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Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009

‘The Nutcracker’ Showcases Milwaukee Ballet’s Talent

Wonderful dancing in Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic

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One of the great pleasures of my new job as dance writer for the Shepherd Express has been discovering the 21st-century iteration of the Milwaukee Ballet Company. I had eight years of ballet classes as a child. I actually danced in a college musical choreographed by Yuri and Judy Gottschalks (who were among the founders of the Milwaukee Ballet), but was too preoccupied with survival to check out their company when I moved to Milwaukee. I put off eating to see American Ballet Theatre at Uihlein Hall in the 1970s. I’ll never forget those performances of Balanchine’s Apollo and Jewels, Tudor’s Lilac Garden, and Swan Lake with Natalia Makarova. I saw Margot Fonteyn dance here in that period. For many years, while performing experimental theater around the United States and Europe, I enjoyed dance companies of all kinds.

But it was only in the 1990s, I’m ashamed to say, when a friend got me in for free, that I saw the Milwaukee Ballet. The show was beautiful but somehow remote or, anyway, not exciting enough to hook me. But now, after seeing Michael Pink’s smart, welcoming Cinderella as danced by the current company, I’m a cheerleader for the group. So if you’ve been feeling too avant-garde, or too broke, to see the Ballet, I urge you to get over it. At 20 bucks, it’s not expensive.

Yes, you may say, but The Nutcracker?

Reinventing that ballet was not on Michael Pink’s list of dream projects when he arrived from Britain to take the job of artistic director in 2002, but the existing version fell short of his standard. He also understood that, much more so than in Europe, Americans have embraced this Russian ballet as a holiday tradition. He believes the reason people want to see it every year is that it’s become generational: Adults who grew up with it want to bring their children. He’s met Milwaukeeans who swear they’ll never attend a ballet, but when he mentions The Nutcracker, add: “Oh, we see that every year!”

Another story: When I was a teenager, an elderly man, about whom I strangely remember nothing other than this incident, asked me if I liked Tchaikovsky. “No,” I said with a shudder, “I’m over him.” The man, a prophet, was kind: “Trust me. You’ll come back.” Today I understand why the choreographer Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker has a dancer start madly conducting “Waltz of the Flowers” at that tune’s climax, as though no dancing could possibly match its glory.

I’ve learned that dancers need the impossible. Pink explained that in order to keep great dancers here, it’s essential to challenge them with difficult choreography that allows them to expand their skills and grow as artists. The Nutcracker is the only long run of the season, so it’s the sole opportunity for a variety of company dancers to play the principal roles. It’s crucial to the company’s artistic survival that the choreography take them to their limits and beyond. It’s also the best chance for children in the Ballet’s school to get performance experience. Sixty children have roles. In Cinderella, I was impressed by Pink’s refusal to patronize or exploit the child dancers, whose futures are in some way at stake.

Art can change the world in many ways.

Pink’s Nutcracker narrative offers two sets of children, one teenaged, one younger. Clara, to whom the toy maker Drosselmeyer gives the nutcracker as a holiday gift, and her brother Fritz are young enough to experience the show’s dream journey as a giddy adventure. Pink believes children of that age would never sit quietly during the Act Two dances set to the ballet’s most famous music, so he has them interfere in various ways. Drosselmeyer brings not just the nutcracker, but also his teenaged nephew Karl, who has a soft spot for Clara’s older sister Marie. Karl and Marie take the journey, too, but for them it’s a love story. They get to dance the grand pas de deux with its music to die for.

Act One lets us come to know and care about these people; plus, it offers the giant rat battle and the toy train flight to the Land of Snow.

So, I think, yes, The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker runs Dec. 11-27 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.