The Milwaukee Ballet company gave stirring performances of three new pieces.
The Milwaukee Ballet company gave stirring performances of three new pieces. (Photo: Petr Zahrandnicek)

Milwaukee Ballet stages a thrilling glimpse into the future of dance

In baseball, just think how much fun it is to watch a pitcher called up to the big leagues after a couple of years in AAA.

You know he’s got skill, you know he’s got a fastball and a curve and you are excited about his future.

The future is what the Genesis Choreographer Competition is all about and the Milwaukee Ballet opened four performances of the competition Thursday night. The setting in the Pabst Theatre, arguably the most stunning venue in the city, was perfect for the three choreographers who stepped on the mound and tossed their best pitch.

The way this works is pretty simple. Artistic Director Michael Pink selects three up and coming choreographer to enter the competition. They come to Milwaukee, select a cast by drawing names out of a hat, and in the next three weeks create a world premiere.

"For these young artists," Pink said, "this is a career-making chance to work with professional dancers in a professional setting. This is an opportunity to get a glimpse of the future of dance. "

Well, the future arrived in a rush Thursday night with pieces choreographed by Garrett Smith, who is currently with the Norwegian National Ballet,  Matthew Tusa who is with a company in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Ricardo De Nigris, an Italian who works with the Augsburg Ballet.

Each one paraded their vision on the stage before a full house on a frigid Thursday night, which ought to say something about how popular and powerful the Milwaukee Ballet is.

And what a vision it was. Drama with spectacular lighting by Jennifer Schriever and three pieces that each carried a different message or theme.

Let me start by saying there were things that all three pieces had in common. I’m sure ballet people have terms for this stuff, but I’ll try to explain it in the pedestrian English I know.

Each piece was stylized more than the kind of ballet you normally see. There were lots of freezes, where a dancer or a group of dancers froze on stage while someone else danced. There was a lot of contra dance, where one dancer moved in opposition to another, only to hopefully meet somewhere they were both comfortable.

But what you saw, even with this unfamiliar choreography, was breathtaking dance, infused with the kind of enthusiasm you see when the dancers absolutely love what they are doing. If there was one thing that you got out of all three pieces it was that everybody was having an absolute ball.

This was the Milwaukee Ballet dancers at the absolute top of their game. These three young choreographers should fall to their knees and thank the lords of dance that they had such an exquisite company bring their ideas to such captivating life.

The first two pieces, by Smith and Tusa, set the table for what to expect. Each man is in love with the passions of dance and each had dancers full of enthusiasm.

But it was left to the final piece of the evening, "Can I Say Something..??" by De Nigris that brought the strongest audience reaction.

The liner notes from De Nigris talk about silence and the absence of words and how none of that suppresses the energy of dance. And energy and humor were hallmarks of this piece.

There was a variety of music, ranging from sweet dance music to the thunder of a Caribbean infused sound. The dancers did everything from a Chaplinesque walk to the sexy and sultry Latin beats. It was a mesmerizing piece and ended with the dancers singing, including a wild version of "Be-Bop-A-Lula," the Gene Vincent hit from the '60s. When they danced off stage, the audience went wild.

If I had one slight suggestion for each of these choreographers it would be to develop a better sense of clarity for the story you are telling. Each and every ballet needs a story or else it’s just a recital piece. At times I felt that these choreographers focused more on the intricacies of the steps and not enough on the storyline.

But that is only a minor niggle and one that should not diminish the excitement of the evening.

There are performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday and the winner of the competition will be announced after the final performance. I’m glad I’m not on this judging panel because I was absolutely in love with each piece.

Information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

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