When last I saw the Milwaukee Ballet Company, vaccines had not yet been rolled out. I walked through an empty Third Ward to arrive at the Baumgartner Center for Dance, put on two masks and sat with 24 others in Milwaukee Ballet’s studio theatre for a short program of antique repertoire – brief by design so there was no intermission. Get in, get out.
A sense of palpable excitement and, dare I say, normalcy buzzed through the Marcus Performing Arts Center Thursday. It’s not as though Samantha Stephens wiggled her nose and dance simply picked up where we left off; things have changed. (The Marcus Center, too, is changed, with a major overhaul of Uihlein Hall’s seating arrangement yielding two glorious new aisles carving through a sea of plush red chairs.) Walking in with vaccination card in hard for a heartily programmed evening of dance now feels like an act of resilience, by dancers and audience, both – and a reminder that there has been progress since that chilly day at the Baumgartner Center.
Indeed, the Milwaukee Ballet Company’s 2021-22 season opener, titled “Connect,” attempts to reach a sea of masked patrons in the cavernous hall, many of whom have spent the last 18 months on Zoom. And it does. Perhaps the dancers can see we are starved for something more than a digital, 2-D connection, and this program delivers on more fronts than that. It is unusual for this company to perform a mixed-bill this early in the season – they typically opt for a big story ballet to kick things off (and fill seats). But if you’re waiting for “The Nutcracker,” to return to Milwaukee Ballet, you are missing out on a triptych of life-affirming contemporary works and extraordinary performances by dancers who appear to have conceded nothing to the pandemic.
Case in point: Benjamin Simoens gave the performance of his life Thursday, in a tender solo tucked between group dances in choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie’s world premiere called “Flight Anew.” Simoens, wearing just a white tank top and tights cut off at the knee, dipped past the Marcus Center’s auburn proscenium and onto the apron for a silky, smooth offering set to “Lucky to Be Me,” by Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Leonard Bernstein.
Atop the covered over orchestra pit is a square piece of dance floor, echoed by a rhombus of light in the main performance space, now empty. Simoens, a calm, half-smile on his lips, is now close enough to us that we can hear his breath; Moultrie’s joyous blend of ballet, jazz and a skosh of Martha Graham is perfectly arranged for this company, not just here but in the previous section (a raucous romp akin to a balletic dance off set to jitterbug music by Count Basie) and all the others – each elegantly dressed by Mary Piering and gorgeously illuminated by lighting designer David Grill. Simoens’ solo and a profoundly beautiful pas de deux to Duke Ellington and performed by Annia Hidalgo and Ransom Wilkes-Davis, are the quieter moments of reflection in Moultrie’s joyful noise, his fourth work for this company and arguably one of his best.
Choreographer Dani Rowe makes her Milwaukee Ballet debut with “Chaminade,” a sweet morsel set to music by the eponymous composer. Cecile Chaminade’s suite for solo piano was criticized as fluffy salon music; Rowe, by contrast, commands this score as George Balanchine might have, choosing rhythm and form over strict attention to narrative, though pairings and trios scattered throughout allude to kinships and romantic partnerships, all of them fleeting.
Only Rowe knows if a nod to Balanchine was intentional, though the parallels go beyond musical panache: A simple blue background and subtly styled leotards and tights provide a clean slate for this wonderful display of technique, in which Rowe recites ballet’s dictionary nearly from beginning to end. (When was the last time you saw gargouillades on stage? Yeah, me neither.) but it is not academic, though Rowe’s affinity for clean lines and classically structured choreographic devices rings louder than the piece’s contemporary stylings and the subtle emotions imbued within this rich work. Balanchine famously said, “Ballet is woman,” in the same era that Chaminade’s glorious music was reduced to ladies’ parlor tunes. Perhaps this ballet is a tongue-in-cheek roar to this ambivalence that female composers and choreographers sometimes face, even today.
The two world premieres bookend choreographer Mauro de Candia’s “Purple Fools,” a revival first staged in 2012 after de Candia won Milwaukee Ballet’s Genesis choreographic competition. “Purple Fools” pokes fun at aristocracy, opera, theatre, dance and any other potentially stuffy thing you can think of. It is set to a wildly eclectic mixtape of classical music, with opera’s greatest hits sitting side by side with salsa music. There’s Offenbach, Mozart, Strauss – there’s a bossa nova remix of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” for crying out loud. Think an out-of-sorts mid-century cocktail party, meets commedia dell‘arte, meets Jiří Kylián’s “Black & White Ballets,” and you’ll kind of get the idea. Intrigued? I hope so.
Milwaukee Ballet’s “Connect” continues through Sunday, Oct. 31 at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, 929 N. Water Street. Tickets are $40-$128 at milwaukeeballet.org.