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Michael Pink has an enviable pedigree: the Royal Ballet at age 11. Friend and colleague of Rudolf Nureyev. Lured to lead the Milwaukee Ballet in 2002, his aim is simple yet distinctive – to tell stories through the art of dance.

It’s 11:30 a.m., and Michael Pink is having cape problems. Not the superhero kind, the toreador kind.

Pink and a half-dozen of the ballet’s male dancers are clustered around a flat-screen TV, watching a video of the Milwaukee Ballet’s 2005 production of Don Quixote, set to be restaged in Uihlein Hall at the end of October, one month away.

The scene is in Act 3 – set in a bustling town square in which a quartet of toreadors strut their stuff and twirl their capotes to the delight of the crowd. One move is a complicated but dramatic flourish, the arms twisting overhead, bringing the cape around the back and then whirling it into place in front of their hips.

You can almost hear the “Olés” resounding from the crowd. But not here. Here, there are hushed conversations, and the tinny sound of the orchestra as the video is replayed over and over. There is the occasional snap of satin as dancers try the move, and a measure of good-natured chuckling as dancers find their arms tangled or their capotes loosed into the air.

The Cream City brick-lined room is bursting with activity beyond this cluster. In one corner, six women – arrayed in a colorful and motley mix of T-shirts, leotards and tights – try a sequence of steps en pointe, a moment from later in the scene. Others are scattered around the floor, stretching ligaments and muscles in poses the average person could only dream of. But they seem to keep an eye on Pink, who is the tallest person in the room at 6 feet, 2 inches, and whose gentle authority is matched by a quiet, almost musical voice that betrays his British roots.

It’s not the atmosphere you expect from the clichés – ballet companies as cauldrons of overboiling egos and dictatorial directors. There is no ballet master weaving between rows of dancers with cane at the ready, punctuating the rhythms with a loud rap against the wood floor. But forget about what you’ve seen in The Red Shoes or The Black Swan, this is today’s Milwaukee Ballet – Michael Pink’s Milwaukee Ballet – and it works.

Now in his 13th year as the company’s artistic director, Pink, 58, has transformed the institution into a company that reflects a relatively unique approach to the art form. Although contemporary ballet (and dance, for that matter) is very much a world of individual achievement – auteur choreographers or star dancers – Pink sees dance as a rich and multisensory way to tell compelling stories. His vision for ballet is a decidedly collective one, and one that doesn’t hew to the stereotype of the eccentric visionary, shaping his imagination on the pliant and willing bodies of his dancers.

At a time when the 19th-century tradition of “story ballet” has been mostly left behind by modern choreographers, who are more interested in visual innovations and more abstract ideas and emotions, Pink has dedicated his career to crafting full-length dance stories. He embraces fresh retellings of classic ballets, or brand-new dances based on literary classics, that are driven by character and dramatic incident – as well as innovative movement. And his long tenure as the Milwaukee Ballet’s leader has allowed him to shape an institution that shares his particular talents and aesthetics – an entire company of dancing storytellers.

That’s exactly what I’m watching in this early Don Q rehearsal: dancers engaged in the creative process, thinking about the characters they will play, how they will move, and about the way they fit into the story. They are the antithesis of the kind of dancer that Pink encounters often in other companies when he’s hired to set one of his ballets on dancers who work in a more traditional way.

“The idea of a group of people standing around, saying, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and waiting, which I’ve seen in a lot of places – it’s hideous,” Pink explains weeks later, just before Don Quixote is set to open at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

It’s not the way he operates as a choreographer, nor as an artistic director. And that seems to be one of the reasons the Milwaukee Ballet has thrived under Pink, in spite of the considerable challenges faced by arts groups today. In some ways, the unique methods and ambiance in the company reflect Pink’s unique journey through the worlds of theater and dance. Today’s Milwaukee Ballet is what it is because Michael Pink is who he is.

