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TV star remembers formative years in Milwaukee

Continue reading TV star remembers formative years in Milwaukee

Milwaukee Ballet goes down the rabbit hole with ‘Alice (in wonderland)’

Don’t be late for the very important dates of May 19 to 22. That’s when the Milwaukee Ballet will be closing its 46th season with Alice (in wonderland), a stunning production that brings the Lewis Carroll classic to life with vivid, surreal staging. The production will feature 30 dancers from the company, as well as nearly 100 children from the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy.

According to Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink, choreographer Septime Webre’s vision of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland focuses on broad brushstrokes, harnessing the whimsical and familiar elements and personalities of Wonderland. “I liked the artistic side of it. Instead of it being so quirky and dark and mysterious, it’s very open and very bright,” says Pink.

Webre’s interpretation was originally produced by the Washington Ballet Company in 2012, and has appeared previously in Denver, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. It combines the memorable storybook characters of Alice, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the Cheshire Cat and others with Cirque du Soleil-style feats of strength and daring to tell this light-hearted adventure story.

Alice truly has no physical boundaries. Its choreography asks Milwaukee Ballet dancers to perform complex acrobatics and athleticism, and features staging that makes wild use of dimension and space. It’s a challenge that makes Pink excited, but cautious.

“I warned them at the beginning (of the season) when we did Dracula,” says Pink, “’This is waiting for you at the end of the season, Alice is waiting for you. Do not underestimate what you will need to do to get through this.’ It’s a monster of a show.

“In a piece like Alice, our job is to pass on the technique of survival: to know how and when to push, what are the ways in which you can keep yourself safe,” adds Pink. The endurance required of the company to pull off Alice will be unlike anything else of the season up to this point, although the Ballet’s previous contemporary program, Kaleidoscope Eyes, comes close. Pink believes the stamina his company has built up as a result of that diverse, three-work program will help them shoulder Alice.

Even still, Webre’s choreography will be a herculean challenge, Pink says. “Septime’s given some very complex partnering for the Cheshire Cat, for the Red Queen, and for the Caterpillar. In the midst of all this fast and furious movement you have to try and stay focused on the correct alignment and take all the tension out of it so you can make it effortless.”

In addition to this extraordinary dancing, Alice (in wonderland) features colorful and fanciful scenery, costumes and puppets. To Pink, these theatrical elements serve as the bridge between the classic text and the stage. “The costume designer had all of the materials screen-printed (with) quotations from the text,” says Pink, “which I think is a lovely idea because that’s almost like the pages coming to life.”

Some of the puppets and set pieces are so large, they seem to threaten both dancers and audience members alike. Pink says the jabberwocky puppet in particular is “spectacular,” a 25-foot-long silver, black and red creation with menacing frills, spikes and teeth that requires a team of eight to operate.

Alice’s composer, Matthew Pierce, will lend his musical expertise to the production, joining the chamber orchestra on violin. “The piece is incredibly tuneful,” describes Pink, “it’s got a lot of character and there’s something very filmic about it.”

This production will also mark the final appearance of several dancers who’ve helped Michael Pink make the Milwaukee Ballet so impressive in his time with the company. Dancers Susan Gartell (with the company for 13 years), Valerie Harmon (10 years) and Alexandre Ferreira (five years) will leave Milwaukee for new dance prospects after the final curtain, while leading artist Marc Petrocci will retire from dance after a career including 13 years with the Milwaukee Ballet. “This is such a wonderful way to celebrate their contributions as they turn they attention to their futures,” says Pink, “so we’ll be celebrating them throughout that weekend.”

Alice (in wonderland) runs May 19 to 22 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $35 to $102, and can be purchased at 414-902-2103 or milwaukeeballet.org.

Philip Feeney paints a musical portrait for Milwaukee Ballet’s ‘Dorian Gray’

Milwaukee Ballet fans have enjoyed the music of Philip Feeney since frequent collaborator Michael Pink became the ballet’s artistic director in 2002. From Peter Pan and Dracula to Esmeralda and Mirror, Mirror, the English composer’s musical stamp and unique complexities have underscored Pink’s original ballets. 

