This Improv-Dance Spoof Wants to Make the Highfalutin World of Ballet Hilarious

Danceworks’ ‘Mad Li(m)bs’ combines ballet with improv comedy to spoof the world of dance.

Dying is easy; comedy is hard.

Who ever said it (and apparently, no one actually did), they likely weren’t thinking of Giselle. The heroine of one of the great classical ballets does indeed die at the end of Act One, but that doesn’t stop her from being the centerpiece of Act Two.

And it didn’t stop Danceworks Performance Company from finding some giddy comedy in the story, turning a spoofy Giselle into the centerpiece of their first concert of the season, Mad Li(m)bs. With the title role played with deadpan elegance by Melissa Anderson, “Giselle Redux” is staged as a demonstration-lecture courtesy of a bespeckled Jason Powell, who plays an academic fond of quoting A-list philosophers like Michel Foucault and translates the story for the “unwashed hoi-polloi.” Giselle’s rivals dance their rivalry in styles suggested by the audience (Sunday night, it was disco vs. jazz), and one of her suitors is costumed by an audience member, who picks clothes from an onstage rack. When the mysterious spirits called The Willis appear to coax her from her grave, they move like hip-hop krumpers rather than a Petipa-schooled corps.

Jason Powell and Melissa Anderson moderate the aerobics contest. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Spoofs, audience suggestions and other improv games are the centerpiece of Mad Li(m)bs and were peppered through the program. Sunday night, some landed right on target, and some fell flat. But improv theater is all about that tricky blend of risk and joy. Powell’s comedy style is by turns corny and surreal — a little Milton Berle here, a little Monty Python there. How else to characterize an aerobic dance competition in which dancers worked animal behavior into their routines? Or a folk ballad that chronicles the life of a man who lived in reverse, beginning with rising from the grave, and ending with a delivery-room slap on his bottom.

Kim Johnson and Andrea Moser. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Whatever the comic stylings, Mad Li(m)bs didn’t skimp on dynamic movement: Anderson’s grace dancing the more traditional steps of Giselle, Kim Johnson’s hilarious turn as a grimacing Russian dancer inspired by an Osterizer, Morgan Williams’ stunning athleticism. Dani Kuepper’s opening “Stagnating, Regressing, Advancing (Remix),” features lovely ensemble tableaux before it is eventually turned on its head by Powell’s and cohort Andrea Moser’s intrusions from the audience.

But this night is all about the comedy, and Powell and company are just dying to make you laugh. For despite the highfalutin place of dance and ballet in the entertainment hierarchy, it is still entertainment, during which audience members like Powell and Moser occasionally munch potato chips, whisper loudly and take bathroom breaks. Mad Li(m)bs reminds us that all of us — accomplished dancers, fumbling audience members and even The Willis — are reassuringly human.


Go See It: Danceworks Performance Company at Danceworks Studio Theatre (1661 N. Water St.) ; 8 pm, Thurs., Nov. 6; 7:30 pm, Fri. & Sat., Nov. 17 & 18. 



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.