As far as Michael Pink is concerned, comparisons between him and Billy Elliott, the fictional lad from northern England who gave up boxing to pursue ballet, are purely coincidental. But as artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet, Pink has created a one-two punch during his nine-year tenure, coupling narrative with athleticism in ways that have turned the ballet into one of the city's performing arts heavyweights.
"The abundance of arts that we have here is excessive for a city this size, and I don't mean that in a bad way," says Pink, an Englishman who arrived in Milwaukee with his family in December 2002. "And the quality of those arts is exceptional and continues getting better."
The Milwaukee Ballet fits neatly into the city's artistic abundance, mounting five fully staged programs during the 2011-12 season in an economic environment that for many companies might support two or fewer productions. Holiday favorite "The Nutcracker," which runs Dec. 10-26 at the Marcus Center for Performing Arts' Uihlein Hall, doesn't even mark the mid-point of the season.
The boy and the ballet
Milwaukee's European feel and performing arts overload perfectly suit Pink, who was born into a theatrical and musical family in York in northern England. As a boy, Pink always knew he was destined for the theater.
"I asked my mother once what the most difficult discipline in theater was," Pink, 55, said over a cup of Earl Grey tea at Shorewood's The City Market recently. "She told me it was being a ballet dancer, so that's what I decided to do."
The events that followed read like a Horatio Alger story – if Alger had been a dancer. Pink applied for admission to a local ballet school and was turned down. He applied again and was turned down again. The instructor would not admit boys to her school, she said, because they were not serious and would not stay with the program. Pink applied again and was finally admitted. He was the school's only boy, and eventually its only student who performed well enough to be admitted to the Royal Ballet School in London.
Upon graduation in 1975, Pink joined the English National Ballet. In the ensuing 10 years he danced many of the company's leading roles, most notably in partnership with Natalia Makarova in performances of choreographer John Cranko's ballet of Tchaikovsky's "Onegin."
Learning from Nureyev
From 1986 to 1998, Pink served as founding director of Ballet Central in London and associate artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds. He worked with many of ballet's brightest lights during his dancing career. He was a repetiteur for Rudolph Nureyev, teaching the out Russian dancer's steps to performers at the Paris Opera and at La Scala in Milan.
"In working with Nureyev, I observed a man that was totally consumed with his art," Pink says. "He lived to dance, feeding off anything that would enrich his passion for all things artistic – objects and people alike. I learned from him the price of success and the need for finding a balance between your life and your art, which I do not believe he ever found. He gave me the confidence to be true to myself as a creative artist."
Pink knew early that choreographing ballet, something he does as Milwaukee Ballet's artistic director, would enable him to enjoy a longer career in the business he loved. He began entering choreography "compositions" in various contests early and earned accolades as well as awards. After a decade he stopped dancing and started teaching. Working with a composer at London's Ballet Central, he created numerous works of every conceivable style.
Choreography, he says, is a live art that in many ways is more difficult to create than other art forms.
"Creativity is the balance of artistic aspiration and audience expectation," Pink says. "A playwright works alone his room, an artist in his studio, but the choreographer has to create the frigging dance while everyone else is watching."
Unlike some choreographers, whose emphasis is entirely on the athleticism of the performers, Pink pays close attention to lighting, staging, costumes and properties to make the sure the performances' theatrical aspects are as convincing and supportive as possible. Perhaps most importantly, Pink develops programs with a narrative for his performers to follow – even if the dance has no story to begin with – in hopes of better reaching the audience.
"I try and imagine what the 'text' would be if we were speaking rather than dancing the parts," Pink says. "Even 'Nutcracker' requires a narrative through line, and if you look for it, you will find it."
What surprised Pink at first was how well his dancers took to the approach. Dancers are skilled athletes who spend their entire careers learning to manage their bodies, he explains. Once you expose them to the acting thought process and start training the mind in similarly expressive ways, they open up to what, for them, is a new discipline.
As a result, the audience is more responsive, because the dance communicates something they can relate to, Pink says. "The audience suddenly begins to hear and understand the unspoken words in the dance steps," he explains. "They begin believing and becoming emotionally involved with the story."
The emphasis on narrative even helps when there is a firm storyline already in place. Normally, the famous balcony scene in Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" is delicately danced, the principles turning away and looking back at each other with wistful, longing glances. Not so in Pink's more narrative-driven productions.
"These are teenagers who can't keep their hands off of each other," he says, "and when they kiss during the dance, they really kiss. There is no way to fake that."
Pink calls choreographers like Martha Graham and George Balanchine "dancemakers." Their approach, he says, is entirely original and advances the dance discipline. But much of choreography is more a matter of connecting the dots, choosing from a library of steps, moves and pas de deux that correspond with the music to which they are being performed.
The moves also are matched to the abilities of the performers and their relationships to each other. Pink stresses the development of the entire Milwaukee Ballet, rather than depending on one or two star performers to carry the company forward. He believes that a stronger company can survive even when a star performer burns out.
"The dance world has been in a holding pattern for 15 years," Pink says. "Complicated steps are not enough to build a relationship with the audience. If dance is to survive, it's about making the discipline more relevant."
Although he would like to further expand the ballet's fan base to attract young people, Pink is optimistic about Milwaukee and the continued growth of the community's appreciation for his and other art forms.
To help broaden that appreciation, Pink has reached out to other companies, collaborating with Milwaukee Repertory Theater artistic director Mark Clements, also a Brit by birth, on last season's production of "Cabaret." He's collaborating again this season, providing choreographic direction for the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Next to Normal," the Rep's current production.
After nine years, Milwaukee has become a comfortable home for Pink, his wife Jayne and children Chloe, 20, Max, 11, and Georgina, 9. He still has artistic aspirations, and the city has gone a long way in meeting many – but not quite – all of them.
"If I couldn't do ballet, I would love to direct a movie," Pink says. "Live theater and especially dance are bubbles that burst every night because you can't anticipate what will happen, and it's never exactly the same as it was the night before. With a movie, you can watch and learn from it again and again."
Since Pink already storyboards the flying sequences for his popular ballet "Peter Pan," which returns to Uihlein Hall May 10-13, it would seem that the protean artist is taking his first small steps toward a filmmaking career. Could cinematic success be next on his horizon?