Review: ‘Ballet Russe Reimagined’ Is a Celebration of Ballet’s Golden Age

Review: ‘Ballet Russe Reimagined’ Is a Celebration of Ballet’s Golden Age

Milwaukee Ballet reimagines ballet’s golden age with Stravinsky triptych inspired by the Ballets Russes.

The Pabst Theater’s gilded proscenium seems a perfect frame for Ballet Russe Reimagined, one of two mixed-repertory concerts that are part of the Milwaukee Ballet’s 50th anniversary season.

The program, which ran last weekend, featured three world premieres, each drawing inspiration from early 20th century ballets created by an influential Parisian company of Russian expats called the Ballets Russes.

There are a few reasons we can point to the Ballets Russes as a pivotal bookmark in ballet’s timeline; it’s a company that came to the forefront less than two decades after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s revered ballets like “The Nutcracker,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” premiered.

Despite the successes of those ballets of the late 1800s, 20th century ballet veered sharply toward something different. The Ballets Russes led the charge, with some of history’s best examples of innovation and artistic collaboration in the genre. Not for nothing, American ballet writ large shares a direct link to this company, which premiered the earliest works of George Balanchine. Balanchine, of course, would go on to form the New York City Ballet.

Photo by Mark Frohna

It is from this extraordinary legacy that Milwaukee Ballet’s Ballet Russe Reimagined draws influence. More narrowly, the programs’ three choreographers hone in specifically on composer Igor Stravinsky, who created some of ballet’s best scores on record for this company: The Firebird, Pulcinella Suite and The Rite of Spring.

Were they to be created today, as Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink astutely noted in his curtain speech Thursday, these pieces are almost impossible to imagine financially, particularly given how the Ballets Russes’ creatives were radicalizing the form. It was only possible then because a wealthy impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, invested his fortune in running the company, at the expense of personal profit.

Conversely, there’s nothing especially radical about the works Nicole Teague-Howell, Garrett Glassman and Timothy O’Donnell created for Ballet Russe Reimagined. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t take risks.

It is the story of Diaghilev, and the dancers and choreographers with which he surrounded himself, that fuel O’Donnell’s contribution to Ballet Russe Reimagined in the closing piece, called Sacre. O’Donnell’s reimagination is of Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring (2013), based on a pagan Russian myth about a springtime ritual in which a young girl is sacrificed to the gods by dancing to death. It’s the broader idea of sacrifice that O’Donnell honed in on, with a one-act narrative about Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and other real-life figures involved in the Ballets Russes.

Photo by Mark Frohna

It was not exactly a secret that Diaghilev and Nijinsky were lovers, and O’Donnell’s strongest choreography for Sacre is the handful of gorgeous pas de deux for Barry Molina as Nijinsky and Ransom Wilkes-Davis as Diaghilev. Nijinsky eventually married and had two children, while Diaghilev’s series of subsequent partners included dancers, choreographers, composers and his secretary. O’Donnell ability to portray that half of the narrative is less clear, but one might view this work as an impressionist painting: All the elements are there — an audience riot that occurred at The Rite of Spring’s debut, Nijinsky’s marriage, Diaghilev’s less passionate relationships that followed, and Nijinsky’s decent into schizophrenia toward the end of his life — but these events are muddied by the slightest bit of abstraction that keeps Sacre from looking like a strict story ballet.

Opening the program is Nicole Teague-Howell’s interpretation of The Firebird, after Michel Fokine’s 1910 ballet created for prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Teague-Howell sticks fairly close to the Russian folktale which inspired the original, about a mythical bird that provides protection to a young prince who saves her from peril. She replaces birds, minions, and princesses with what appear to be real people, dressed like they are perhaps from Fokine’s era. This makes dancer Josiah Cook’s attempted murder of Lahna Vanderbush, as the Firebird, all the more unsettling, and humanizes the affection between her and Randy Crespo, who is the Prince Ivan figure. Teague-Howell shines most in this work’s conclusion: a stunning group dance to Stravinsky’s iconic fanfare which serves this glorious music exceedingly well.

Photo by Mark Frohna

Holding down the middle, choreographer Garrett Glassman interpreted Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, which details the events leading up to a wedding. Glassman hones in on a nervous bachelor (Davit Hovhannisyan) on the eve of the blessed event, with a hilarious portrayal of a mid-century modern bachelor party. Glassman swaps Stravinsky’s original Les Noces score — a dirge, at best—for the Pulcinella Suite, which Stravinsky created for another ballet by Leonide Massine. It proved to be the right decision; indeed, Glassman’s piece, called I Do, Don’t I?, combines the pre-wedding narrative with all the slap-stick of commedia dell’arte that inspired Massine’s Pulcinella. Easier on the ears and laugh-out-loud funny, I Do, Don’t I? shows off Glassman’s spot on physical comedy chops in a genuinely funny dance version of the movie The Hangover.

As a ballet history nerd, I adored this program. And there are many immediate and tangible treats that come from viewing it, irrespective of one’s familiarity with the Ballets Russes back story. Will these reimagined works have the same sort of impact as the ones which inspired them? Surely not, but that’s hardly the point. Ballet Russe Reimagined is, perhaps, more inclined to mark a sea change for this company specifically, which underutilizes the choreographic talent from among its ranks. Don’t get me wrong: Michael Pink is among the best balletic storytellers in the country. His ballets are a treat to the city of Milwaukee. But expanding the number of voices regularly choreographing for this company can only add to its value.

Ballet Russe Reimagined ran last weekend at the Pabst Theater. Milwaukee Ballet’s next performance will be Momentum. Tickets and more information at www.milwaukeeballet.org. 

Photo by Mark Frohna

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