The pair has collaborated again with Dorian Gray, based on the Oscar Wilde novel about a hedonistic narcissist and his ultimate undoing. For this production, Milwaukee Ballet will take to a more intimate stage at the historic Pabst Theatre. 

Pink in the past has depended on Feeney’s music to help bring his ballets to life and give them multiple levels of emotional texture. The composer’s latest work, he says, is no different.

“Philip has a real empathy, with the idea of writing a music score that creates a sound world and successfully tells the story,” says Pink, who collaborates with the London-based composer via Skype, FaceTime and other technologies. “His musical structures are very thoughtful and highly intelligent. There’s a lot more to the score than meets the ear.”

WiG caught up with Feeney in his London studio while he put the finishing touches on Dorian Gray

How long have you been collaborating with Michael Pink?

I started working with Michael at the Central School of Ballet (in London) in the 1980s. He’d just finished dancing with the London Festival Ballet and was starting a career as a choreographer. Together, we created the graduate group of Ballet Central, taking young dancers in a minibus touring around the U.K., and composing and choreographing new works expressly for them. In those days, I genuinely created the music in the studio at the same time as Michael was choreographing. That’s something that doesn’t come up so often in a professional context, but it still makes for a creative environment.

Which of the ballets that you’ve composed for Michael is your favorite?

I’m afraid I don’t really do favorites. I think the range is exciting and all the works have a different approach, dictated to by their subject matter. 

I do have a fond memory of the score for Esmeralda, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame as it was known as over here. The colorfulness and vividness of the Victor Hugo plot line was perfect for a vibrant musical depiction, and worked well. It was also written quickly — unfortunately the case with most of my work, as I’m quite incompetent at time management — in the months following the death of my mother. I’m not sure about the correlation, but I think, paradoxically, it had something to do with the fluency of composition.

How does ballet music differ in style, structure and purpose from other classical compositions?

Those three things — style, structure and purpose — in a narrative composition are determined by the choreographer’s designs and intentions. This is the case even with style. I am particularly eclectic and a magpie in such matters, but all composers working with dance will adapt their style so the music is capable of driving the choreography. The important thing is that the musical structure, while fitting the choreography, must be musically coherent. Otherwise, it sounds a mess and will not be able to serve the choreography.

What differentiates Michael Pink’s ballets from other choreographers’ works for whom you’ve composed the scores? 

The scores I do with Michael are narrative scores, which is a form I’m at home with. It is where a composed score comes into its own, allowing the choreographer much greater scope and control of plot and dynamic.

Having worked with Michael Pink now for nearly 30 years, it’s a bit like coming home. There are so many shortcuts that come from collaborating a lot that save a great deal of time in not going down blind alleys. There is trust involved, whereby I know if Michael doesn’t like the music I’ve done, then it won’t work for the ballet. But conversely he will trust me if say, “No, no, Michael, it’s going to work,” even if he’s initially unconvinced.

What aspects of the source material do you take into consideration when composing a ballet? 

The source material for each ballet is different and is established by the demands of the narrative. In Dorian Gray, we have two extraneous musical sources that are used to generate the rest of the musical material.

The first came from an idea from Michael. He saw Dorian as somehow associated with the music of Chopin. I have used the B flat minor mazurka (a Polish folk dance composed by Chopin) that, for me, really works for the piece. It is not only harmonically chromatic and tortured, but it has an intense melancholy and an intimacy suggestive of a late Victorian gaslight world.

The other source was the recording of a young choirboy, Headly O’Brien, giving a beautiful sense of innocence that is ultimately corrupted and becomes revealed in the picture (of Dorian Gray that ages instead of Gray himself). I wrote two short unaccompanied “Lilac Songs,” using words from Walt Whitman’s elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which (O‘Brien) recorded in the basement of Central School of Ballet in London. These become a crucial part of the thematic material and, indeed, begin and end the work. But like the mazurka, they are never really heard in their entirety, almost as if they are a hidden painting beneath the painting itself. 

