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Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010

Milwaukee Ballet’s ‘Esmeralda’ Revisits Notre-Dame

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The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was the title given to Victor Hugo’s landmark 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris for its London publication. Michael Pink used that title when he turned Hugo’s story into a ballet in 1997. The ballet has been danced under that name by various companies, including, in 2004, the Milwaukee Ballet. But Pink was never completely happy with his work. Now he’s taken the time to redo it, and he’s renamed the ballet after Hugo’s actual protagonist, a gypsy woman who fights on behalf of outcasts against powerful representatives of church and state in medieval Paris. The Milwaukee Ballet will present Pink’s new Esmeralda Oct. 28-31 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

In addition to Hugo’s compelling romanticism, there is much to recommend Esmeralda. The composer is Philip Feeney, Pink’s longtime collaborator, most recently on Peter Pan. The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra will perform it live. The scenic and costume designer is another of Pink’s acclaimed English colleagues, Lez Brotherston, who won a Tony Award in 1999 for his ingenious designs for Matthew Bourne’s remarkable reimagining of Swan Lake with male swans. The lighting designer is David Grill, who did breathtaking work on Peter Pan and Cinderella last season.

Luz San Miguel, brilliant as Tinkerbell last spring, will dance Esmeralda alternately with Julianne Kepley, a new leading artist with the company. Kepley originated Juliet in Pink’s Romeo and Juliet for the Atlanta Ballet and danced it here as a guest. Patrick Howell, David Hovhannisyan, Ryan Martin and Michael Linsmeier will dance the male leads.

Pink talked about his choreographic process. He’s aware that some people feel his ballets lack a sufficient amount of classical steps; others, that the dramatic skills of the dancers can carry more punch than the choreography. Regarding the first criticism, he notes that the classical vocabulary is limited and that dancers in classical works typically repeat every movement many times. He compares it to a play in which actors say the same lines over and over. Pink’s inspiration comes from the source text. His movements express the characters’ subtexts. Duets are evolving dialogues. At this point in his deepening artistry, he’s asking the dancers to execute his movements with greater precision and clarity, and to refuse to use emotion as a gloss. The new Esmeralda, he says, makes such great demands on the dancers that stamina is as much an issue as precision.
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