Milwaukee Ballet: Power-Boating on “Swan Lake”

Michael Pink's new version, though Classical in technique, moves the story along and showcases the company brilliantly.
May 17th, 2013 |
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Valerie Harmon and Ryan Martin. Photo Brian Lipchik

Valerie Harmon and Ryan Martin will dance the roles of Odette and Siegfried Friday. Photo Brian Lipchik for the Milwaukee Ballet.

Michael Pink’s rethought Swan Lake moved along urgently, thrillingly over two densely packed hours Thursday night, even as it took time to show off the skill of nearly every dancer in the Milwaukee Ballet. As in his superb Nutcracker, Pink weds plot, character and dancing seamlessly, and he conveys a great deal of information in a few moments of human movement.

Take the prologue, which lasted maybe a minute behind a scrim while the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra finished up Tchaikovsky’s overture. Timothy O’Donnell, as Rothbart, stirs up a roiling lake of blue silk as the music swells. At its peak, the Black Swan – a gleaming Annia Hidalgo – rises from the waves and into a triumphant, spectacular overhead lift. That’s it, and in just that the Black Swan has a back story and we know that Rothbart has some scary powers. The sheer visual impact of the moment (thanks in part to David Grill’s magical lighting) gets the ballet off to a gripping start — much more so than the usual gaggle of smiling peasants.

Pink likes to tweak the plots of the old fairy-tale ballets, and he does so ingeniously with Swan Lake. By bringing the Black Swan, Odile, into the action early, he makes her a more rounded and credible conspirator, a sort of avatar of Rothbart. Pink also gives that villain a better context, as a power-mad counselor to the Queen Mother and a lurking traitor. He uses both Odette and Odile to bring down Prince Siegfried, who stands between him and the throne.

Perhaps the most brilliant detail of plotting involves Odette, beautifully danced by Luz San Miguel Thursday. We meet her as a playful courtly lady, as she and her charming girlfriends flit about lakeside and tease Siegfried away from his studies. David Hovhannisyan, an ardent Siegfried, lets his enchantment show. After Siegfried leaves, Rothbart and Odile sweep in to cast a swan spell on Odette and her companions. So she and the other White Swans also have a back story. Her absence from a peasant harvest celebration and then from his betrothal party motivates Siegfried’s despair and hesitation; in traditional versions we have to chalk it up to teen angst.

Pink’s editing, beyond making a little more sense of the story, gives it a mainspring. The narrative accumulates meaning in a way that traditional versions of it do not. Pink gives Swan Lake narrative momentum, and that energizes the dancing.

Luz San Miguel and Valerie Harmon. Photo Brian Lipchik

Luz San Miguel, Odette on opening night, plays Odile in the alternate cast, here with Valerie Harmon as Odette. Photo Brian Lipchik for the Milwaukee Ballet.

The company danced sensationally Thursday. Nothing but the Black Swan pas de deux remains of the familiar version (that is, the American Ballet Theatre version that the Milwaukee Ballet adopted decades ago), but Pink adhered to high Classical style in his new material. The company has danced a lot of modern repertoire lately, which doesn’t always call for a balletic line. So the uniformly long lines, precise placement, generous turnout and poised shoulders surprised me – the Milwaukee Ballet is really good at this.

Pink gave them a marvelous string of ensemble dances at the village celebration, the most ingenious of which set a four-vaned pinwheel in motion as a second circle of dancers wound through in the opposite direction. I like the way Pink wove bits of the traditional Pas de Trois (Alexandre Ferreira, Nicole Teague, Mayara Pineiro) into an elaborate pas de dix that gave Susan Gartell Courtney Kramer, Janel Meindersee, Mengjun Chen, Marc Petrocci, Isaac Sharratt and Petr Zahradnicek break-out moments. The men, as a group, are the best I’ve ever seen at the Milwaukee Ballet. The ensemble dances often play as Act 1 timekillers; these were exuberant and buoyant, and they ignited intense applause.

Still, at Swan Lake we all wait for the White Swan corps and the bravura duets and variations. San Miguel shrugged off a little slip in the early flirtation scene and made a technically impressive and emotionally probing Odette. Pink’s conception, played affectingly by San Miguel and all the swans, is that they are caught in a nightmare and terrified of everything but one another. They not only fear Siegfried when he first appears, they fear being seen by him in their humiliated avian state. He looks at them and they snap into utter stillness and then tremble in bourèe en pointe in place. The corps dancing had all the ensemble discipline we expect from a professional corps, but none of the iciness typical of white acts. Tragedy emanated from these bird/women and sympathy flowed toward them.

The corps swans never get over their fears, and San Miguel’s Odette only partly gets over it. Pink’s take on the White Swan pas de deux gave Hovhannisyan and San Miguel the gift of this tension within her, this constant impulse to flee from him and hide herself. He has to fight it and so does she, and it makes their love more heroic. Hohvannisyann and San Miguel conveyed these subtleties even as they flew above the daunting technical challenges of the dance.

San Miguel’s ambivalence and fragility made for more than a white and black contrast with Hidalgo’s knife-edge Odile. She did not seduce Siegfried in the usual Black Swan way, she dominated him, overwhelmed him with her dazzling beauty and imperious command and carriage. Hidalgo is a tiny thing, but a huge presence. (If you were counting, she came up a few fouettes short of 32. Doesn’t matter.)

The Milwaukee Ballet had the advantage of an orchestra of musicians, led by Pasquale Laurino, who matched the dancers’ energy and skill in this very satisfying finale to the 2012-13 ballet season.

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: Repeat performances 7:30 p.m. 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.

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4 Responses to “Milwaukee Ballet: Power-Boating on “Swan Lake””

  1. Rick johnson says:

    Gorgeous! I am a big fan but have to make one correction to your wonderful review- although it wasn’t announced or posted for some bizzare reason the awesome dancing that was attributed to Petr Zahradnicek was danced at all shows by Parker Brasser-Vos. Just want that kind of talent to get it’s due!


  2. Michelle W says:

    This time I waited until afterwards to read your thoughts – sometimes I peek before we go to Saturday’s show… I was curious going in tonight (we’ve had tickets since Susan Clark danced it), but very glad to see what we did. Pink’s crowd scenes weren’t as chaotic as they sometimes are, and his tweaks to the storyline helped the flow. Hooray for keeping the dance more classical on this one. For me, the swans are the make or break. I liked the new costumes and I think they kicked some major tail feathers tonight!


  3. Tom Strini says:

    Many thanks, Mary. I do try. — Strini


  4. Mary Koehler says:

    Always enjoy your reviews, Tom. Glad to hear you enjoyed this “Swan Lake” as much as I did. I loved the new swan costumes in the second act. The dancers seemed much more birdlike, and were able to huddle together like frightened birds.


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