How does the music for Dorian Gray differ from your other scores for Michael, both musically and thematically?

As a chamber score, it’s the size in particular. The only other chamber score I wrote for Michael was his choreographic portrayal of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, a dark World War I piece for male dancers and 10 instruments. The scoring for Dorian Gray uses nine instruments supported by an electronic keyboard, metamorphosing from percussion to harp to celeste. With that, we’ve incorporated some fairly extensive audio material, which at the climax of the ballet stages a takeover and swamps the live musicians with a series of violent swells.

Michael asked for a very dark score — he often likes dark, but within that dark, there is usually some dance and life — where the atmosphere is intense, and a sense of the terrible necessity of the end is maintained throughout. 

All the instrumentalists, of course, are soloists, but two stand out. The alto sax starts the piece with a call, taken from the Chopin, and its sound is very much a voice of the piece. In the second act, the violin begins to take on the role of Dorian’s inner torment, and like the picture, is increasingly distorted and dissonant. There’s a kind of reference to the devil’s violin, nothing too exact, but it’s a useful allusion to give to the musician. 

Is it easier to compose music for a commonly known story such as Dorian Gray or Peter Pan? How do you avoid falling into stereotypical musical formats?

For whatever reason, ballet topics tend to be well-known warhorses. There is a challenge in retelling these stories of searching for a new angle and new portrayal. This pursuit will generally steer us clear of being too markedly stereotyped, because the departures from the original that characterize the production will offer scope for the musician and the choreographer to plant new trees, so to speak.

There, of course, is a balance, and the tone of the production will determine what references need to be made to commonly held preconceptions. The music for Dracula was (considered) to be quite filmic. Although that was never the intention, the way that the score subliminally manipulated the audience by creating a sense of disquiet is similar to the way film music works. 

I am very much in favor of breathing new life into old traditions. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be choosing traditional or well-known stories, if we are not going to add to what went before.

How do you know when a score is “finished?” What elements need to be present in order for that score to succeed?

To some extent scores are never finished! But it is in the nature of musical notation that when a score is completed, it then becomes “text” and, as such, etched in stone. In many ways the excitement of this project is that, by working with a high- performance chamber group, we can have more options and flexibility to make it work better. And I will welcome the input of the players in a way that’s less easy when the work is orchestral.

As to the question of success, I can, and I hope have, organized the score in such a way that it forms a structurally satisfying piece of work. However, these things are organic. The success of the music should probably be judged by how it works theatrically within the choreography and the production. 


The Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Michael Pink’s Dorian Gray, with music by Philip Feeney, takes the stage Feb. 12 to Feb. 14 and Feb. 19 to Feb. 21 at the Pabst Theatre, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $35 to $102 and can be ordered at 414-286-3663 or visit

Milwaukee Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ makes grand jeté into 1941

In 1841, composer Adolphe Adam wrote the music for Giselle, the consummate ballet of mid-19th-century Romanticism. The story of heartbreak, loss and forgiveness is timeless. A young peasant girl falls in love with a nobleman who encourages her affections but is betrothed to another. When she discovers this, she dies of heart failure, only to be resurrected by the Wilis, supernatural beings that dance men to death for betraying women. But in the end, Giselle forgives the nobleman, forcing him to live with his sins.

The theme was all in a day’s work for composers and choreographers of the day. But Milwaukee Ballet’s Michael Pink has something unique in mind. 

In his version of Giselle, set to be remounted more than 10 years after its North American premiere in 2004, Pink gives the ballet an update. Instead of setting the scene in 1841, he jumps ahead to 1941 — when nothing in Europe was as it had ever been before.

The new time period forces a shift in details. Giselle’s village becomes a ghetto and its inhabitants prisoners, while the visiting nobles are transformed into an occupying military force whose nationality is not explicitly named but isn’t tough to figure out. A mixed-gender corps of Wilis, who are already-murdered victims of that army, rise from the grave to avenge not only Giselle’s death but also their own.