 

Pink was born into a middle-class family in York, England, where his parents were employed in one of the city’s commercial specialties: chocolate. Both his mother and father worked most of their lives at the offices of Rowntree Mackintosh, one of the largest chocolate companies in the world (makers of Kit Kat bars and Rolos). But after work, they devoted their lives to theater.

And it was a family affair: His two brothers performed; one did lights, the other was the group’s treasurer. Dad did publicity and Mum made costumes, and sang Rodgers & Hammerstein at the kitchen sink. “I never had aspirations to be a lawyer, mechanic or anything else,” Pink recalls. “I didn’t want to do anything else other than be involved in the theater.”

Seeking a place in the family troupe, Pink found a path when his mother took him to a ballet performance. “What is this? And how hard is it?” he asked.

“This is ballet,” said his mother. “It’s lovely, darling. Mummy wanted to be a ballet dancer. And it’s very, very difficult.”
Pink simply said, “Well, maybe I should learn to do some of that.”

When she took him to enroll in the local ballet school, they refused to accept him. “I won’t teach you,” the director told him. “I won’t teach boys. They are not reliable.”

But Pink turned out to be quite reliable, thank you. And determined. He hung around the school and pestered the teacher until he was accepted into classes. He won competitions and awards. He was also teased and bullied at school by classmates, and when his mother discovered the bruises, they enrolled him in a private school. When the Royal Ballet came through town looking for talent, they saw promise, and sent Pink to London to audition. He was accepted with a scholarship, becoming the first boy from York to go to the school. He was 11 years old.

 

His first years at school were sylvan and sheltered. Headquartered in Richmond Park, a nature preserve southwest of London, the students spent their days in converted riding stables looking out over a landscape dotted with wild deer. “It was a bit of a bubble,” Pink says, “hanging around these palatial gardens. You think this is the world, but of course, it’s got nothing do to with it.”

That real world struck when Pink moved to the senior school, four years later, located in the heart of bustling London. The crowds and noise were a marked change from the quiet streets of York and the pastoral atmosphere of Richmond Park. “I got off the train, and by the time I got to the end of the platform, I couldn’t walk,” says Pink. “I had a serious attack of agoraphobia, and eventually, somebody had to help me to my room. But once I got there, I wouldn’t step out the door for three weeks.”

He eventually recovered and excelled, first as a dancer, but primarily as a choreographer.

In the years to come, there would be leadership roles in the young company, and awards for his first choreography attempts. The awards – as well as a nagging and severe ingrown toenail that prevented months of training – put Pink on a choreography track at school, which he had mixed feelings about. “My training suffered,” he says. “It took me away from my peers and my group.”

Yet through the successes, there was still something nagging Pink about the world of ballet. “My real passion was still the theater,” he says. “I always felt I was going to circle back to that.” Early in his dance training, he spent his summers hanging out at the York Theatre Royal, “doing anything they asked – handing out fliers, ushering, sitting in on rehearsals.” His first “bit of stage choreography” was for one of the York’s summer musical reviews.

But more deeply, the authoritarian atmosphere of the ballet world bugged him. “I was a bad student, a rebellious student,” he recalls. “Choreographers would ask me to do things, and I’d question them: ‘Why are you asking me to do this? What’s this for?’ And they would say, ‘Just be quiet and do it.’”

It was the first taste Pink would get of the particular power dynamics of the ballet world, which, unlike theater’s give and take between director and actor, is more regimented – “like the army,” Pink says.

“Ballet training is often based on removing the personality from the dancer,” he continues. “You have to break them down to just bare bones and muscle, and then build them up again. That’s how to get the perfect corps de ballet dancers – to make them submissive and unified. You can understand the history and why they do it that way, but it wasn’t for me. I was too inquisitive.”

Pink was admitted to the company of the Royal Ballet just as the organization was going through a change in management. Two weeks after he joined, the powers that be canceled his contract. He recovered, and was accepted into the London Festival Ballet, where he met Rudolf Nureyev.

Nureyev was a legend of 20th-century dance, and since his death from AIDS in 1993, he’s remembered for his dance prowess, his fiery disposition and his sexual appetite. When the Festival Ballet toured some of Nureyev’s ballets, he saw Pink as someone who could help him work with the company.

