Friday, February 14, 2014

Milwaukee Ballet: Burning Down the House at the Pabst

We didn't know what hit us Thursday night.

Timothy O'Donnell. All photos
courtesy of the Milwaukee Ballet.
The house lights flashed like a giant old-time camera bulb. Immediately, music came up along with white light stark against an all-black stage at the Pabst Theater. A man and woman partnered to extremes of dance extension in a sinuous pas de deux in place at center stage. They made way for male soloist, who slashed across the entire stage with aggressive gestures and violently arrested speed.

Eight additional couples cycled through various ensembles and took their own turns throughout the 15-minute piece. Some of their material draws on the opening pas de deux, but re-faced and punched up with a different dynamic. The piece holds together, but it's less about structure than it is about sheer drive.

It moves fast, faster and fastest. The dancers handled the speed with no problem whatsoever, but I won't say effortlessly. They maintained tension throughout, and they should have in this edgy dance. They also maintained razor-sharp ensemble, even as two or more couples, dancing parallel, ripped through complex, angular partnering at high speed. They wore black tights and leotards, so any error would have been exposed. They nailed it.

I didn't recognize a single dancer, which puzzled me. Then Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink came out to explain. We had just witnessed Milwaukee Ballet II in a work that MBC's Timothy O'Donnell had created for that company. It wasn't on the printed program; Pink had been so impressed with a recent showing at South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center that he hastily added it to the Pabst program.

The company's apprentices had just burned down the house. Holy smoke. Tip of the hat to Rolando Yanes, MBC II's director.

This thrilling preface introduced the main company's strong evening of new dance.

O'Donnell premiered his Talk to Me, a fantastical meditation on communication in the mass digital age. Rachel Malehorn, in heels and costumer Francesca O'Donnell's slightly warped riff on the female power suit, served as ringmaster. She came off as the world's most cheerfully threatening social media consultant. Turns out Malehorn has a marvelous theatrical speaking voice, which O'Donnell applied to loopy comm-theory tropes that often devolved into lists of the words.

Luca Veggetti. Terry Lin photo
When she stopped talking -- truth be told, I could have done without that last bit of chat as she roamed through the audience -- Vivaldi's G Major Mandolin Concerto or Kim Se Hwang's electric guitar-shred version of The Four Seasons concerti struck up. Susan Gartell and Davit Hovhannisyan; Nicole Teague and Alexandre Ferreira; Valerie Harmon and Barry Molina; Courtney Kramer and Mark Petrocci; Jennifer Ferrigno, Menjung Chen and Parker Brasser-Vos embodied in movement the ideas Malehorn laid out. The topics included body language, miscommunication, lying and resulting conflict, as well as the occasional meeting of the minds. The women wore little black shifts, the men either black tanks and trousers or black suits with no shirts. A pair of thin red lines, like racing stripes, ran vertically on all the tops.

As in the MBC II piece, everyone seems high-strung and driven by a speedy metronome. As in the previous work, highly virtuosic and wildly imaginative partnering is everywhere, often executed with dazzling precision by more than one couple. The difference lies in the subtle interactions among the partners. In the MBC II dance, the partners fused as units. In Talk to Me, they conversed in dismissive or friendly gestures, they cooperated or resisted in placement of weight, and so on. It all flew by, but you could see the give and take and sympathize with it viscerally.

Luca Veggetti, a veteran of the international scene but new to Milwaukee, made his local debut with Scene/Six, to Kaija Saariaho's Vent Nocturne for viola and electronics.

The gloomy beauty characteristic of Scene/Six settles in immediately. A woman (Annia Hildalgo, I believe, hard to tell in silhouette) caught in a white pin spot, sits still on the apron of the stage for a long time. You become aware of the ambient noise. Figures move behind her in the semidarkness -- her dreams, perhaps? The lights come up on stage. She turns to watch five dancers, dressed in soft fabrics and earth tones, for a while before joining them.

Frankly, the rest of the dance is something of a blur in memory. Lines seemed to be important; limbs tracing lines through the air, traveling bodies tracing lines on the floor. Placid partnering, an episode of slow motion, a general sense of surreality, of this little community -- also Luz San Miguel, Kramer, Chen, Ferreira, Petrocci -- existing in a waking dream. Veggetti fosters a meditative state in which technical dance movement is no more or less interesting than one girl sitting quietly.

Gabrielle Lamb
Gabrielle Lamb, last year's Genesis Choreographic Competition winner, returned for her victory lap: HappenStance, an endlessly charming curio shop of nifty moves and shapes. Eight dancers, gazing down, stand in a rough semicircle, as such group might stand around a camp fire. But that's not a fire, that's a... What the heck is that?

It turns out to be Kara Bruzina and Mayara Pineiro, tied into the most bizarre joke of a body knot I've ever seen. Two heads might or might not be better than one, but they're certainly funnier. A couple of dancers helped them to their four feet, which led to all manner of quirky four-legged locomotion. Silly Walk Squared.

Bruzina, Pineiro and everyone else, when assigned such material, danced it ingenuously, which made it all the more amusing. Take Justin Genna and Rachel Malehorn, more or less the lead couple in what is a fairly democratic dance. They "signal" to one another in a wacky sort of semaphore involving turned in elbows and knees and a duck walk, among other tomfoolery. But they play it straight as gooney birds in a mating ritual -- hey, it's not ridiculous to them.

Those mentioned above plus Gartell, Teague, Brasser-Vos, Hovhannisyan, Ryan Martin and Isaac Sharratt all looked comfortable, fit and appealing in snug red sweats and grey tanks. They got together for several group rituals that made for pattern/process/rhythm passages nonetheless beautiful for being amusing. I especially loved a bit in which Genna started a chain reaction at one end of a line and hustled to the other end in time to catch the last participant.

The other works are all severe in some way and in some way about alienation. Lamb wants happiness. Sunlight and the most charming music (Tin Hat Trio, Colleen, Youn Sun Nah) bathe HappenStance, an utterly endearing world of innocent, beautiful play.

Special Commendation goes to lighting designer Jason Fassl, who cast just the right moods over all four works.

This program will also run at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 14-16).
Tickets and details here or call the Milwaukee Ballet ticket line, 414 902-2103.

Milwaukee Ballet II
Ladder:  Tony Sewer
Andrew Wingert, Kazuya Arima, José Soares, Corey Mangum, Hinano Eto
Ellis Endsley, Caroline Doherty, Kaylee Vernetti, Molly Huempfner,
                 Garrett Glassman*, Ryoko Tanaka, Israel Garcia Chenge
Makiko Sutani**, Andrea Chickness, Kathryn Manger, Meredith Green,
               Marie Varlet, Carlos Ruiz, Alana Griffith
Timothy O'Donnell photo for the Milwaukee Ballet.