Friday, May 16, 2014

Milwaukee Ballet: "Mirror, Mirror," Snow White sans Dwarfs

No Dopey, no Sneezy, no Sleepy, and certainly no Disney inhabit Michael Pink's Mirror, Mirror, the Snow White tale the Milwaukee Ballet premiered Thursday night.

But Sexy is there in a big way, and Deadly, too, in the form of Susan Gartell, as Claudia the Evil Stepmother. Pink conceived Claudia and Gartell plays her as a powerful sexual force. It can virtually enslave the normally decent fellows of the happy little apple-orchard village she has targeted for its magic mirror.

She is also murderous. While in the guise of a crow, she and four masked minions kill Beatrice (Valerie Harmon), Snow's mother, and thus make an easy mark of her virtuous father (Davit Hovhannisyan). She tries to kill Snow White three times.

Costume and scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins assists Claudia in her seductions by giving her some of the most fabulously beautiful costumes the Milwaukee Ballet has ever made. The crow outfit, with a grotesquely beautiful long-beaked mask, a form-fitted top with a golden spine running up the middle of the back and diaphanous black cloud of a tulle skirt, is a knockout. Gartell looks stunning in it, in Ivins' caprice on a Victorian party dress, and in the lace body stocking to which she strips down when she's really serious. No wonder she bags Snow's father, boyfriend's father (Ryan Martin) and boyfriend (Alexandre Ferreira).

Pink assigned Gartell voracious, aggressive movement in these encounters -- Claudia is go-getter, not come-hither. She holds her body tautly, but not tightly. She moves fluidly, but with high viscosity; you can vicariously feel the muscles as her body coils and uncoils as she travels, usually with her four Demons  (Marc Petrocci, Isaac Sharratt, Barry Molina and José Soares) scuttling low around her, like some malevolent wake.

Philip Feeney, in his original score, gave the five of them music that advances in fits and starts and bristles with syncopation. (Conductor Andrews Sill and the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra did a nice job with a new piece that isn't easy.) Pink did not try to match the timing of the music, but rather matched its unsettling spirit. Gartell and her minions move avidly and with purpose, but utterly unpredictably. They look comfortable stopping on dimes, but they bring the viewer up short, as do the irregular phrase lengths. Their dancing is beautiful in its way and engaging, but makes you uneasy. It's supposed to.

Their music and choreography contrast sharply with that of Nicole Teague's Snow White and of the villagers in their natural state -- that is, when not under Claudia's distorting spell. Their dance phrases spin out elegantly in lightly bound bodies in several charming village-dance ensembles, which Feeney accompanies in vaguely East European rustic tones.

Lyrical outpourings lift Teague's gorgeous duets with Ferreira. They are very good together, whether playful or ardent. Teague, in a girlish white frock in this good vs. evil black-and-white tale, floated about Ferreira as if she weighed nothing at all. He gave his full attention and admiration to his partner, which helped us love both the dancer and his character even more. Ferreira's winning smile and open expression, almost as much as his effortless leap, beautiful lines and rhythmic clarity, make him one of the Milwaukee Ballet's most charismatic dancers ever.

Mirror, Mirror, with its magic mirror made from a star, its good and evil spirits and its charmed pendant, is pure fairy tale. But it's dark, not Disney. It points us to Freudian interpretation faster than you can say "murderous stepmother seduces step-daughter's boyfriend." Ivin's ingenious set comprises abstracted bent-metal trees that the dancers climb and movable sections of wall that frequently close in on poor Snow White. It made me think of dreamscapes from old movies.

The whole production unfolds like a dream. One episode flows into the next without break. Villagers miraculously change under Claudia's influence in the blink of an eye from earth toned peasant garb to decadent black party clothes. Solid walls glide about. Mysterious figures slither down metal trees. And everyone dances.

The Milwaukee Ballet's Mirror, Mirror, running at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will play again at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 16-18. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Gartell will play Claudia throughout the run. Among other cast changes, Luz San Miguel will dance Snow White and Erik Johnson will play her father on Friday and Sunday.

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