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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014

New Dance from the Milwaukee Ballet

Performances at South Milwaukee PAC and the Pabst

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Milwaukee Ballet is doing something new and wonderful. In addition to creating ballets with the company’s forward-looking Artistic Director Michael Pink and the inspiring guest choreographers he brings in, the dancers are making exciting new works with two resident choreographers, Petr Zahradnícek and Timothy O’Donnell, who know their strengths and share their eagerness to break old boundaries. All of this will be apparent in exciting shows beginning on Jan. 25 with the apprentice company’s annual appearance at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center and continuing with the full company’s Winter Series at the Pabst Theater on Feb. 13-16.

First things first. This will be the third concert at South Milwaukee by Milwaukee Ballet II. MBII offers outstanding young dancers from five continents experience with a professional company. In last year’s SMPAC concert, the group nailed the tricky steps set to Gershwin songs from George Balanchine’s sparkling Who Cares?, as well as new works and classical pieces that would challenge the best professionals. Many current Milwaukee Ballet dancers arrived through MBII; some I saw first in South Milwaukee.

When Zahradnícek retired from dancing last spring, he was already established as a choreographer for Milwaukee Ballet and MBII. He’d made five works for Ballet Memphis. Last summer, he was one of four choreographers selected for the 10th anniversary season of The National Choreographers Initiative in Irvine, Calif. He’s choreographed for the Florentine Opera, Danceworks, Present Music and UW-Milwaukee. Married with two sons and studying architecture at UWM, he somehow also teaches at Milwaukee Ballet School, MPS’s High School of the Arts and Brookfield’s Academy of Dance Arts.

Education Director Alyson Chavez urged Zahradnícek to use live music for the South Milwaukee concert, the biggest MBII performance of the year. Milwaukee ballet accompanist Daniel Boudewyns suggested Cole Porter. He arranged a group of Porter standards for piano; he’ll perform on stage. Zahradnícek’s title and subject were inspired by the closing tune, “Another Openin’, Another Show.” Porter’s music, Zahradnícek feels, speaks of life in the theater. Another Show is based on Zahradnícek’s years of experience dancing with Milwaukee Ballet in anxious situations when dancers must overcome personal issues to give professional performances. “In my way,” Zahradnícek said, “I’m trying to address what Porter is saying in the songs about love, about screwing up, about improving. It’s about the dancers. Porter connects generations. His music is a constant in a changing world.”

MBII will also perform Michael Pink’s Aubade, a semi-narrative piece to music by Francis Poulenc about “devotion being torn apart” as characters are, however mysteriously, forced to separate. Two classical works—“Pas de Trois des Odalisques” from La Corsaire and “Pas de Deux” from La Esmeralda—will be performed along with a new work by resident choreographer Timothy O’Donnell.

“It’s not about anything,” O’Donnell said. “I have this futuristic world in my head. Lost. Trapped in a futuristic desert. I use the entire MBII company; I highlight everyone because they’re all great.”

The Winter Series will include the premiere of O’Donnell’s Talk To Me. “Only 7% of human communication is spoken,” he explains. “The rest is body language, facial expression and the ways we manipulate words to give them meaning.” Audiences, then, should feel at home with dance. The discomfort some feel about contemporary work, O’Donnell suggests, stems from several decades of work by choreographers seeking to alienate audiences, as though impenetrableness were a sign of seriousness.

Talk To Me has six parts. Some are duets about impediments to communication. One section is built from sign language. A highly physical section for men is a paralanguage of gestures. In a section that questions how the imprecision and speed of electronic communication affects us, dancer Rachel Malehorn (O’Donnell’s collaborator in this exploration) will deliver a text they’ve written. Each spoken word creates a step.

O’Donnell was a principal dancer with the West Australian Ballet when he won Milwaukee Ballet’s International Choreographic Competition in 2009. He returned to make a dance for Winter Series 2010 and joined Milwaukee Ballet in 2012 as a dancer and choreographer.

Gabrielle Lamb won the same competition last year with her tender surrealist ballet about collective creation. Her funny-sweet images haunt me. She’ll make a new dance for this show. Georgia born and New York based, her work is popular now with the cooler dance companies of America.

Italian choreographer and stage director Luca Veggitti has a résumé as stunning as I can imagine. A longtime friend of Michael Pink, he’ll premiere a work in the Winter Series inspired by the theoretical writings of the painter Wassily Kandinsky and set to music for viola and electronics by his friend, the preeminent composer Kaija Saariaho, a fellow Kandinsky fan.

MBII performs Jan. 25 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at the South Milwaukee PAC, 901 15th Avenue. Call 414-766-5049 or visit southmilwaukeepac.org. Milwaukee Ballet’s Winter Series at the Pabst Theater (144 E. Wells St.) runs Feb. 13-15 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 16 at 1:30 p.m. Call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org for tickets.

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