For most college students, going to the ballet isn’t exactly the first option that comes to mind when choosing what to do on a Saturday night. The music seems antiquated, choreography seems rooted in gender ideals of ages past and the dance itself seems to lack any interesting characterization.
When I saw a member of Madison Ballet’s company come rolling on to the stage in a bright yellow t-shirt and pants that physically embodied “Mr. Brightside,” as the infectious classic by The Killers concluded the evening, the company had thoroughly proven these assumptions incorrect.
Under the direction of interim Artistic Director Sara Stewart Schumann, the company dedicated their spring performance, “Emerging Voices,” with the intention to introduce different styles of ballet to the community in the intimate confines of the Bartell’s Drury Theatre. A diverse program, featuring a different choreographer for each ballet, accomplished these goals.
Antonio’s Vivaldi’s classic “Spring” from “The Four Seasons” rooted the evening in tradition. With pointe shoes and a clearly demarked pas de deux (solo duet) this piece was a refreshingly simple delight. But if one expected the rest of the ballets to remotely resemble this traditional dance, they would be in for a surprise.
Ballet master Tom Mattingly’s piece “Inflow” found inspiration in the astrological definition of the word, meaning the liquid energies that run between people in their relationships. The ease and tension choreographed into the work oozed out of the dancers, executing the contemporary choreography with unbridled passion.
Following this was guest choreographer Mariana Oliveira’s dance to Giovanni Pergolesi’s “Sabat Mater.” While a classical work is used to accompanying this award-winning piece, the ideas expressed in Oliveira’s choreography are anything but old-fashioned.
“I went to an exhibit of Gustav Clint’s work,” Oliveira said. “To me, it was interesting to see such fine lines, very delicate, conveying such a powerful image.”
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The corps of Madison Ballet broke new artistic ground in Oliveira’s piece, varying swiftly between crisp linework and gracefully soft movements.
After intermission, a unique collaborative piece choreographed by company member Andrew Erickson set a sort of choreographic poem to Schoenberg’s “The Book of the Hanging Garden” song cycle. While I am familiar with Schoenberg’s music, I find it almost unlistenable. However, the accompanying dance made it much more palatable. Guest artists Alicia Berneche and Mark Bilyeu did a fine job performing Schoenberg’s work live as Erickson and Kristen Hammer performed the choreography, with a shifting night sky providing an added cyclical scenic element to the piece as a whole.
Guest choreographer Hanna Brictson’s piece “On The Brightside” rounded out the evening’s entertainment in an upbeat and modern fashion, as an urban introduction was paired with “Mr. Brightside” for a uniquely invigorating number.
The key to Madison Ballet’s future success lies in programming pieces like Brictson’s alongside mainstays like their yearly take on “The Nutcracker.” As the costs to produce classical pieces are rising — which has resulted in numerous canceled productions for Madison Ballet in the past — “Emerging Voices” was the only other ballet offered by the company this year. Providing ample opportunity for new artistry, along with relevance for the young population of Madison, these dances come across as a complete hybrid of ballet, jazz and funk.
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Compellingly, the evening’s program had an added emphasis on the power of women. In her introduction, Stewart Schumann was not shy to announce that she left the Lyric Opera’s ballet to become a practicing lawyer. Female choreographers designed three of the five works on the program. Gretchen Bourg, Madison Ballet’s managing director, continued to be a strong presence in the audience of the run as well.
For Mattingly, this feministic influence is also vital for Madison Ballet’s appeal to modern audiences.
“It’s an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times,” Mattingly said. “One of the ways that I try to do that in my work is to facilitate the environment of women through choreography. Especially in classical ballet, the man is always leading the woman, the man is controlling pretty much everything the woman does … In newer choreography, I think it’s important that women not just be a passive participant in the art form.”
Mattingly added that he often includes women partnering the men and each other during his pieces, which looked beautiful and strong during the performance of “Inflow.”
Hopefully, Madison Ballet’s 2019-20 season will include more of these strengths and modern works as it continues to evolve in the Madison community.