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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013

Romeo’s Rivals in Courage

Davit Hovhannisyan and Alexandre Ferreira in Milwaukee Ballet’s ‘Romeo And Juliet’

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Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet unfolds over six days. The teenage lovers meet on Monday and on Saturday they’re dead. “Many productions miss the pivotal moments where it could have gone differently,” says Michael Pink, whose exciting choreography for Sergei Prokofiev’s musical rendering will be performed for the third time by Milwaukee Ballet on Oct. 31-Nov. 3. “In addition to youthful energy, you have to focus on the points of decision that change their lives.”

The dancers who will alternate as Romeo in Pink’s production made life-changing decisions as teenagers that rival their character’s.

Davit Hovhannisyan was born in Yerevan, Armenia. At six, he started ballet lessons. Under Armenia’s communist system, children who aspire to dance careers audition at age 10 to train with the Armenian National Ballet. He won that scholarship. The trouble was that Armenian boys must spend two years in the army after they turn 17, a crucial time in a dancer’s development.

At 15, Hovhannisyan found his passion. He was allowed to leave the country for ballet competitions. Inspired by dancers he witnessed, he states, “I got really serious about becoming good. I started training like crazy. Then I started to love ballet.”

He did an American tour with the Armenian National Ballet in 1999. He was 17. “They almost didn’t let me tour,” he says, “because I was so close to army age.” The last stop was Burbank, Calif. “I had to choose: either stay in the United States and find a way to survive, or go home to the army which would be the end of my career as a ballet dancer.”

He believes defecting was easier for him than for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, dancers who abandoned Russia for the West during the Cold War. Maybe. He was alone, illegal and, unlike those Russians, not famous. He didn’t know English. He stayed with acquaintances, worked in a carwash and restaurants. He was barred from Armenia; his family couldn’t come here. He had no way to dance.

At 18, he fell in love with Alisa, an Armenian-American. Three months later, they married. “She gave me confidence,” he says. “If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have gone back to dancing.” It took a year of hard training to get his body back in shape, several more to make an audition video to send around the country. In 2004, Milwaukee Ballet offered him a job. He didn’t know where Milwaukee was.

He was 22. He was quickly cast in principle roles that pushed him beyond what he’d trained for. He loves it here. He’s danced all of Pink’s important ballets; this will be his second go at Romeo. Now 31 and a full U.S. citizen, he and Alisa have four children. The oldest, Edmond, age 9, will dance in Romeo and Juliet, the first time father and son will appear together in a ballet.

Alexandre Ferreira will dance his first Romeo. He joined Milwaukee Ballet in 2011 at the age of 20. His story is no less a tale of courage and devotion, qualities so evident in both men’s dancing.

After his father’s death, Ferreira and his younger brother were raised by their mother in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The family is poor. An important dance school in Rio gave scholarships to qualifying public school children. At age 10, Ferreira won one almost on a lark. It let him travel and watch older dancers perform, as he says, “all the cool movements.” His passion was born.

After seven years of dancing in Rio, he received a scholarship to the Miami City Ballet School. “I turned 17 and three weeks later I left Brazil,” he said. “I didn’t speak English. Miami was good but I wanted something more intimate where you spend more time dancing and can be close to everyone.” Someone told him he would find that in Milwaukee. He has.

Until he qualifies for a green card, he must return to Brazil each summer to reapply for a work visa. He’s saving money to bring his mother and brother to see him perform.

Of Romeo he says, “You have to fall in love, lose your best friend, kill someone, run away, see your love dead; you go from bring the happiest you’ve ever been to losing everything. Also stamina-wise, it’s very difficult. I go to the gym every day at 7 a.m., then ballet class at 9:30 for two hours, then rehearse for six. I’ve been careful with my diet for three months—no sugar, no fried foods. I see this role as a big achievement for me. I’ve been working very hard for it.”

Romeo and Juliet runs Oct. 31-Nov. 3, at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.