Playing this weekend at the Marcus Center, Milwaukee Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast caps a truncated season that, like most things in the arts these days, has had its ups and downs.
One of the ups: A good portion of the year was dedicated to shoring up the company’s stock of contemporary works with extraordinary programs in October and March. But with Beauty and the Beast, Milwaukee Ballet returns to a familiar format with a luxurious ballet based on a timeless fairy tale.
Speaking of tales as old as time, Beauty and the Beast is an amuse bouche for next season, which is chock full of fanciful story ballets (Swan Lake in November, Hunchback of Notre Dame in March and Peter Pan in May, plus the final run of their aged Nutcracker in December). But Beauty and the Beast could easily be pegged as one of their best in the category, well worthy of seeing again if you caught it in 2018.
Artistic director and choreographer Michael Pink pulls from various versions of the fairy tale, first penned by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. Those looking for Gaston, Lumiere and Mrs. Potts won’t find them here, through there are enough similarities to keep Disneyphiles happy — the first being that this ballet is totally magical.
Composer Philip Feeney’s impeccable score billows out of the orchestra pit — a piece that at times parallels Tchaikovsky, Prokovfiev or Minkus but is, in fact, wholly original. Feeney manages to infuse the ballet with clear imagery that places us squarely in a provincial town, a gloomy castle, or a haunted forest.
The ballet begins there, in the forest, with drippy, tangled vines and a foggy mist shrouding a slow-motion prologue alluding to Beast’s back story. A Prince (Josiah Cook), atop a galloping mechanical horse, swings a sword overhead and comes across a gaggle of nightgowned children. Cook dismisses them and a displeased Enchantress emerges (Alana Griffith). She is not a fairy godmother, exactly — more like a quasi-moral compass.
While blissfully waltzing at a lavish party in the next scene, a haggard old woman arrives at the door. It’s strike two for the Prince, when the woman is revealed to be the Enchantress, once again testing his capacity for compassion. She places a curse on him, transforming him into a wretched creature (terrifically danced by Davit Hovhannisyan).
Bookish Belle (Annia Hidalgo) and her loving father, Maurice (Garrett Glassman), get themselves in a pickle when Maurice, lost in the woods in search of a way to save his failed business, stumbles across Beast’s castle. It becomes clear this is no ordinary castle; gargoyles feed him, candelabras and stone statues come to life — the latter, portrayed by Itzel Hernandez and Barry Molina who pirouette for Maurice’s (and our) pleasure. Feeling refreshed, Maurice makes for home through a hedge maze and plucks a rose from a somehow charming, slightly creepy wall of tiny dancer heads poking through rosebuds on the hedges. You pretty much know the rest of the story.
As per usual for a Michael Pink work, Beauty and the Beast is packed with gorgeous dancing that extracts the story from gestures, ballet and some modern dance vocabulary. Some of the most fun is had in the village scenes, which house joyous, crisscrossing group dances. Herein lies a sub-plot about Belle’s two very silly sisters (Marize Fumero and Lizzie Tripp) and their equally ditsy twin suitors (Randy Crespo and Parker Brasser-Vos) who don grey suits, fluorescent waistcoats and blond Flock of Seagulls-esque wigs. This may be an opportune time to mention Paul Daigle’s extraordinary costume designs, which pair immaculately with scenic and lighting by Todd Edward Ivins and David Grill.
Pink’s genius here is his ability to appeal to traditionalists whilst avoiding archaism. All the conventions of late-19th century classicism are here: class warfare, a heart-warming protagonist, humans transformed into non-human creatures, princesses, an unbelievable story and a happily ever after. There’s even cause for divertissements when Belle, alone in her book-filled room at the castle, goes on flights of fancy with reenactments of classic fairy tales: Rapunzel, Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood and the Pied Piper.
Perhaps it is its sheer beauty, but there’s a freshness to this ballet that gives this ancient tale legs and some relevance in a 21st century context. Mind you, the premise — boy-meets-fairy, fairy-curses-boy, beast-meets-dad, beast-meets-girl, girl-eventually-falls-in-love-with-beast-and-gets-hot-guy — doesn’t resonate the way it might have in the 1740s (or the 1990s, for that matter, when the smash hit Disney film was released). Scholars have even speculated that Beauty and the Beast was meant to prime young women for arranged marriages, appealing to the idea that a woman might learn to love her suitor and see the good in him eventually.
So that’s gross. But at face value, Beauty and the Beast is also about not judging a person (or a beast, in this case) on his appearances. In this version, the timing of Beast’s curse and pending death is dictated not by a wilting rose dropping petals, but by a macabre tangle of rose vines choking the life out of him. So, it’s still not totally clear if Beast truly loves Belle or is trying to get out of a very bad situation, but Hovhannisyan masterfully mines a complex character that you can’t help but root for.
Milwaukee Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast continues through Sunday May 22 at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. Tickets and information at milwaukeeballet.org.