At the time, Nureyev had several projects going – filming Ken Russell’s biopic Valentino, working with another ballet star, Margot Fonteyn. “His brain was all over the place,” Pink recalls. “He latched on to the fact that I could pick things up pretty quickly.” So he asked Pink to help him tweak choreography and teach the changes to the rest of the dancers – a job known as répétiteur.

Their working relationship continued for several years, as Nureyev’s ballets toured all over Europe and the world. “He and I became really great friends,” Pink recalls fondly. “We used to hang out, and he introduced me to a whole pile of interesting people.”

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But that friendship exposed Pink to Nureyev’s darker, more vulnerable side. “I wasn’t interested in his sexual advances or foolish behavior,” Pink says.

But he was often on the scene for some of the dancer’s famous tantrums. Once, he intervened at a party when King Juan Carlos of Spain called Nureyev “a peasant.” Another time, Nureyev wanted to change a schedule, and when the union wouldn’t allow it, he exploded in a rehearsal room, throwing an ashtray, shattering a mirror and kicking a hole in the wall.

“He was out of control,” Pink recalls. “I remember going over and giving him a bear hug and holding him until he calmed down. He was crying; he was so frustrated. It was a moment of vulnerability that was quite extraordinary. He couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t want to work as hard as he did.”

 

His friendship with Nureyev exposed Pink to the high echelons of the dance world, but the relationship – and his own childhood struggles in London – prepared him for the kind of leadership he’s known for at the Milwaukee Ballet.

“It’s extraordinary,” he says of his struggles in London, “how, back then, there was no counselor at the school. There was nothing. You were left to sort it out on your own.”

That’s a sentiment that has stayed with Pink through the years, and has informed his idea about what it means to be part of a ballet company. “That’s one of the reasons I got back into dance after I stopped dancing myself,” he says. “You’re immersed in this incredible world, and it’s taken for granted that you’re happy: You’re young, everything’s great, you shouldn’t have any problems. But there was no understanding or psychological support for what we were doing.”

The solution, for Pink, has been to foster an environment that’s at odds with stereotypes about the ballet world, which is often ripe with stories about backbiting, egomania and cut-throat competition. Instead, he’s nurtured an organization that’s built on cooperation – from dancers to staff to board of directors. He’s tried to create a ballet “family.”

It’s a word used often by people in all parts of the company. Ballet board member Katie Heil has watched the ups and downs of the ballet for 30 years, and is thrilled about where Pink has taken it: “The talent he’s attracted and retained; the artistic family we have here.”

“I’ve been here 11 years,” says principal dancer Susan Gartell, “and he’s seen me grow up and been there during stages in my life. He’s a family man, which you can see as you get to know him better. You can build a personal, trusting relationship with him – he really is a father figure to a lot of us.”

And Pink feels the spirit as well. “One of the great things about living in this city is that our associates have become our extended family,” he says. “Many people on our board have become like grandparents to my kids. They are genuine friends. The fact that they love the ballet, they love me and they love what I’m doing is secondary to the fact that we have really built true, honest friendships. And we can call it home.”

 

But making Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Ballet a “home” took some doing. When Pink arrived in Milwaukee on Dec. 8, 2002, he was still carrying a little disappointment after unsuccessfully applying to be director of the Boston Ballet, one of the largest companies in the United States.

“I was looking forward to Boston, the challenge of a large company that was pretty dysfunctional,” he says.

But as he found out, there was also that potential in Milwaukee. “I heard that the company had been on a roller coaster of success and decline, and that this was its last chance,” he says. He arrived halfway through the last year of the outgoing artistic director, Simon Dow, and thought he would observe from the sidelines and get a feel for the place.

“The first time I walked in, I thought, it has immense potential, but it’s just as screwed up as any other ballet company,” Pink says. “It’s being run by the senior dancers. There’s no connection with the school. And the doors are all closed and no one’s talking to each other.”