The Wilis also represent Pink’s most significant change to the choreography. Pink says he has armed them with an array of modern dance movements to counter the classical ballet steps of the principals and bring some contemporary fire to the 170-year-old work.

“We began thinking about this when I was still at the Northern Ballet (in Leeds, U.K.),” Pink says. “This treatment makes the whole production more contemporary and relevant for our time, just as it had relevance to its original 19th-century audience.”

Pink is a stickler for making his productions more than eye candy, and on this ballet he worked with several collaborators to add gritty authenticity to the performance. With a score rearranged by Gavin Sutherland to give the performance more of “a Kurt Weill feel,” Pink set about trying to give the mood and atmosphere the right timbre for both the period and proceedings.

“In preparation I’ve been working with Jewish groups to find out what life was like in a ghetto,” Pink says. “It was very dark, but there also were moments of beauty.”

Pink tapped Jody Hirsh, director of education at Milwaukee’s Jewish Community Center, to get the period aspect of his production correct. He also turned to actor James Zager to be the show’s dramatic coach and help his dancers with character development.

“I wanted to make sure the performers were as competent as actors as they were as dancers,” Pink says.

Members of the occupying force will be uniformed but without the familiar Nazi insignia out of deference and respect to those who suffered under German occupation, according to Pink. But they will carry rifles, so there will be no doubt about their intentions.

“Nothing too graphic will happen, so there is no need for audience members to have any concerns,” Pink says. “But it will create a powerful image to which those audience members will relate.”

The other dramatic shift — the inclusion of Pink’s modern dance moves for the Wilis — makes an equally bold statement. Even though the ballet still has a historical context, the contemporary aspect is meant to remind audience members that ethnic cleansing continues in different corners of the world and it’s something no one can afford to ignore.

Pink says the full company is put to work in this production, with Luz San Miguel dancing the role of Giselle and David Hovhannisyan dancing the role of Albrecht, her lover. Patrick Howell performs the part of Hilarion, a rival for Giselle’s love, and Valerie Harmon will play Giselle’s mother. There also will be five street musicians performing as part of the cast, bringing a little lightness to the lives of those living in the ghetto.

Giselle could serve as a good point of entry for ballet newbies because of the way its treatment enables audience members to benefit from a distinct narrative, Pink says.

“I think because it’s telling a story that people can relate to the history of, this would provide easy access for those unfamiliar with ballet,” Pink says. “This one offers enough reality that people will understand it, and the juxtaposition of neoclassical to contemporary dance is very visually engaging.”


The Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Giselle runs March 26-29 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. evenings and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, dial 414-273-7206 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.

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Milwaukee Ballet spurs ‘Genesis’ of three fascinating new works

There are no bad performances when Milwaukee Ballet stages a Genesis concert. Artistic director Michael Pink — entering his 12th year with the company, and the longest-serving AD in the Ballet’s 45-year history — is too good at what he does to let any but the best rising choreographers take the Pabst Theatre stage for this biennial international competition.

So this sixth competition’s choreographers are at the top of their game, and it shows. The three finalists, Garrett Smith, Matthew James Tusa and Riccardo De Nigris, are each given eight dancers from the Milwaukee Ballet corps and three weeks of rehearsal, from which they’re expected to derive a world premiere work. Those works then get judged by both a jury of guest artistic directors and each night’s audiences, with an ultimate winner selected at the end of the weekend (who will return next year with a new world premiere) along with an audience favorite.

It’s not a decision I envy that jury getting to make. Thursday night, each world premiere commanded the stage, and which ends up on top might depend more than anything on what the judges — or you in the audience — are looking for.

If high technique is the prime objective, Smith’s Mortal Form knocks its opponents out of the water. The least narrative-driven of the three, Mortal Form looks on the surface like a traditional ballet in modern dress: women wear tutus, but not elaborately large ones; men wear loose shirts and tight undergarments.

