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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012

Milwaukee Ballet's Winter Brilliance

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The three world premieres in the Milwaukee Ballet's moving Winter Series at the Pabst Theatre last weekend deserve many more performances, but it's hard to believe they will ever be better cast.  Each wildly different, highly individual, contemporary once-act ballet was created from scratch with these performers, so an organic quality and sense of authenticity can be expected, but these choreographers were also perfectly cast, so to speak, for the company's strengths.

Petr Zahradnicek knows the dancers' abilities well from six years of dancing with them.  Autumn Leaves, premiered in this concert, is the most perfect of his choreographic works that I've had the honor to see.  As music, he chose the French composer Gabriel Faure's "Songs for Voice and Piano."  The warm beauty of the songs is grounded in sadness.  Pianist Steven Ayers with singers Erica Schuller, Kristen DiNinno, Matthew Richardson and Dan Richardson, also known as the Florentine Opera Studio Artists, performed the songs live with skill and sincerity, a perfect complement to the dancers above and behind them.

Dancer Nicole Teague was a magnificent MC and force of nature whose touch changed the seasons and brought romance, hope, sorrow and healing, as the seasons do.  Raven Wales and David Hovhannisyan danced with abandon as lovers ultimately separated by death, intensely personal and forceful in what might have been generically romantic roles.  Susan Gartell, Rachel Malehorn, Justin Genna and Alexandre Ferreira were excellent as their community of friends. This is Ferreira's first season, but he seems indispensible. The obvious presence of an actual community onstage gave substance to the work's hopeful view.

Guest choreographer Brock Clawson's unforgettable Crossing Ashland was about big questions. It began with a man alone in a spotlight almost levitating though his own physical energy like a plant desiring sun.  Others arrived in couples and small groups, dancing big, gorgeous movements in tight costumes with bared arms and legs.  Soon, along the back of the stage, the same dancers in street clothes crossed like big city pedestrians.  Crossing, they showed us what we look like; dancing, they showed us the enormity of what we feel.

What seemed at first pure dance gathered language-meaning in a ravishing duet by Courtney Kramer and Marc Petrocci:  it may be possible to thrive in the radiant energy, so to speak, of another human being, but it is also frightening.  Clawson's choices of music demonstrated a great knowledge of contemporary composition and served his ballet well as it swept along, gathering great power as the dancers seemed to see the world from new perspectives through the circling arms of others, or stood frozen in fear.

Fear was the character's base line in guest choreographer Mauro de Candia's astonishing, bold, immensely theatrical Purple Fools.  It began with a woman alone baring her teeth in a humongous yawn at the audience.  Five gleaming white wooden chairs were arranged on each side of the stage, front to back, as if in a ballroom.  The guests arrived in tuxedoes and black dresses, white faces and wigs filled with powder that burst in dry clouds from the tops of their heads with every sharp move.  Against a collection of nostalgia-inducing contemporary adaptations of classical favorites like "The Blue Danube," these faux-elegant fashionistas, these "more avant garde than thou" culture vultures, these undead succubae who'll suck you dry, were tragic, spoiled, vicious children—and hilarious!  It was impossible not to laugh at the audacity and endless invention of the piece.  The characters laughed without mercy at any mistake.  They mocked the audience. They growled and vomited and made death rattles like cats with hairballs.  I know these people.  If I become one, stake me.

All 10 dancers were insanely good.  Kramer, Teague and Isaac Sharratt were standouts.  Jason Fassl did great lighting all night.  Mary Piering and her Milwaukee Ballet costume shop are thrifty geniuses.
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