He moved quickly – dismissing principal dancers, locating and recruiting new ones, making plans to revamp the flagship production of The Nutcracker. But through the hard and sometimes brutal decisions involved in reshaping the company, Pink gained the respect of dancers and staff, and he’s overseen what board member Judson Snyder calls “a period of great artistic development and growth for the ballet.”

You can see that growth in the product – the quality of the corps de ballet has improved greatly in the last decade. And there have been several “big event” ballets created by Pink and the company: world premieres such as 2010’s Peter Pan, which was broadcast nationally in 2014; La Bohème, staged in 2012; and last season’s Mirror Mirror, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. But these apparent changes are the result of significant growth behind the scenes.

The ballet’s academy has grown leaps and bounds, and the Milwaukee Ballet II Program has grown from a “pickup” collection of interested dancers to a rigorous – and accredited – program that draws students from around the world, and is closely partnered with the dance program at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts.

One way of measuring Pink’s success is the dedication of the company. Ballet is a competitive business, and many dancers are always on the lookout to advance to bigger companies. But here, turnover is small, and several principal dancers have been here for most or all of Pink’s tenure.

“At least half of the dancers have been here for the last five years, which I think is pretty rare,” says Gartell, who moved into the company from MBII. Marc Petrocci joined the company 12 years ago as an 18-year-old after training with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. For Petrocci, one of the benefits of working with Pink is his approach to dance, which calls for constant challenges and development.

“He believes quite strongly in investing and developing artists,” says Petrocci, a compact and lighting-quick principal best known for playing Peter Pan. “He chooses to tell really deep stories, and in order to do that, you need people who are not just technicians, but who are invested in doing the work.”

The nature of that “investment” suggests what makes Pink unique as a leader and choreographer, an approach that developed when Pink found a way to join his talent for dance and his love of theatrical storytelling.

 

Pink was ready to abandon dance. Shortly after his time with Nureyev, he became disillusioned with the leadership at the London Festival Ballet, and he quit, questioning the very idea of wanting to be a choreographer.

“I just seemed to be allowing everything to happen,” he recalls. “I needed to take control here.” He found work doing construction, and thought he was “done with dance.”

But the theater slowly pulled him back. After six months of construction work, he auditioned and was cast as Bernardo in a production of West Side Story, and loved the fact that he was paid “cash-in-hand.” And he loved being back on stage.
“I felt liberated,” he says. “Every night, I’d walk out on stage and think, ‘I feel so at home here.’”

Fortunately for Pink, Christopher Gable, one of England’s most prominent dance stars, had a similar affinity. Known for his frequent partnerships with Canadian ballet star Lynn Seymour, Gable was a principal with the Royal Ballet through the 1960s, often praised for his acting as well as his ballet skills. Gable and Seymour created the title roles for Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, but Gable was devastated when management decided to give the parts to the ballet superstars Margot Fonteyn and, yes, Rudolf Nureyev. After that episode – and because of arthritis problems in his feet – Gable gave up ballet for the life of an actor, appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in several starring movie roles.

Gable and Pink first taught together at London’s Central School of Ballet. Eventually, Pink created a bare-bones touring company with the senior dancers from the school. “We’d turn up in little church halls and get the dancers to unload the van and lay down some floor and put up some lights,” he recalls. “Presto! We had a show.”

When Gable was invited to head the Northern Ballet Theatre, he asked Pink to join him as associate artistic director.
Gable and Pink turned the company into a major force in British dance, primarily by focusing on “dance dramas” that brought story and acting to equal importance with the choreography. It was there Pink developed many of the ballets that would eventually make it to Milwaukee: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula and Don Quixote.

Most importantly, it was here that Pink could realize his ideas about dance – that it was about storytelling, character and drama as well as “steps.”

It’s those ideas that have permeated the MB company since Pink’s arrival, and made their stamp on the season programs (this season, for example, features four narrative ballets by Pink) and the individual dancers.