The dancers’ movements feel traditional too, at first, mannered gestures that hit the beats of the Haydn symphony backing them. It’s the sort of things you see when you close your eyes and think of ballet: dancers twirl about in sync, men lift women aloft with effortless grace. But paying attention, you see motions start to come with twitches, and their perfection begins to feel oppressive. A mid-dance segment where track lighting drops from the ceiling to bring a warm glow to the stage offers temporary respite, as dancers break away from the lineup to perform slower, more intimate movements in groups of two or three. But they’re always pulled back in, even as the corps collapses from weariness, forced even to surrender to their body’s limitations in sync.

It’s a challenging work at times, one that forces you to make your own connections, but it’s simply gorgeous throughout.

But if sheer ambition is to be given higher preference, it quickly falls behind Re:connection. Tusa’s multi-part sequence is the only one to promote one of its dancers above the rest of the group (Rachel Malehorn), but it’s not the solo work disguised as an ensemble piece I feared it’d be at the sight of its opening pose: seven dancers rhythmically moving around a fallen Malehorn, twitching as she tries to stand.

Instead, it’s a piece that goes through various permutations and configurations one after another, each offering a different example of disconnection. Malehorn bookends it as a tragically lonely figure, fighting against the malevolent stance of her fellow dancers at the beginning and standing alone among an empty stage at the end until a single male dancer rushes out and revitalizes her, with breathtaking eloquence.

She tags out earlier than I’d expected though, joining the corps for a series of rotating partnerships that show off the group’s talents. Romantic but tempestuous in nature (as the Rossini Overture to La Gazza Ladra behind them brilliantly accents), this middle section asks the dancers to display relationships that just don’t click. A man tries to dance with a woman, but she turns him all about and ends up riding him about the stage half on his back. Two couples pair up, but with longing looks at their opposites across the stage and a physical itch that they can’t seem to scratch before they plunge back into the back-and-forth. It’s often a disjointed piece, but it aims higher than its competition and often hits its mark.

In the end, though, it’s “Can I Say Something..??” that’s truly captured my heart, due to what seems like the best reason to pick a winner: for producing the most completely realized work.

It’s the sort of piece I’d normally disdain. Its four men are dressed as mimes and dance accordingly, with exaggerated, cartoonish motions. Its four women, in bright chromatic dresses, serve as love interests, flitting in and out of their lives as the mimes reach too late to embrace them.

Sure, it sounds like gimmickry, and it starts that way. But the dancing itself is brilliant enough to keep you watching, and as you do, “Can I Say Something..??” blossoms. The mimes’ shtick actually becomes humorous. Their pursuit of their loves switches from goofy to poignant. And what was going to be my only complaint in the end — that De Nigris’ perfect ending scene, where a mime finally gets a girl, wasn’t actually the last scene — is eradicated by his actual ending, a comic jolt that wraps up the piece better than romance ever could.

Ironically, De Nigris’ piece is the only one I didn’t find benefited from Jennifer Schriever’s otherwise astounding lighting design, very much a component of Mortal Form and Re:connection’s effectiveness as works. It’s a good thing his piece didn’t need the help.

There’s still time to weigh in yourself. The Milwaukee Ballet’s Genesis competition runs at the Pabst Theatre, 144 E. Wells St., through Feb. 8. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Winners will be announced early next week. Tickets range from $28 to $93 and can be purchased at milwaukeeballet.org or 414-902-2103.

‘Don Quixote’

One of literature’s most adventurous tales is at the center of Milwaukee Ballet’s season premiere Don Quixote, based on Cervantes’ picaresque literary epic about the misadventures of a delusional, would-be knight. Artistic director Michael Pink’s production (last performed in 2006) focuses on the dynamic between Quixote and his much-put-upon squire Sancho Panza. Ludwig Minkus’ score is considered one of the finest examples of Russian ballet, just behind Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

At the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $32 to $97. Purchase tickets at milwaukeeballet.org or by calling 414-902-2103.

7:30 p.m., Oct. 30–Nov. 1; 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 2

Michael Pink’s original ballet ‘Mirror, Mirror’ probes the underlying themes of Snow White

A wicked stepmother, a poisoned apple, a demon-filled magic mirror and haute couture. What more could you ask for in the balletic retelling of a classic folk tale?

