Madison Ballet wrapped up the season in Overture's Promenade Hall last weekend with Pure Ballet, the organization's first repertory concert in its new professional configuration. For Madison audiences accustomed to nothing but Nutcracker, the stripped-down format's an education. There's no story, no props, no sets - just dance, with all its effort and sweat.
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith hosted the program à la Masterpiece Theatre's Alistair Cooke, providing friendly, informative commentary about each piece. The dances ranged from splendid to tepid, but each provided a new perspective on the art of ballet - and the strong works prevailed.
Smith's opener, a showcase for Madison Ballet's Balanchine-trained soloists, was named for Bach's "French Suite No. 3," played live by Madison Ballet principal pianist Marina Hegge. Airy little dances were built on simple steps: piqué turns, soutinues, changements en pointe, with teensy little hints of Smith's taste for jazz. The dancers - Rachelle Butler, Katrina Oeffling, Nikki Wilson-Hefko and Shannon Yee, plus apprentice Beth Heneghan - are blessed with strong technique and individual spirits, making this cheerful piece of pure ballet both unified and diverse.
"Come Months, Come Away," a darkly Romantic, Martha Graham-based piece originally choreographed by Lisa Thurrell for Kanopy Dance, was an odd choice to set on the advanced student dancers of the Madison Ballet Studio Company. They pulled it off, thanks to their good classical training. But they were powerfully overshadowed by Kanopy dancer Lyndsey Groth, utterly regal in the principal role, crossing the stage in gliding half-runs, arms stretching eternally up toward the unknown.
A pair of excellent pas de deux embraced the spectrum of ballet. Chicago-based Dimitri Peskov's contemporary, Europe-influenced "Good Night" blended classical and quirky modern moves. This challenging love pas cast Nikki Wilson-Hefko and Bryan Cunningham - Peter Pan and Captain Hook in Madison Ballet's storybook production last month - in a very different light. Palpable chemistry embellished the play between Wilson-Hefko's athletic, catlike grace and Cunningham's punchy partnering.
Smith's Caccini pas de deux, to the Italian composer's "Ave Maria," was "Good Night"'s diametric opposite - pure neoclassical adagio. The strong-willed Rachelle Butler flaunted elastic lines, long extensions, luxurious penché attitudes. Cunningham, rock-strong, looked elegant in his creamy suit. Almost all of the movement was partnered in this short, lovely pas.
The dancers in Marlene Skog's "The Graces" were mismatched, distracting my eye from the finer points of this contemporary, abstract piece.
But Smith's "Concerto Veneto" made a fine finale for a successful season. Butler, Oeffling, Wilson-Hefko and Yee, in short white dresses, danced solo and in groups - arabesques, piqué turns, a few pas de chats. Cunningham partnered each in turn.
Cunningham, who's been tied up partnering all season, needs a big stage to show off his own long-legged chops. At least on Promenade's intimate black-box stage we finally got to see him toss off a double pirouette, a few tour jetés. But the best came last. All five of Madison Ballet's pro soloists danced a happy little step with Cunningham in the middle, grinning like a Cheshire cat.