Gartell recalls one of her first rehearsals. They were rehearsing a village scene in Romeo & Juliet, and much of the company was part of the background. Pink went to each dancer and asked them to tell a story about their “characters” – who they were, what they were doing there. “We did a lot of exercises like that,” she says. “Ones that were much more acting-driven than dance-driven.

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“It’s at the base of everything he believes in,” she continues. “He wants your performance to be part of the story he’s telling. He wants these characters to be real. I love that part of working with him. It means your whole body is involved as an artist. You can’t just do dance steps, because he wants to communicate with an audience that isn’t necessarily familiar with ballet.”

That extra layer of performance is a challenge for many dancers, but those who join the Milwaukee Ballet learn to embrace it. And Pink helps with his preparation for the ballet. “He’s prepared in every sense of the word for each production,” says Petrocci.

Like a theater director, Pink uses a scale model of the stage to work through entrances and exits. He’ll shift around the music of an established score if he feels it serves the story. Like a film director, Pink creates story boards to help others envision a scene.
“Michael is extremely musical,” Gartell adds. “He has such an ear for counts and cadences, and he expects you to understand music that’s fairly complicated in a short amount of time.”

But such expectations aren’t necessarily a burden for dancers. The challenges company members face in working with Pink – creating full-length ballets with deep characters on a tight rehearsal schedule – is part of the appeal of working with him.

Gartell describes her experience creating a new role – Claudia, Snow White’s evil stepmother, in Mirror Mirror: “It was a culmination of our relationship as director and dancer, with a level of trust that works both ways. You trust him to know you as a dancer. And there’s an ease about him when you work with him. You’d think it would be more nerve-racking, but he has this ability to draw things out of you as an artist.”

 

Pink’s embrace of the full-length story ballet seems to be at the forefront of ballet’s new direction for the 21st century. He’s been asked to restage his work at several American companies and around the world (he recently mounted a production of Dracula in Japan). And his version of Peter Pan was one of the few ballet performances broadcast nationally in 2014 on PBS.

Yet, as Pink sees it, the group’s artistic growth hasn’t necessarily been met with vigorous support from the community. Audiences for “classical” performing arts – ballet, opera, classical music – continue to decline. And garnering contributed support is increasingly challenging for arts groups. Still, comparable ballet companies in America have found ways to grow, while the Milwaukee Ballet’s budget has not even kept pace with inflation. For fiscal year 2002-03, shortly after Pink arrived, the ballet’s budget was around $5.3 million. In fiscal year 2012-13, it was $5.8 million. By comparison, over the same period, budgets for the Atlanta Ballet increased from $5.1 to $8.2 million; Colorado Ballet went from $5.7 to $7.9 million; and the Kansas City Ballet increased from $3.7 to $8.8 million.

In light of this, Pink is looking for growth in the coming years – a $2-3 million increase in the operating budget, as well as a new facility (see sidebar). “Our budget is so far behind where it needs to be,” he says. “We’re so lean and efficient with what we have, but we’re going to cut into bone if we’re not careful. We need a budget that reflects the organization’s ability, a sustainable model that treats people well.”

But Pink sees this as part of a broader need. He wants to work with the city and other organizations to help Milwaukee develop a vision. “We don’t have a cultural plan for this city. How do you build anything without vision? We need to change the city, improve the whole situation. It’s a noble endeavor, but I think we can do that. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

It’s the passion of someone who has set down roots in a place he now calls home. He certainly seems at home on a moonlit evening in late summer. He’s in the backyard of a neighbor’s house in Shorewood, a meet and greet for the new theater technical director at Shorewood High School, where his son Max is a freshman.

The yard is crowded with students and their parents, and Pink fits right in, even though he’s new to the neighborhood. Here, he’s just another parent – albeit of tall stature with a distinct accent. With a plastic cup of red wine in one hand, he’s talking about his struggle to find the right school for his two kids, who are both active in theater. Even as he talks about his frustrations with a private school they briefly attended, he keeps his cool, and his voice still hums smooth with rhythms of his English accent.