The Milwaukee Ballet’s world premiere of Michael Pink’s production Mirror, Mirror recounts the Snow White legend with an imagined backstory, beautiful costumes and innovative sets.

But the Seven Dwarves are deliberately absent from the production.

“I wanted to get away from Disney and did not want this to be the standard Snow White story,” says Pink, whose ballet premieres on May 15 in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall. “It’s the struggle between dark and light, between good and evil, and between two beautiful women. I know that because all my dancers are beautiful.”

Pink developed his first draft of the ballet in 1999, and continued revising it over the years. His original backstory to the folk tale, which is distinctly different from the fairy tale or film version, is a darker, more sophisticated and slightly twisted telling of the story.

In Pink’s narrative, the audience learns about Snow White’s parents and the idyllic community in which they lived. A falling star captured by Snow White’s mother Beatrice becomes a magic mirror. The couple and their community live in an apple orchard amid peace and harmony.

But then things change when Beatrice dies, leaving Snow White under the growing influence of her evil stepmother Claudia. The magic mirror, which Claudia covets, is filled with marauding demons that prey on human weaknesses, most notably Claudia’s vanity. The apple, of course, becomes a symbol of menace.

It’s the power that folk tales and their role as morality plays have over our lives that initially drew Pink, the ballet’s artistic director, to the story.

“Folk tales are the bedrock of many modern children’s stories, and this one is a psychological drama as well,” Pink says. “This is about people in compromised positions who eventually triumph in the end.”

Mirror, Mirror marks the third collaboration between Pink and composer Philip Feeney. They also worked together on Dracula and Peter Pan. But the most recent collaboration takes the two artists in a new direction, Pink says.

“This is the first time we’ve entered a surreal world rather than strived for an authentic setting,” Pink explains. “The sounds Philip is creating don’t have to be specific to a certain time or place. (That’s) given him more freedom and more of a challenge.”

Todd Edward Ivins dresses Claudia, danced by Susan Gartell, in black. Details of her costuming evoke raven-like imagery. Feeney’s musical interpretation of the character builds on that by incorporating “crow calls” and swirling motifs suggesting flight, Pink says.

Snow White, performed by Nicole Teague, is dressed in virginal white. Her costuming and musical themes liken her to a dove. David Grill’s lighting design enhances the contrast between the characters as light and dark, good versus evil.

Some of the most compelling characters in the production are the demons who inhabit the mirror. Four identical faceless creatures escape the glass and work their malevolence directly on the characters. Claudia’s vanity makes her particularly susceptible to their influence, Pink says.

“The demons represent an alter ego and move Claudia to action,” says Pink. “They are a driving force in the narrative.”

In the end the mirror cracks, allowing the handsome prince Gustav, danced by Alexandre Ferreira, to save the day. Good ultimately triumphs over evil.

Despite the serious themes underlying Mirror, Mirror, Pink believes that children will relate to the production by viewing it through the lens of the Snow White legend. 

“I want the adults to be challenged, and I want the children to see this story come to life,” Pink says. “They will interpret the story through their own eyes, and it will be something gorgeous to look at.”

On stage

The Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Michael Pink’s Mirror, Mirror runs for four performances May 15-18 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall. For more information, visit www.milwaukeeballet.org.

Michael Pink’s ‘Peter Pan’ to be broadcast on PBS

Ballet fans throughout the United States will get the chance to learn what Milwaukee Ballet fans have known all along when Michael Pink’s ballet Peter Pan takes to the airwaves April 18 in a nationally televised PBS broadcast.

Filmed in 2010 by Milwaukee Public Television, Peter Pan is one of the earlier collaborations between Pink and composer Philip Feeney. All the tricks and trappings familiar to Milwaukee Ballet fans, including the mid-air dual between Pan and Captain Hook and a pirate ship that sails across the stage, are highlighted in the production.

The performance features Milwaukee Ballet leading artist Marc Petrocci as Pan and rising star Valerie Harmon as Wendy. The broadcast begins at 8 p.m. on April 18 on PBS stations throughout Wisconsin and the nation.

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