A Hot Time in Dead of Winter
Milwaukee Ballet’s Winter Series offers great dancing and lots of surprises.
The Milwaukee Ballet’s “Winter Series” shows opens with a delightful surprise. Staged at the Pabst Theater, the concert showcases new works from three celebrated choreographers, including last year’s Genesis competition winner Gabrielle Lamb, the Milwaukee Ballet’s choreographer in residence Tim O’Donnell, and world-renowned choreographer Luca Veggetti.
The program led you to believe the first dance was from Veggetti. But immediately after it ended, Artistic Director Michael Pink took the stage to inform us that he had snuck in a spontaneous bonus dance, choreographed by O’Donnell and performed by the Milwaukee Ballet II. An appreciative murmur swept through the Pabst, and rightly so. What we had just seen was nothing short of astounding.
The piece commanded attention from the start. With a sole spotlight on a talented duet, and a soundscape that echoed crashing waves, the effect was mesmerizing. But before you could get too relaxed, a bass sound thumbed through the speakers, as a classical sound turned to dub step and dancers began appearing from all corners of the stage. Multiple duets played out in a round, with all the dancers dressed in tight black clothing and sticking every move with impressive precision.
The dance was at once tragic, electric and beautiful. And definitely the best way to introduce a night of new dance.
Next came Veggetti’s work, ‘Scene/Six.” With the help of a breathy, dark score, the dance became a journey into a strange dream…odd, yet comforting. The dancers moved around the stage in their socks, came together in a disjointed sort of way then detached from each other and floated elsewhere, sometimes hitting an invisible wall.
The lifts were a marvel in their weirdness – one woman lifted up by two men, her body bent in the way that suggested the dead man’s float. It seemed no one’s feet were ever pointed, no one extended their limbs. Instead the dancers all moved in a bent fashion, from a spasm to a super slow-motion run and everything in between. There was a sense of organized chaos, as though everyone was part of a malfunctioning machine.
After two pieces with dark undertones, Lamb’s “HappenStance” offered a welcome mix of quirky and even witty material. Opening on a half circle of dancers surrounding the intertwined lump of two women on the ground, the dance immediately began to move the bodies around the stage in a playful fashion.
The two women remained stuck together as they got up from the floor, and were left alone to court a third male dancer after everyone else disappeared. The music emphasized a certain circus-ring feeling, as the women performed in a way that brought to mind Siamese twins. At times I heard an accordion, a glockenspiel, a xylophone. It made every movement light and creative.
A sense of puppetry began to unfold in the dance – a group of dancers pulled invisible strings, tapped each other to induce movement, cascaded in waves down a long single-file line. All the while, there was a lot of finger tapping and pointing, as though directing each other. Most arrestingly, dancers would approach each other to place their hands on one another from chin to forehead, cradling the other’s head. It was all strangely captivating.
Closing out the evening was O’Donnell’s “Talk to Me,” incorporating theatrical lectures from dancer Rachel Malehorn on the definition and state of communication. The piece formed a pattern: Malehorn spoke to the audience, a duet performed a set, and then to sounds of electric guitar, other dancers joined for an energetic encore.
I appreciated the dancers’ talent, especially in every lift they pulled off with effortless professionalism. However, I was mystified by the outdated nature of “Talk to Me.” Malehorn was dressed in an 80’s-inspired skirt suit. The male dancers were costumed in black, unbuttoned button-down shirts with bare chests underneath. The electric guitar central to the energetic bits of the piece sounded dated. Something was either too obvious, or not obvious enough.
Regardless, the Winter Series offered a heady blend of intensity, fun and and sheer talent that lifts your spirits and open your eyes wider to the strange ways of the world.
Milwaukee Ballet’s Winter Series will be performed tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the Pabst Theater. Click here to buy tickets online, or call (414) 902-2103.