Tom Strini
Milwaukee Ballet

Return of the Swans

Michael Pink takes a second look at "Swan Lake" and makes it even more his own.

By - May 14th, 2013 12:27 pm
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Valerie Harmon and Ryan Martin rehearse “Swan Lake” at the Milwaukee Ballet Studio. Timothy O’Donnell photo.

Swan Lake, the most sacred icon of classical ballet, is fair game to Michael Pink.

On Thursday, the witty Pink will launch his second go at Swan since becoming artistic director of the Milwaukee in December of 2002. He’s revising his 2006 version, which condensed the traditionally four-act ballet into two acts and preserved only the White Adagio and the Black Swan pas de deux from the 1895 Petipa setting.

He’s going even further this time.

“We did the traditional Adagio in 2006 – not this time,” Pink said, in an interview May 10, as dancers worked through Swan Lake in the studio outside his office. “Now I know how far I can go with our audience. I wanted it to be more about the principal couple as lovers, to have more human time between them, even as her instincts are becoming more birdlike than human.”

In Pink’s last Swan Lake, the women wore “those rather horrible Romantic tutus,” as he put it. Romantic tutus are bell-shaped and fall at or below the knee, and they waft around the body in motion. They went out of date in ballet long before Petipa made Swan Lake in 1895. But Pink didn’t go with the stiff, disc-like Classical tutus of Petipa’s day, either.

“We’ve gone to a shorter, freely moving skirt,” he said. “You can see far more of the legs, and the girls are looking fabulous.”

Pink has pared the three-hours-plus ballet to less than two hours and re-engineered the plot. Rothbart, instead of being some sort of raven-sorcerer who comes out of nowhere to exercise sheer perversity, will be a counselor to the Queen, the power behind the throne with designs upon it. Toward that end, he conjures up the Black Swan to dazzle the Prince.

“He brings her to life in a sort of ‘hubble, bubble, toil and trouble’ scene,” Pink said. “I did not want Rothbart to be a bird. Doesn’t appeal to me.”

And Odette and Siegfried won’t throw themselves off a cliff into Swan Lake at the end, which also makes no sense to Pink. (Think about it: She’s a bird.)

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Luz San Miguel and David Hovhannisyan. Timothy O’Donnell photo.

“I always giggle when I see that,” he said. “The Act 4 music is by far the best in the ballet, but what to do with all that crashing and banging? I wasn’t satisfied with what I did last time. So I’m having another go at it.”

In 2006, Rothbart and Siegfried and Odette and Odile – Pink split the female lead roles then and will again this time – sort of duked it out, which made me giggle. Pink shared the new ending with me, but I’ll leave it a surprise.

Pink has made many story ballets from scratch, with original designs and often with original music. But budget dictates that he once again trot out the set built in the mid-1980s, during the Ted Kivitt era. It’s serviceable and traditional production. It’s not beyond Pink to make fresh ideas work in old settings; his brilliant Nutcracker is Exhibit A for that.

The music, of course, will be Tchaikovsky – sort of. As Pink pointed out, Tchaikovsky wrote the ballet music for a Moscow debut in 1877. That ballet failed. When Marius Petipa dusted off the idea for the Maryinsky Theater Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in the early 1890s, he found the score unsatisfactory. He approached Tchaikovsky about making them; when Tchaikovsky died in 1893, Petipa charged his music director, Riccardo Drigo, with the revisions. The Drigo version is what we know today as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

“When I look at the checkered history of this ballet, I feel quite confident in doing what I will with it,” Pink said.

He has a point. Every company taken up the piece puts its own stamp on it, even when everyone involved is trying to be authentic. Diaghilev and Balanchine both did one-act abstractions of Swan. Matthew Bourne did an all-male corps Swan Lake.

Pink isn’t quite that radical.

“The only thing left is ‘Black Swan,’” he said. “Everything else is home-grown, but in Classical style. The story keeps moving along, and I think people will be grateful for that.

“All of which tells you that 95% of Swan Lake is unnecessary. Thank god you get to see the 5% that is.”

So yes, the 32 fouettes are in. They pretty much have to be.

Principal Casting

May 16, 17 and 19: Odette – Luz San Miguel; Odile – Annia Hidalgo; Prince Siegfried – David Hovhannisyan; Rothbart – Timothy O’Donnell; Benno – Alexandre Ferreira

May 18: Odette -Valerie Harmon; Odile – Luz San Miguel; Prince Siegfried – Ryan Martin; Rothbart – Justin Genna; Benno – Alexandre Ferreira

Concert and Ticket Info: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 16-19, Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $30 and up at the Milwaukee Ballet website and ticket line (414 902-2103) and at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Categories: *TCD F3, Dance

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