Friday, April 4, 2014

Milwaukee Ballet: The Best Is Right Now

Ryan Martin, Janel Meindersee and Erik Johnson in Amy Seiwert's In Passing. Mark Frohna photo for Milwaukee Ballet.
Of all the editions of the Milwaukee Ballet I've observed since 1982, the 2013-14 edition is my favorite.

Every dancer on the roster is skilled and athletic. Even the smallest of them dances with amplitude that fills Uihlein Hall, and all project winning stage personalities that feel utterly genuine. They not only show pleasing lines as individuals, but also great awareness of context. They adjust to the styles of various genres and choreographers. They act when the ballet calls for acting, they clown when they should, and they disappear into lofty abstraction in pure dances. They work harmoniously together. They exchange phrases and maintain ensemble in the way of good players in an orchestra who not only play their own parts but listen acutely to their colleagues.

Three superb dances showed the company to particular advantage Thursday evening, as the Milwaukee Ballet opened its spring mixed-rep show at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Amy Seiwert and Matthew Neenan, both in their second Milwaukee visits, created new dances for the occasion, with Vicente Nebrada's Our Waltzes, from 1976, between the premieres.


A white floor, a white cyclorama and white lighting (by David Grill, who illuminated the whole show) made Seiwert's serene In Passing seem to float in a undefined space. Ólafur Arnalds' music, for the most part hypnotically static, suspended the dance in time.

The nine dancers held their focus inward, as if the dance were a private thing. I hasten to add that the dance plays big and draws us in, but they don't smile at us. They're going for a certain awareness of body leading to a state of mind, and they achieve it so well that we can feel it vicariously.

The community comprises four couples and Janel Meindersee, who crosses the stage with a stately 30-foot train behind her, like a celebrant ushering in new chapters of a ceremony. In the course of 25 minutes or so, Seiwert divides and groups her dancers into every possible configuration in episodes that often overlap. The dance has a pleasing flow of activity.

In Passing re-unites its couples dependably and often. To an extent, the dance is about Nicole Teague and Ryan Martin, Susan Gartell and Justin Genna, Rachel Malehorn and Erik Johnson, and Valerie Harmon and Fan Shi finding each other after separations.

Teague and Martin established the main movement theme: Women turning, curving and diving into the space beneath the arc formed by the partner's arms as they hold hands. All the couples played out Seiwert's endlessly imaginative variations on this theme. All of them made the sinuous convolutions look sensual, not in a sexual way, but in the satisfying way of a deep-muscle stretch.

The music has some pulsation, but Seiwert treated it atmospherically and went her own way with the dance. The irregular, conversational dance phrasing played out at its own pace and length, and how beautifully these dancers parsed its cadences.

Like Seiwert, Nebrada and Neenan focused on couples within community, but with very different sentiments and results.

A moment from Vicente Nebrada's Our Waltzes. Frohna/Milwaukee Ballet.
Nebrada's waltzes take their cues from compositions by Teresa Carreño, whose waltzes charmingly mix Viennese, Spanish and Venezuelan idioms. Steven Ayers, on stage with a Steinway grand, played them as they should be played, with a generous, expressive rubato. The dancers thrived on this and made the most of extended third beats and lingering fermatas that gave them time to flirt or gaze into a partner's eyes.

As in Seiwert's piece, the five waltzing couples separate but always reconnect. Color-coding helps us keep things straight.

The aggressively red tops Annia Hidalgo and Davit Hovhannissyan wore marked them as the lead couple. They were spectacular in their energy and amplitude in a dance that abounds in big lifts for all four couples, but especially them. Hidalgo's ability to flash an irresistible smile to the house while flying through space added immeasurably to the affect of the piece, which more than anything projects the pleasure of dancing well.

Hidalgo and Hovhannissyan, Luz San Miguel and Ryan Martin, Jennifer Ferrigno and Justin Genna, Courtney Kramer and Parker Brasser-Vos, and Mayara Pineiro and Alexandre Ferreira understood how the dance evolved as the waltzes played on. Nebrada starts genteel and Viennese. But as Carreño's music becomes more and more Venezuelan in its rhythms, the dances become more fiery and Latin. Ayers and the dancers drove a rising tide of energy that lifted the audience to its feet at the end.

Neenan turned to a suite of diverse songs by Pink Martini, some vintage 1940s and 50s and some faux-vintage. Some sound Latin, some French, some jazz, some American pop. (I love this band; check out "Veronique," one of Neenan's choices.)

Neenan's Something Borrowed is sexy, stylish and wry. If Woody Allen were a choreographer, his dances might look like this. Christine Darch's nifty costumes, stylized street clothes, are not too far from Annie Hall.

Ferreira, the odd man out among a stage full of romantic couples, opened the piece with an irresistibly charming and funny sad-sack solo in which he seemed to run smack into invisible walls. The temptation to overdo something like this must have been great, but Ferreira resisted and struck just the right tone of hapless, rag-doll resignation. And -- hooray -- he eventually found Luz San Miguel, and they got to be sexy and funny together.

Neenan wove so much humor and meaning into the dances that no one had to mug it across. Passion cuts in on the humor now and then. Susan Gartell, usually a delightful girl-next-door in terms of presence, made a sizzling and dangerous Veronique opposite Hovhannisyan.

Milwaukee Ballet in Matthew Neenan's Something Borrowed. Mark Frohna photo.
Solos, full ensemble pieces and sub-groups refreshed the stage and the eye, but the pas de deux from Ferreira and San Miguel, Gartell and Hovhannisyan, Harmon and Isaac Sharratt, Kara Bruzina and Marc Petrocci, and Hidalgo and Mengjun Chen drive the piece. Each couple introduces some new step or gesture, which the next couple incorporates along side more new material. In this way, the dance accumulates meaning as it goes on and stays coherent and purposeful, even with the extreme range of music and movement.

At the end, all the couples come together to reprise those common elements. This entertaining piece also makes complete structural sense. Matthew Neenan knows how to put a dance together, and the Milwaukee Ballet knows exactly what to do with a well-made dance.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets and further information here, or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

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