Cornering Michael Pink when he’s in the process of creating a world-premiere ballet is like trying to capture a sunbeam.
The new work’s many aspects — from dance moves to costumes to technical requirements to original music — seem like so many different wavelengths, and yet Pink’s laser-like intensity focuses them into one.
Pink’s newest beam of light is his balletic retelling of the fairy-tale classic Beauty and the Beast that opens April 12 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
“This is killing me,” Pink, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet, says almost cheerfully. “The ballet runs about one hour and 45 minutes, and I have all but 20 minutes choreographed. When I finish that up I will have the production set for every bar of music.”
Given the ballet’s scope, Pink has his work cut out for him. He and his team must pull together a cast of 42 professional dancers and 51 child performers with composer Philip Feeney’s original score, create lavish costumes, and perfect extraordinary technical cues, which include the transition of a handsome prince into a horrendous beast — and back again.
“This is like The Nutcracker all over again,” Pink says in reference to the annual holiday show. “But in this case, it’s all new.”
Pink returned to the original source material for his narrative, carefully avoiding heavy overlaps with the Disney's “Be Our Guest” version. Nothing wrong with Disney, he admits, but the original tale, which dates back to the 18th century, allowed for greater artistic interpretation.
Pink also notes a woman penned the story, which 16 years later was revised by another woman. The female authorship goes far in supporting Pink’s thesis that Beauty and the Beast is a tale of female empowerment.
“This really is and always has been Belle’s story,” he says.
Love freely given
The original 1740 version, La Belle et la Bête, was written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Her tale was abridged, rewritten and published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756.
In Pink’s adaptation, a young prince inherits a kingdom from his tyrannical parents, continuing their heavy-handed rule with arrogance and indifference. An enchantress arrives at the castle and turns the prince into a beast to match his beastly behavior, with the stipulation that only true love, freely given, can return him to his original form.
But there is a time limit on this offer as measured by the life of the beast’s magical roses. If the roses die before love is offered, the prince will forever remain a beast.
A nearby merchant, fallen on hard times, finds himself lost in the woods and happens upon a beautiful castle. He is wined, dined and given beautiful gifts. But on his way out, he spies a magnificent rose and plucks it for his daughter Belle. Suddenly the beast appears, enraged at the apparent theft of the flower. The terrified merchant makes the only deal he can — trading Belle, for whom he plucked the flower, for his own life.
The plucky, well-read and strong-willed young woman agrees to save her father, live with the beast and, well, you know the rest.
“It’s always been a story driven by Beauty, but it’s generally told from the Beast’s point of view because he’s male and he’s powerful and he’s this big, hairy beastie-type character,” Pink says. “His curse is to have to find true love that will come to him willingly, and only if he earns it will he be free from his curse.”
Pink’s Beast will not be the man-bull creature familiar from the Disney cartoon, but still no less frightening with his “wonderful long hair and big chops,” the ballet master says. In addition, the beast will be wrapped in a thorny rose bush that keeps growing, getting larger and knottier.
In the end, without love, the vines will suffocate him.
“He is wrapped in the vines of a rose bush, but not so much that he is unable to move,” Pink explains. “I wanted something to remind us that he is a troubled man, not really a beast in the animal sense.”
Pink’s version unfolds on two levels. In addition to classic romance between the beauty and the beast, a second tier exists that concerns itself with the townspeople — including Belle’s two sisters, their two fiancés, and her father, who is the connecting link between the two worlds. The distinction is critical for the way Pink has choreographed the ballet.
“Beauty and the Beast comes to near classical ballet bordering on the contemporary, while the community is choreographed in a more commercial style, almost like a Broadway musical,” Pink says. “In neither case am I looking for realism, but rather more stylized movement within the music.”
The two tiers provide not only contrast in the storyline, but also greater depth in the production’s look and feel, he says.
“Everything is rooted in the proficiency of the classical dancers,” he adds. “It offers an abundance of challenges and has some seriously good virtuoso stuff going on that highlights the skills of the dancers.”
Nicole Teague-Howell will dance the part of Belle, and Isaac Sharratt will play the Beast. Davit Hovhannisyan will dance the Prince’s role, and Patrick Howell will play Belle’s father.
The original score is composed by Philip Feeney, Pink’s longtime collaborator in the United Kingdom who created the scores for Peter Pan, Dracula and other Milwaukee Ballet productions. The creative team also includes Emmy Award-winning lighting designer David Grill, Canadian costume designer Paul Daigle (La Bohème) and New York City-based scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins (Mirror Mirror).
“We needed to find a way to tell the story for all ages and in other ways than Disney has chosen to do,” Pink says. “It’s very funny, very colorful with guest appearances by a lot of familiar fairy-tale characters.
“The character of Belle started out seeking adventure,” he adds. “She ends up locked up with a beast in a castle. I don’t think that was quite what she had in mind.”