David Hovhannisyan and
Luz San Miguel in the Milwaukee Ballet's "La Boheme."
Michael Pink is on to something.
I had my doubts about The Milwaukee Ballet artistic director's plan to create a ballet out of Puccini’s beloved opera, La Boheme. It is, after all, a story in which physical deterioration is at the center of the drama -- not an obvious subject for the physical exuberance of dance. And what of Boheme’s soaring vocal melodies? Those would disappear in a pure orchestral score.
But it didn’t take long for those doubts to be put to rest. Set against Rick Graham’s expressionist evocation of Paris, Pink’s choreography grabs you from the start, and Andrews Sill’s reworking of the score puts Puccini’s great melodies in the capable hands of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra strings, which have never sounded better.
The concept makes sense, upon reflection. While Mimi and her slow deterioration from consumption is at the center of La Boheme, her illness is set against the jubilant atmosphere of bohemian Paris. Pink captures it brilliantly in the first act, with Mimi’s lover, Rudolfo (David Hovhannisyan), and his friends hanging out in his garret apartment. The heating stove is cold, but the energy is infectious, breakneck mime worthy of Mack Sennett slips easily into more dancerly duets and trios that capture the camaraderie of the group (Ryan Martin, Timothy O’Donnell, Marc Petrocci). Mimi (Luz San Miguel) arrives, and the act concludes with a rapturous pas de deux that beautifully takes advantage of Hovhannisyan’s power and San Miguel’s delicacy.
The first act is the best example of Pink’s talent for choreographic storytelling. The narrative flows clean and smooth from the dances and characters, without the showy set pieces that are a staple of 19th century ballet. The large crowd scenes here are a bit chaotic and unfocused, but they do convey the charged urban backdrop of the story.
But what’s most remarkable in this La Boheme is the ability of the dancers to tell the story through fine balletic acting. There is some striking movement, particularly in Havhannisyan’s duets with San Miguel and O’Donnell. But what makes the story succeed is the ability of the dancers to project emotion and character through their movement and behavior. For a good example, watch San Miguel in her duet with a well-heeled suitor (Justin Genna) at Musetta’s party. It’s a key moment in the story, for it ignites Rudolfo’s jealousy that will keep the couple separated until the last scene. It’s a rather formal, innocent dance, and San Miguel’s expression conveys the dramatic moment perfectly: placid and inwardly thrilled, she is flattered to have gained the attention of this elegant man. But he means nothing to her, and is not threat to the deep love she feels for Rudolfo.
Those are the kind of moments that make you believe in the power of dance—both its exterior elegance and beauty, and its ability to convey a heightened truth about the world and our place in it. No doubt about it.