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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Milwaukee Ballet’s Superb ‘Esmeralda’

Michael Pink scores another hit with moving cry against abuse of power

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After expressing unabashed enthusiasm for three of Michael Pink’s ballets last season, I came to the opening of Esmeralda in search of something I could criticize. No luck. On the contrary, this brand-new reworking of his 12-year-old ballet The Hunchback of Notre Dame (changed enough to warrant the new title) is magnificent. Every moment is rich with feeling and sense. With no showy stunts or self-conscious artiness, the choreography celebrates and challenges the virtuosity of the superb Milwaukee Ballet dancers. Pink uses classical ballet steps to communicate psychological states, and combines them with grandly physical movement of his devising that tells the story he wants to tell. Mime and dancing combine effectively; movement is in perfect service to characters, relationships and situations. There is often so much going on visually, aurally and kinesthetically—even in a solo dance or pas de deux—that your mind is spinning; but he’s also brilliant at drawing your attention to what counts.

Esmeralda
is a deeply felt retelling of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris and, like the novel, a moving condemnation of the abuse of power and privilege, a cry against all forms of discrimination. It’s a tragedy, a brutal ballet. An outcast by virtue of her race, the Gypsy Esmeralda is the only person who is kind to the feebleminded but spiritually noble (Hugo defined romanticism in France) hunchback, Quasimodo. Her opponents in a battle for integrity and life itself are an archdeacon of the Catholic Church, a captain of the Royal Guard and a barbaric populace. She is destroyed not by Fate (the word is ominously projected over a magnificent painting of Notre Dame’s exterior that filled the Uihlein Hall proscenium) but by venality, stupidity and sheer malevolence.

The opening-night cast was sensational. As Esmeralda, Julianne Kepley in her debut as a company member danced with perfect technique, gracefulness, gravity and clarity. David Hovhannisyan was, as he always is, a perfect partner. Ryan Martin and Patrick Howell were unforgettable as the beast-like Quasimodo and the truly beastly archdeacon, respectively. Both danced extremely physical roles with generous abandon and no trace of sentimentality. Deanna Stetsura and Marc Petrocci were excellent in smaller but crucial roles.

Also state of the art: Philip Feeney’s score as conducted by Andrews Sill, Lez Brotherston’s sets and costumes and David Grill’s lighting. Now if only everyone in Milwaukee could afford a ticket.
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