Milwaukee Ballet explores masculinity in ‘Sans Pleurer’

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Real men don’t cry. Generations of men have been taught this — and lack of emotional connection and depression have resulted.

Timothy O’Donnell, choreographer-in-residence with the Milwaukee Ballet, doesn’t believe he can change generational conditioning.

But O’Donnell’s new ballet Sans Pleurer — French for “without crying” — examines the challenges men face in a world that expects much from them but gives back so little emotional support.

“Conventional masculinity can be a heavy burden for young men to bear,” says O’Donnell, who won the Milwaukee Ballet Genesis competition for young choreographers in 2009. “This new ballet explores the ‘boys don’t cry’ stereotype and looks deeply into the ways men are taught to act and react to each other.”

The world premiere of O’Donnell’s 24-minute work takes the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts stage April 6–9. The new ballet will be performed alongside La Sylphide, which was choreographed in 1836 by August Bournonville and one of ballet’s most famous choreographic compositions.

La Sylphide will be directed by guest choreographer Dinna Bjørn, considered one of the leading interpreters of Bournonville’s classic work, and will utilize a majority of Milwaukee Ballet’s female dancers.

By contrast, Sans Pleurer will take a more contemporary approach and call on the ballet company’s nine male dancers to interpret O’Donnell’s study of masculinity.

The choreographer understands the emotional challenges facing men from personal experience, and that guided him in the creation of the ballet.

“I have some close friends who have suffered badly from depression and I have had some rough patches myself,” says the Australian-born O’Donnell. “Suicide rates among males are incredibly high and I wanted to create a piece that addressed those issues.”

O’Donnell’s dancers wear blue suits designed by Harlan Ferstl and lined with red to reflect the emotions inside. Milwaukee BalletThat’s where emotions start, O’Donnell says, and all too often that’s where they stay.

“Lack of an emotional connection is a big issue that follows men way into adulthood, but it starts when they are very young,” he says.

The issues that guide the ballet’s content and nonlinear narrative are not new, but the emotional bondage some men suffer is receiving closer scrutiny by health care professionals and the arts.

‘Wonderful platform’

For O’Donnell, addressing men’s emotions is a mission of sorts.

“Movement pieces are great, but for me it’s not enough just to put dancers onstage any more,” he says. “As a choreographer, I have a wonderful platform to say something about this important issue.”

The choreographer also has taken a unique approach with his dancers. Aspects of the ballet were only shared with the company on an as-needed basis.

“I’ve kept things from them,” O’Donnell says. “I know the men in this company really well. I know their history and I want them to draw on that so their performances are very raw and very fresh.

“If possible, I want them to tap their own deeper, harsher memories.”

The dancers perform within a stage design that includes a locker room and jungle gym-like structure created by Peter Zahradnicek and intended to represent the mind of man.

The music, composed by Ezio Bosso for piano and string quartet, will be performed live during each performance by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. It’s another facet designed to help give the ballet its immediacy and its edge, O’Donnell says.

The choreographer also hopes that edge will help audience members — especially men — recognize and question the emotional restrictions in their lives.

“I would hope that my piece starts a dialogue,” O’Donnell says. “In and of itself, it’s not going to magically change anyone’s life, but it could lead to questioning, which is something it has done in my own life as well.”

On Stage

The Milwaukee Ballet performs Sans Pleurer and La Sylphide April 6–9 at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. For tickets, visit the Marcus Center box office, call the Milwaukee Ballet at 414-902-2103, or visit