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A Swan of a Different Color
Michael Pink and the Milwaukee Ballet's very contemporary take on a Russian classic.

Valerie Harmon and Ryan Martin (photo by Brian Lipchik)

Milwaukee Ballet director Michael Pink had to be thinking of his approach to Swan Lake for some time, so I don’t think it could have been inspired by a television show that debuted only last February. But watching Pink’s highly theatrical and compelling version of the classic ballet Thursday night, I kept thinking of the dark and dastardly Washington intrigue of the Netflix political drama, House of Cards.

There are many versions of Swan Lake, from the nearly four-hour 1877 original Bolshoi version to George Balanchine’s 45-minute whirlwind. From Matthew Bourne’s all male version to, of course, Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s “meta” take on the story.

Michael Pink’s beautifully danced version of the Russian classic isn’t quite as radical as Bourne’s, but it definitely shapes the story into something unique and modern. There’s still a touch of the mystical, and he has a terrific embodiment of the evil sorcerer in Timothy O’Donnell’s Rothbart, his stunning black and violent cape cascading through the action at just the right moments. But to drive the action, Pink adds a powerful motivation to Rothbart and his “black swan” Odile. In a prologue, they are shown gazing up at a projected image of a crown. It’s a good, old-fashioned political power grab.

Pink’s boldest choice is the “new look” of the swans, toying with one of the most iconic visions in all of ballet. Traditionally, the swans wear either traditional “pancake” tutus, stiff disks of tulle that jut out from their hips, or the so-called “romantic” tutu, a ¾-length, bell-shaped skirt. When the swans spread across the stage for the classic ensembles, the costumes are instrumental in creating the ethereal vision—undulating waves of limbs and fabric.

Pink, however, strips the look down. When I talked to him a few weeks ago about the choice, he said he wanted the swans to look more worn and weathered, highlighting the misery of their trapped existence. True enough. The skirts are shorter, tattered, and less substantial. The bodices are simple. The hair is loose and flowing, not pinned beneath a feathered headpiece. The look is spare and minimal; it accentuates the form of the dancers’ bodies rather than strive for an otherworldly illusion. It’s like Russian classical ballet by way of Isadora Duncan.

While one might miss the rich, undulating texture of the large ensembles, the spare costumes well serve Pink’s approach to the story. Watch the pas de deux between Odette and Prince Siegfried (danced by Luz San Miguel and David Hovhannisyan on Thursday), the dance that suggests their blossoming love. The movement has balletic roots. San Miguel enacts the fragility and shyness of her creature with lovely delicacy. But the trajectory of the dance is quintessentially modern in temperament. As the emotions bloom, they transcend the formalism of ballet’s stylized vocabulary—they are tender, intimate, and physical. There is skin on skin, flesh on flesh—and with no lacy hoops to get in the way, the costume allows for it. It’s the beautiful completion of the coy flirtation between the two in the first scene, a playful romp in the woods.

Contrast that with the beginning of Act Two, when Siegfried comes to court to have suitable brides presented to him. It’s all pomp and circumstance, with royals and courtiers wrapped up tightly in their trappings of power. He chooses Odile—her image taps in to the primal longing that Rothbart has obviously implanted in him. Annia Hidalgo dances his seduction with knowing manipulation and confident bravado. And the couple’s passion is formalized—the language of ballet. Hovhannisyan is superbly suited to this role, a dancer of robust power, he’s nonetheless capable of expressing fragile emotions. In the court with Odile, he is a prince seduced. But in the forest, with Odette, he is a man in love.

The seduction, of course, leads to the ballet’s tragic conclusion, which I won’t spoil. Yes, even if you are a ballet-ophile, this Swan Lake might surprise you. But there is nothing unexpected in the strength of the production—a well-tuned corps, well executed supporting roles (including a superbly danced Benno by Alexandre Ferreira), and a superbly played score by a chamber sized (but amplified) orchestra conducted by Pasquale Laurino. This may not be your mother’s Swan Lake, but it’s one you won’t want to miss. 

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