Those of us who were frequent arts-goers before the pandemic have been itching to get back to some kind of live performance. Milwaukee Ballet is among the first of the city’s arts organizations to return to limited capacity live audiences, leading the way with To the Pointe, a breezy evening of classical ballet running through March 7 at the Baumgartner Center.
It was a little like riding a bike. Sure, the black dress I wore to the Pabst Theatre a year ago is a little bit snugger. My stretched-out feet were very unhappy in dress shoes after months wearing slippers. Entering the Baumgartner Center, we walked past teenagers taking a ballet class on the way to a gorgeous studio theater, our programs awaiting us at flipped down chairs. Groups are spaced feet apart from one another. My glasses fogged up as I glanced over two masks to read artistic director Michael Pink’s note to the audience.
In almost every other sense, dance is the same as it ever was, though I think all of us — patrons, dancers and staff — were acutely aware of how lucky we were to be there.
The hour-long show begins with Jules Perrot’s Pas de Quatre, which opens with a dreamy tableau of leading ladies Annia Hidalgo, Lizzie Trip, Itzel Hernandez and Alana Griffith in frothy long tutus and flower crowns over center-parted Romantic-style hairdos.
Pas de Quatre premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1845 to music by Cesare Pugni. The ballet is passed down like a family heirloom from dancer to dancer; these women most likely learned bits of it in high school. British choreographer Anton Dolin memorialized as close a reconstruction of the ballet as he could in 1941, with costumes recreated from 19th century lithographs of the original cast: Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito and Marie Taglioni. On this February night, antiquity was in the air. It was as though Taglioni, Grahn, Grisi and Cerrito were among us, dancing alongside each performer. Maybe they were.
Perrot’s genius in creating this technical showpiece was to pit dancer against dancer — an 1840s dance battle, so to speak, between wildly popular prima ballerinas of the day. Each solo is customized to her strengths. Interactions between dancers, as they yield the stage after each variation, are properly cordial but generally icy; in this pandemic version, this is accomplished through an impressive use of side-eye above muslin masks.
But it’s worth pointing out that Pas de Quatre cannot survive on nostalgia alone. Almost entirely devoid of transitional steps, the ballet is an exercise in specificity and precision. Anything less than perfection and the whole thing a silly mess. Moreover, the technique is outdated by today’s standards, with low arabesques; soft, rounded arms and forward tilting torsos honed by Taglioni and her contemporaries as pointe work was still being invented. These roles are a litmus test for any ballerina; these four passed. That Milwaukee Ballet would attempt it, particularly now, is a vote of confidence that pays off in spades. What a gift to them — and us.
Pas de Quatre is complemented by two other popular selections from the ballet canon. And these, too, are magnificently done. In the former, Swan Lake’s pas de trois, Marko Micov is flanked by sprightly, whimsical twin sisters Elizabeth Harrison and Marie Harrison-Collins. Arguably one of the only bits of Le Corsaire worth keeping, the grand pas de deux is an important part, in particular, for Parker Brasser-Vos, who somehow came out of quarantine stronger than ever. Brasser-Vos, who hadn’t, until now, struck me as one for audacious, maschismo roles goes all in as Conrad, a pirate who sets sail to rescue his love, Medora. Lahna Vanderbush holds her own as Medora, whipping up lightening fast pirouettes as her mask pulses in and out in time with her turns.
To the Pointe is, in essence, a journey through the history of ballet. We begin in 1845 with Pas de Quatre, travel through the classical period with Swan Lake and Corsaire and arrive at today with two brand new works channeling 20th century trends by resident choreographer Timothy O’Donnell and artistic director Michael Pink.
O’Donnell’s Chopin Etudes taps into the mind of Michel Fokine, who famously referenced romanticism in his 1909 Les Sylphides to music by Chopin. O’Donnell’s take is slightly more contemporary, with a passionate pas de deux set on Kristen Marshall and Ransom Wilkes-Davis. Chopin Etudes and its composer remind me a bit of the Devil’s Churn on the Oregon coast. In some moments it is simple and astoundingly beautiful. In others, it swirls and rumbles at ground level before spouting above the surface with terrific overhead lifts.
It would be forgivable, expected, even, to see wobbles. No such negotiation is needed on this night, which showed few, if any, signs of atrophy, save the medium rare Symphony, a plotless octet set to music by Prokovfiev which closes the program.
Symphony feels outside Pink’s comfort zone, but in a good way. Modern stylings in the dance (with the occasional pop of the hip or a turned in leg) and the designs (practice clothes backed by a clean blue cyclorama) invite audiences to recall George Balanchine’s catalog, though Pink’s musical impulses come from a distinctly different place — Milwaukee, I suppose.
‘To the Pointe’ runs March 4-7 at the Baumgartner Center for Dance, 128 N Jackson Street. In-person tickets are $50-$65, with $20-30 on-demand passes for 72-hours access.