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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Among America’s Best?

Milwaukee Ballet at the top of the game

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Above us, the sound of feet is plainly audible. We’re sitting underneath one of the Milwaukee Ballet School’s studios in the the game office of the Ballet’s executive director, Dennis Buehler, along with the company’s artistic director, Michael Pink. At times the footfalls of the young dancers are competing with our conversation. They appear so light on Luhrssen their feet onstage, but from below they reverberate like a summer thunderstorm.

As it turns out, the soundtrack fits the discussion with the aptness of Tchaikovsky’s lilting score for The Nutcracker. As Buehler and Pink see it, the Milwaukee Ballet’s professional company is the eye in a pyramid whose elevation rises from a base of partnerships in the community and extends into the Ballet’s educational outreach and up through the Ballet School, which provides many opportunities for students to see the footlights.

At the end of the night, it may be about a great performance of Romeo and Juliet, like the one recently broadcast on Milwaukee Public Television. But the next morning it’s back to the task of building the support network, growing the ecosystem, that will help ballet flourish in Milwaukee. Education is vital.

“Over 50,000 people a year come to the Milwaukee Ballet,” Buehler says. “It’s a small part of our potential. We are working to communicate with a wider audience, to create community partnerships to expose more people to classical and contemporary dance.”

The British-bred Pink, who came to Milwaukee Ballet in 2002, has adeptly walked the tightrope between old and new, developing the company’s core repertoire while experimenting with contemporary work. The Nutcracker and Swan Lake will remain showpieces of the ballet and are the only dance concerts that some people will gladly attend. At the same time, ballet, like any art form, needs to grow in order to stay vibrant and alive, even if some of the offshoots lead to nowhere.

Under Pink, the Milwaukee Ballet has commissioned several world premieres each season. Next month, three premieres will be presented during a program titled “Milwaukee Ballet at the Pabst,” including one by Nelly van Bommel, winner of the 2007 International Choreographic Competition. Altogether the Ballet gives more than 40 performances per year and maintains its own orchestra along with costume, scenery and technical departments.

Enrollment is growing at the Milwaukee Ballet School, which offers recreational and professional classes for 3-year-olds through adults and will open a new studio in September at Sendik’s Towne Centre in Brookfield. In short, the Milwaukee Ballet has entered the upper tier of dance companies in America. It has attained a depth of professionalism and a scope of activities that groups in many bigger cities would like to emulate.

“Our audience is committed to traditional as well as contemporary dance,” Pink says, citing a recent study underwritten by the Herzfeld Foundation which shows that a plurality of ticket buyers are pleased with the company’s direction. “The community will support the full breadth of dance if we package our programs correctly,” Pink continues. “Sometimes we’ve had to drag the horse to the water, but once it started drinking, it came to trust our judgment. It’s because of the quality of the work and the performances.”

Pink remains dismayed by the lack of interest shown by Milwaukee Public Schools. Meanwhile, the Ballet has partnered with the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, Big Brothers-Big Sisters and many other organizations to bring new and younger faces to performances.

Earlier this year the Ballet received grants that have helped retire debt and expand its online presence. For Pink and Buehler it’s not just art for art’s sake. “We’ve got to make sure the powers that be focus on the amazingly positive things that are happening in Milwaukee,” Pink says. “Performing arts groups are financial and cultural assets. They help make Milwaukee a place of interest. The quality of life needs to keep pace with the rest of the world.”