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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Investing in the Future of the Ballet

Milwaukee Ballet’s season of premieres

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Photo by Jessica Kaminski
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Milwaukee Ballet’s success can be attributed, says Artistic Director Michael Pink, to the fact that “since about 2008 the company has continually invested in the future of the art form.” Indeed, the debt-free organization has met its multimillion dollar operating costs for the last six seasons by producing a stunning amount of world premieres in both classical and contemporary idioms, made with and for the dancers by choreographers of both genders and multiple ethnicities who are anything but complacent about ballet’s possibilities.

Even so, the flood of world premieres this season is unprecedented, starting in January with works by resident choreographers Petr Zahradníček and Timothy O’Donnell at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center and continuing in February’s “Winter Series” with premieres by choreographers Luca Veggetti, Gabrielle Lamb and the prolific O’Donnell, his second in under a month.

Now on April 3-6, the company’s “Spring Series” offers premieres by choreographers Matthew Neenan and Amy Seiwert. Each has had signature works performed by the company in past seasons. “I like to bring choreographers first with existing works,” Pink said, “and if the experience is something the dancers and I enjoy, it’s great to have them come back and create something new on our dancers.”

The haunted characters and high drama of Neenan’s The Last Glass elicited sensational performances from the dancers in 2012. The new work has a similar feel, Pink said. The music is by a genre-blending “little orchestra,” Pink Martini, who played at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater earlier this month in support of their new album with the Von Trapps (grandchildren of those Von Trapps). Neenan’s home company is BalletX of Philadelphia. He’s a rising national star.

The mix of classical tradition and experiment in Seiwert’s tender, deeply felt Mozart Requiem inspired ravishing performances from the dancers last year. This year, in deliberate contrast, she’s using music by the young Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, a former hardcore drummer who now makes driving chamber music for strings, piano and electronics. Coincidently, O’Donnell used an Arnalds composition to accompany his January work. “Choreographers tend to be drawn to the same things,” Seiwert said. “You want music that will take you on a journey but won't dictate where that journey goes.”

The pieces she’s using remind her, she said, of “the passing of time, of the planet changing, things going and coming.” She hesitates to define her subject lest her words interfere with the audience’s response. “When you create something, you give a gift,” she says. “You can’t decide how someone should accept the gift. My only hope is that it will be accepted, that people will respond. The work could be a mirror or shine a light on something people perhaps didn’t know they felt.” Seiwert works with San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet and also has her own experimental company, Imagery.

The “Spring Series” will include the Milwaukee premiere of Our Waltzes by Venezuelan choreographer Vicente Nebrada. Pink danced it with the English National Ballet in the 1980s. Nebrada died in New York in 2002. Pink worked with his estate for permission to recreate it.

The premier premiere of the season is Mirror Mirror, Pink’s reimagining of Snow White to music by Philip Feeney, his longtime collaborator and composer of Dracula, Esmeralda and Peter Pan. Performances are May 15-18, at the Marcus Center. Set and costumes are by Todd Ivins who has designed the spectacular musicals produced by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater for the last four years. Ivins’ costumes, seen in renderings, represent the haute couture of a timeless make-believe society. His abstract set consists of moveable shapes beneath a giant apple canopy. With David Grill’s lighting, the possibilities for beauty and terror are infinite.

At the center of the story is a mirror controlled by faceless demons. An ambitious woman named Claudia claims possession of it and becomes possessed by it. Yes, it’s that “mirror mirror,” but the ballet spends much time on an original backstory to the well-known tale of Snow White, much like Wicked does for The Wizard of Oz. Susan Gartell will play Claudia. A powerful actress and beautiful dancer, she’s long deserved a major role created for her. Nicole Teague, who was recently promoted to Leading Artist standing, will play Snow White. Mayara Pineiro will alternate in the role.

Pink speaks about transition: “The old team is moving on.” Many dancers have been with him for much or all of his 10-year tenure. Some are already gone, some are leaving, others are approaching retirement. Each departure is painful. For now, exciting younger performers like Teague, Pineiro, Alexandre Ferreira and Mengjun Chen are moving into principle roles while the “old team” is better than ever, bringing depth and wisdom to their work that only comes with experience.

“Spring Series” runs April 3-6, and Mirror Mirror runs May 15-18, at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N Water St. For tickets, call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.