his ability to survive as an actor. He was always pounding the pavement, looking for work. If I'm interested in something, I pursue it. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't."

Following her dad's footsteps in more ways than one, Janson went after work choreographing for theater. She landed an auspicious gig with American Players Theatre right off the bat, doing Midsummer Night's Dream.

Janson's been working with Spring Green's famous company ever since. "She's a core collaborator," says APT producing artistic director David Frank. "Maureen is very tuned to the esthetic of the play and has a special ability to make non-dancers look good. These are great actors, but dance is a scary departure from normal technique. She has a terrific ability to work with whatever movement skills they have. And to the vagaries of working with a set that's designed for drama rather than dance."

Janson agrees that choreography for theater demands entirely different skills than making stand-alone works. "My SMARTDANCE pieces are almost always narrative, in an abstract way," she says. "They're not concrete, but they have the shape of stories. I'm not a writer, I'm not interested in telling a specific tale. What I love is the idea of creating a story that can be interpreted in as many ways as there are people who see it."

Making dances for theater, Janson puts her own images aside. "My first consideration is style. I'll read the play several times, consider the story, research the details. What time period are we in? What country/world are we in? What are the relationships among the characters? What are the specific moments of action during the dance? Does the main couple meet for the first time? Or is the dance simply a celebration?"

Once Janson has grasped the basics she sets generic steps on the performers so they get a feel for the movement. Then she creates a road map for moving them through space.

"Somewhere in the process, the actors/dancers begin to infuse character into the movement, which leads to spontaneous changes. The music, costumes and sets also determine what's possible, so the whole thing is a joint effort. What's really cool is that the result is something new and unexpected. When I work on a theater piece, I know that my contribution will evolve beyond my original ideas. There's a lot of trust involved in this process."

Janson's first works for American Players Theatre launched a fruitful pursuit for more theater gigs. Today she regularly works with the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minn., Chicago's Artistic Home, the UW theater department and Madison Repertory Theatre.

And Madison Opera. "I'd danced in a few operas in my ballet days," Janson says. She approached the organization with typical determination. "I heard they were going to do Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. A friend of mine had just done it in San Diego. I knew it was a big dance opera, so I crafted a letter to [general director] Allan Naplan saying I really wanted to do the choreography."

It was summer 2006. "He called in September. I said great, you're calling about Pearl Fishers. No, it's more immediate, he said - we need someone to do Rigoletto right now. So we struck a deal. I did it, and loved it."

Janson's choreographed for Madison Opera ever since. For Rigoletto and Pearl Fishers she brought in her own dancers - it's the current incarnation of SMARTDANCE, she says. For The Tender Land this season she set movement on the chorus, instead of on dancers. "But I'm bringing dancers in for Lucia di Lammermoor [May 9 and 11, Overture Hall]. It's just a small dance, though. If you cough, you might miss it."

Freelancing is feast or famine, Janson says, but right now she's got a full meal on her plate. She's gearing up for a tasty season at APT, rechoreographing Midsummer Night's Dream and working with David Frank on The Belle's Stratagem.

Janson probably doesn't need to be a univeristy part-timer anymore, but she's happy to have fingers in so many pies. We're still sitting on the floor of H'Doubler Performance Space, long after the "Catch and Release" dancers have gone home. After our interview Janson's headed for Chicago, where she's doing choreography for On the Verge, directed by James Bohnen of the Windy City's Remy Bumppo Theater.

It brings her full circle, Janson says. "My dad had a massive heart attack in '06, in the middle of a performance of The Best Man at Remy Bumppo. The show had opened the week before and gotten rave reviews. The way he died was an incredible shock - he was just 72 and at the top of his game. I hear his voice a lot lately. My pull toward theater choreography is getting stronger. I'm just getting started in this direction. I haven't reached any sort of pinnacle yet, but in the meantime, if my work can evoke emotion, entertain people or tell a meaningful story, I'm content."

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