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Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010

Reasons for Seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ Twice

A conversation with Milwaukee Ballet’s Michael Pink

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I look forward to my second viewing of Michael Pink’s The Nutcracker with the Milwaukee Ballet. Here are some reasons:

1) To see what I missed. So much goes on in Pink’s ballets that you can’t catch it all in one viewing. I ask Pink if he is revising anything. “No,” he answers. “Every year people tell me they’re convinced I’ve changed a lot, when I haven’t changed anything. They see it with different eyes.”

2) To puzzle the story. Like most productions, it’s based on the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Hoffmann’s child heroine is Marie; the original Russian production named her Clara. Pink makes Marie the older sister of Clara and younger brother Fritz. All three battle the mouse army and travel to the Land of Toys and Sweets, where dolls come alive and romance blossoms.

“It’s not believable that a middle-class German family at this time would have just one child,” Pink says. “And the fatal trap is to make Act One the story and Act Two the dream. I wanted justification for all that happens in terms of the characters’ psychologies and relationships.”

His version opens in a toyshop. Toy-maker Drosselmeyer and his nephew Karl, who is Marie’s age, gather toys—including a nutcracker shaped like a soldier prince—to give the children at a Christmas party where these two fellows are “guests of honor.” Drosselmeyer does magic tricks at the party and repairs the nutcracker when Fritz breaks it; but he’s also a real magician who can bring toys to life. Karl and Marie fall in love. Or is that a dream? Whose? Young Clara’s? The ballet ends with Drosselmeyer and Karl stealing into the night, leaving all three youngsters sleeping. Did this dream start when the curtain rose? “Who is Drosselmeyer?” Pink asks rhetorically. Good question.

3) To hear the glorious Tchaikovsky score performed live by the Ballet Orchestra with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. “Yes, but the crime of many productions,” Pink says, “is that they take for granted that the music and basic story will carry it, so they don’t even try to make sense of it.” Even Tchaikovsky, he points out, wrote the ballet chiefly to serve the Russian scenic designers. “It’s all about huge theatrical transformations.”

4) For the beloved dancers. “You see the uniqueness of each and every one, in small roles or large, always dancing with the same commitment,” Pink says. “I try to challenge every dancer. In The Nutcracker, you will see more dancers in featured roles. I can try out all my up-and-coming dancers in solo parts. In many companies, there’s an unbridgeable gap between the leads and the corps de ballet. The corps dancers never get the chance to understand their own talent, to develop the skills to analyze what they’re doing. Traditional corps work is unison and the steps are less complicated to achieve that unison; there’s lots of repetition: three times one way, change legs, three times the other way. My corps work is not easy; it’s about who they are as characters. The Snowflakes section, for example, is really difficult to dance because snowstorms are fast and fierce. The key is thinking the right thought—not only where the body should be, but what is the character thinking?

“All Milwaukee Ballet dancers can do the same things. All go back to being equal in the training that is a consistent part of every day,” Pink continues. “They work on their technique and really burn energy because generally their roles won’t let them. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. You work for consistency. Perfection doesn’t exist. In rehearsals, they have to show me that they can do 80% consistently.”

5) Those huge theatrical transformations. “Isn’t it nice to feel that in the midst of everything changing in the country, this is one of the few things you can trust? This show speaks for the quality and values of all our productions,” Pink says. “My Christmas wish is that people put their confidence in the company, not only in The Nutcracker.”

The Nutcracker
runs Dec. 10-26 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
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