Madison Ballet stretches its legs with 'Spring Repertory'

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Madison Ballet’s Rachelle Butler. –PHOTO: J. Laaser

In spring, the young dancer’s fancy turns to repertory performances, at least at the Madison Ballet. The company, now in the midst of its 30th season, will explore new themes and showcase its skills during Spring Repertory, a two-part program of choreographic talent to be presented at Madison’s Bartell Theatre.

Repertory 1, with performances on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, highlights the choreography of Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith, UW–Madison dance faculty members Marlene Skog and Jin-Wen Yu, and former Madison Ballet company member Nikki Hefko. 

The complete program for Repertory 2, which leaps to the stage Feb. 21–22, has yet to be determined. However, one of the performance’s focal points will be George Balanchine’s Who Cares? That work is believed to have been inspired by George Gershwin’s 1937 invitation to Balanchine to come to Hollywood and work with the composer on Samuel Goldwyn’s Follies, according to Gretchen Bourg, Madison Ballet’s general manager.

“Unfortunately, Gershwin succumbed to a brain tumor before he completed the ballet music, but in 1970 Balanchine premiered Who Cares? to 16 songs composed by Gershwin between 1924 and 1931,” Bourg says. “The music perfectly evokes the golden era of the movies and includes American standards like ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Embraceable You.’”  

The works in Repertory 1 don’t have the same kind of historical interest, but the program promises to be interesting and widely varied, Bourg says.

“Repertory performances provide dance companies with lots of opportunities that they do not have with full-length story ballets,” Bourg explains. “Often, rep programs are used to present shorter works or to explore the work of other choreographers.”

The Repertory 1 program offers approaches that are both familiar and unique. Smith reprises his lush pas de deux to Caccini’s "Ave Maria," first premiered in 2008, and presents a new work, “Sonata No. 1 in F Minor,” choreographed in what has become his signature neoclassical style to the darkly emotional composition of Alexander Scriabin.

Jin-Wen Yu’s “Transit” is a four-section contemporary rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s tango music, inspired by the choreographer’s two years of travel in South America. Skog’s corresponding “Un-Tango” offers modern movements by two dancers performing to original music by UW–Madison dance faculty member Joseph Koykkar. 

“Nikki Hefko’s ‘Mandolin Amble’ serves as a playful finale to the program,” says Bourg. “A Baroque ballet with a twist, ‘Mandolin Amble’ is a delightful romp through Vivaldi’s beautiful and, at times, tense ‘Mandolin Concerto in C.’”

Repertory performances often serve as laboratories for trying out experimental approaches that deviate from standard ballets or dance episodes that eventually become full-length ballets. Repertory performances are becoming increasingly popular among dance fans. Ballet’s overall popularity also is on the rise, according to Bourg.

“I certainly think that there has been increased awareness of the art of ballet through its popularity in movies and on television,” she says. “I think that change was precipitated by dance companies and dancers really embracing new ways to present themselves to the public.”

The art form has benefitted from the beauty, athleticism and relative youth of its performers. Ballet companies’ use of social media has helped attract a younger following than many other classical art forms, she says.

“The perception that ballet is ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ is giving way to the understanding that it is a living, breathing art form that continues to evolve as our culture does,” Bourg says. “Repertory programs often are most exciting for people passionate about dance, because it’s where the art form really is pushed forward.”

On stage

For more about the Madison Ballet’s Spring Repertory 1 & 2, visit www.madisonballet.org.

Other companies, other ballets

Early spring is the prime time for ballet companies to experiment, expand their repertoires and allow their dancers to try new and innovative approaches. In addition to the Madison Ballet, two other area companies have upcoming programs of note.

The Milwaukee Ballet’s Winter Series: Pushing the Boundaries of Ballet occupies the Pabst Theatre stage for four performances Feb. 13–16. Acclaimed choreographer Luca Veggetti, Milwaukee Ballet choreographer-in-residence Timothy O’Donnell and Gabrielle Lamb, the 2013 winner of Milwaukee Ballet’s Genesis International Choreographic Competition, each will present ballets that push the limits of the genre. Go to www.milwaukeeballet.org.

Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet celebrates early spring with Contemporary Choreographers, three premiere performances by three dance masters. The performances, scheduled for Feb. 12–23, include Brock Clawson’s “Crossing Ashland,” danced to music by John Adams, Michelle McLaughlin, Martin Tillman, M83 and Jeremy Limb; Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum,” danced to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti; and Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31,” danced to the music of Mikael Karlsson, Ane Brun and Erik Satie. Visit www.joffrey.com.