He loves the community, and loves that his kids are performing – in school productions, and with First Stage and other local groups. His daughter Georgina – a sixth-grader who is clearly energized by the party – comes by and asks to go next door and play with her friend’s new puppy. His wife and former leading lady, Jayne, stands nearby, her posture betraying her life in the ballet. At Georgina’s request, Pink catches her eye and lifts his glass in a gesture that says, “all right by me.”

There’s a slightly different atmosphere at Uihlein Hall in late October, the opening night of Don Quixote. If Pink has opening- night jitters, he doesn’t show it. He’s there with Georgina, Jayne and Chloe Barrett-Pink, his 22-year-old daughter from a previous marriage who is visiting from England. Before the performance, they stick together, moving around the hallways of the theater, making small talk with familiar faces – fans and supporters of the ballet who have watched the group grow over the years.

At one point, Jayne turns away from the conversation to remind me of a little history. “This is going to be a pretty intense thing for me to watch,” she whispers. “I was the first one to dance this when Michael did Don Q at the Northern Ballet.” That was 1987, with Christopher Gable playing the title role.

Before the performance, Pink steps out to make his curtain speech – facing the less-than-half-full theater – and asks everyone in the audience to spread the word about the show. There’s only a hint of frustration in his voice when he reminds them that there will be only four performances. There is little chance for buzz about the show to circulate and perhaps attract first-time attendees.

After the show, Pink circulates among dancers, musicians and supporters at a reception across the street at the InterContinental Milwaukee. Many of the dancers are dressed to impress, looking more petite than they do on stage. The mood is calm but celebratory, and Pink eventually steps up on a chair to say a few words. He recounts a conversation with a longtime subscriber from earlier in the evening:

“Why haven’t you done something like this before?”

“Well, we have,” Pink tells her. “We did it in 2005.”

“You did not! I’ve never seen anything like this here.”

Pink uses the story to celebrate the ballet’s progress: The company has grown so much that its work is all but unrecognizable. His words are couched, perhaps as an offer of hope to the gathered dancers – there is greater recognition ahead, larger audiences, bigger budgets, better facilities.

It’s an auspicious opening night for Don Q, but the closing is only a few days away. After that, the struggle will resume: new money to raise, new budgets to wrangle, new steps to learn and, above all, new stories to tell.


 

Looking For a New Home

Although the Milwaukee Ballet has made great progress under Pink, one major piece in its drive toward greater stability is still in the works.

Begun four years ago, the Harmony Initiative is an innovative response to one of the MB’s nagging problems: It needs a new home to replace the crumbling, too-small Jodi Peck Center on Fifth and National.

The “Harmony” of the title refers to the collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts. The three organizations would share a space in a more visible Downtown location – to everyone’s benefit.

“There’s no model like this in the country, and this kind of ‘cross-platform’ project is at the forefront of what funders are looking for,” says MB board member Katie Heil, one of the major players in the deal. “This was a new model that would position Milwaukee as a visionary city.” Heil received enthusiastic responses in meetings with major national foundations, and had the support of some big Milwaukee players, including the Herzfeld Foundation and the Dohmen Family Foundation.

But, as you might expect from a project involving real estate and a partnership between huge organizations, there have been roadblocks. Different sites and building plans have been explored, but haven’t materialized. The last effort – aimed at refurbishing the former Laacke & Joys warehouse on Water Street – went as far as an “option to purchase” agreement in June 2013, but that option was terminated when final agreements didn’t materialize in time.

But Heil says the Harmony Initiative “vision” is still “alive and well.”

Pink sees the Harmony Initiative facility as an important part of the ballet’s growth over the next five years. “We’re still dealing with the fact that it didn’t quite happen this time around,” he says. “Our current building is a hazard to the organization. We have no more office space… But the troops are regrouping, and I still believe 100 percent in the project.”

Paul Kosidowski is a contributing writer for Milwaukee Magazine, covering the arts scene. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemag.com.

‘On Pointe’ appears in the March, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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