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Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011

Milwaukee Artists Collaborate for 'Maria De Buenos Aires'

A pioneering, four-way labor of love

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“The public thinks artists can't work together,” says Richard Hynson, music director of Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, “but that's not true. If there is a good idea, artists are freed by it. There is immense respect between Milwaukee artists.”

In what is perhaps a pioneering collaboration, Danceworks Performance Company, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and UW-Milwaukee's Dance Department have joined to present the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla's ravishing, rarely performed music-theater piece Maria de Buenos Aires Nov. 10-12 in the spacious Calvary Presbyterian Church, 935 W. Wisconsin Ave.

The project was born from the desire of Milwaukee Opera Theatre's artistic director, Jill Anna Ponasik, to work with artists she admires on a worthy piece that none of them could do alone. Piazzolla composed his tango operetta for two singers, a narrator and an 11-piece orchestra: the traditional tango quintet of bandoneón, violin, guitar, piano and bass, with additional strings, flute and percussion. The bandoneón, an Argentine concertina, has a major role in the work. Milwaukee accordion virtuoso Stas Venglevski will play it, joining an A-list of musicians and dancers performing more for love than lucre.

With a tango-inspired text by Argentine poet Horacio Ferrer, the work is surreal. Simone Ferro, newly appointed chair of UWM's Dance Department and co-choreographer with Danceworks' artistic director, Dani Kuepper, describes the subject through the image of the lotus, “a flower born in mud, beauty in the midst of ugliness.”

“I am Maria, Maria tango, slum Maria, Maria night, Maria fatal passion, Maria love of Buenos Aires,” goes the text.

Ponasik calls it mystical. “Maria is summoned from the suburbs to the slums of a city center, a Buenos Aires of the mind,” she says.

Kuepper describes it in terms of the heartbreaking poverty in Milwaukee, and Hynson adds, “But there is art-making there, something sacred being born. Birthing is what the piece is about—the creative power of women over anything.”

Maria de Buenos Aires
premiered in 1968 as an oratorio for orchestra and singers. In this production, mezzo-soprano Nicole Warner will sing Maria. It's her fourth collaboration with Hynson, including a tour to Argentina, where both experienced late-night tango culture in the clubs. Milwaukee Opera Theatre's Nathan Wesselowski will sing “the reaction to Maria,” as Ponasik describes the multi-character male role. In a casting miracle, Daniel Helfgot of Buenos Aires will perform the Narrator. His international career includes 18 years as director of the San Jose Opera and extensive experience with Argentine music-theater.

Piazzolla always meant Maria to be staged, although it's not clear how. Ponasik and Wesselowski had teamed with Danceworks' Kelly Anderson two years ago to create 26, an original opera-dance experiment. That experience left them eager to work in a similar way with the entire Danceworks Performance Company (DPC).

Maria has dance threaded through every pulse,” Ponasik says. “The music is so visceral, so movement oriented.”

DPC agreed, and Kuepper approached Ferro, a native of Brazil and an expert in South American popular dance, to choreograph it with her. The company had presented Ferro as a guest artist and was looking for such an opportunity. The cast of 13 dancers includes Ferro and Kuepper along with seasoned and new DPC dancers and several of Ferro's students. UWM's Iain Court is the lighting designer.

“This is a perfect example of how deep and rich the arts are in Milwaukee,” Hynson says fervently. “I feel very privileged because each collaborating group brings not only high-quality artistry, but a deep commitment to this community. Working together, you get a sense of where each is going.

“It's a treat to feel that energy,” he continues. “This is in many ways the way of the future. Large institutions can't stay ahead of their overhead, but nimble, flexible small institutions can create incredibly unique productions.”

Performances begin at 8 p.m. and include an optional pre-show tango lesson at 7:15. For tickets, call 277-8480 ext. 6025 or visit www.danceworksmke.org.

John Schneider is a theater artist, musician, teacher and member of the
Shepherd editorial staff.
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