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Monday, Jan. 27, 2014

Milwaukee Ballet Two at the South Milwaukee PAC

World Premieres and a New Generation of Dancers

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I'm already looking forward to next winter when, if there's a God, Milwaukee Ballet Two will give its fourth annual concert at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center. There's nothing like it in Milwaukee's dance season. While providing Milwaukee Ballet's pre-professional company a grand way to gain experience, it offers audiences an enjoyable education in ballet's past and present.

 

The South Milwaukee auditorium is small enough to see the dancers faces, read their thoughts, feel their challenges, appreciate their skill and share their joy in dancing. For me this year, the big excitement was the choreography, all of it well executed by this good looking international company. There were radically contrasting world premieres by each of Milwaukee Ballet's two resident choreographers and the revival of a 2007 piece by master choreographer Michael Pink.

 

The evening started with no curtain speech. House lights dimmed as a young woman wandered onstage to the fading strains of an orchestra playing Cole Porter's "Begin The Beguine." The stage was bare but for a smartly lighted grand piano. The woman was dressed in a rose-colored gown that would have suited one of Fred Astaire's dance partners.

 

In silence, two young men in white dress shirts, black pants and cummerbunds took places. Other men and women arrived, eight in all. Already there were some mistakes in finding the right place and partner for what appeared to be a ballroom dance class. Everybody faced the piano. Accompanist Daniel Boudewyns entered and began to play his lush arrangements of a six great Porter songs, grounding "Another Show" in real place and time.

 

The infectious choreography by resident choreographer Petr Zahradnicek matched the music. What seemed a dance class quickly became a rehearsal, then a performance. In swoony Fred-and-Ginger ballroom style ballet with plenty of flash, the dancers performed as the people they are, managing emotions, working hard. We saw teamwork, friendship, loneliness, ambition, chagrin, naiveté, generosity. Always engaging, warmly sensuous, both nostalgic and contemporary, Zahradnicek's choreography zipped by. In its honesty, it set the tone for entire night.

 

Michael Pink created "Aubade" for the professional Milwaukee Ballet company of which he is, of course, artistic director. Its similarities to his famous full-length story ballets are fascinating. If not for this concert, I'd never know this work. Knowing it deepens the pleasure I take in all of his work.

 

Against a glowing red sky, seven men in khaki pants and shirts stand, backs to us, focused on something off-stage. By the finale, we understand that they are waiting for a signal to depart. Who knows where or why? One of them—Garrett Glassman, a stand-out performer all evening—begins to dance in rapid, sweeping movements as if releasing pent-up energy or holding some inevitable circumstance at bay through sheer vitality. Later, he abandons himself to one of three women who arrive dressed in green—Andrea Chickness, Alana Griffith, Makiko Sutani, all of them remarkable. They love these men. Clearly, they belong together but the women are left staring at that mysterious vanishing point offstage when the men have gone.

 

The dramatic orchestral score by Francis Poulenc is essential to Pink's almost pastoral depiction of anxious stillness, fierce vitality, eroticism and sorrow. The dancers lacked nothing in the way of technique and brought real feeling to their roles. In a dance as open to life and death as this one, I was conscious of their youth.

 

That youthfulness became the subject in resident choreographer Timothy O'Donnell "At World's End," a dance of survival in a too-imaginable future wasteland. The great electronic accompaniment by Olafur Arnalds included a childlike robot voice and lines like "...all I heard was the screaming silence of the wind...I will always remember this as our last, lost chance."

 

O'Donnell's choreography is smart, muscular, extreme in tempo and hellishly complex. The 20 black-clad, black-eyed dancers grabbed hold of it as if their lives depended on it. Confrontational at first, their eyes directed toward the audience, their bodies stretched as far as possible, draped, carried, interlocked, limbs extended past the possible, what seemed like tough brave individuals became instead a new generation of young people depending on each other, trusting each other, caring for each another and focused on a mission: making art. So the evening came full circle.

 

Two bright classical chestnuts were sandwiched between these contemporary ballets. "Pas de Trois des Odalisques" from Le Corsaire was perfectly danced by Andrea Chickness, Molly Huempfner and Marie Varlet. Hinano Eto and Kazuja Arima were brilliant in the difficult variations of Harlequinade. Kathryn Manger, Kaylee Vernetti, Isreal Garcia Chenge, Tony Sewer, Carlos Ruis, Jose Soares and Andrew Wingert were wonderful in other featured roles.

 

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