I first interviewed Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink in 2014, and he said, If we can get you through the doors, we can a have lasting impact. Pink has kept that promise so far, continuing to bring original ballets of the highest caliber to his city. Through Sunday at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Milwaukee Ballets season opener La Boheme is no exception, and well worth the trip 90 miles north of Chicago.
La Boheme premiered in 2012, when Pink reimagined Giacomo Puccinis best-known (and perhaps most loved) opera as a three-act ballet accompanied by Milwaukee Ballet music director Andrews Sills arrangement of the original music stripped of its voices. Puccinis score lends itself so beautifully to dancing, particularly when you add Pinks natural musicality and ability to seamlessly fold elegant choreography into a story. Opera purists may still object, but if they can get over the no singing, La Boheme is a potentially brilliant way to cross-pollinate opera and dance audiences.
Puccini situated the opera at the turn of the 20th century, as the free-falling patron model of arts funding led to the birth of the starving artists the Bohemians. Pink and his rock-star design team (lighting by David Grill, costumes by Paul Daigle and scenic by Richard Graham) move the setting ahead 50 years to 1950s Paris, perfectly capturing the timeless and fervent joy, passion and naivete of aspiring artists who seek to make art for arts sake.
The ballet opens on a bustling Parisian street scene nestled in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, then zooms in on the modest apartment of painter Marcello (Timothy ODonnell) and the poet Rodolfo (Davit Hovhannisyan). The two friends are struggling artists trying to keep warm by burning Rodolfos manuscript, soon joined by the musician Schaunard (Parker Brasser-Vos) and philosopher Colline (Garrett Glassman) for wine and baguettes a Christmastime celebration among friends.
Mimi arrives at their door, a neighbor looking for a lighter for her candle. Lead dancer Luz San Miguel is as convincing in acting as in dancing, convulsing as she grasps her chest, a harbinger (spoiler) of her impending death. The first act is a quick half hour of merriment that includes Mimi and Rodolfo falling in love almost immediately, though their pas de deux is welcome by that point, and simply beautiful.
The second act moves to a cafe scene, where the group meets the rambunctious Musetta (Annia Hidalgo), who swiftly seduces ODonnells Marcello while a frenetic and boisterous group dance goes on around them. The party continues at a late-night house party, where Mimi and Rodolfo quarrel as Mimi, a seamstress, tries to secure business from a wealthy patron through the power of seduction.
The ballets high point comes in the third act, with simultaneous pas de deux outside Musettas cafe. The lovers dance slight variations of the same duet, though different stories are unfolding between the two couples. Rodolfo discovers that Mimi is dying; meanwhile Marcello and Musetta are busy breaking up. As with the rest of the ballet, the dancing arrives out of the music without showy bravura. Its a different approach from the 19th century full-length ballets, whose music lends itself to moments of showmanship that do little to advance the story. La Boheme features Milwaukee Ballets dancers, no question, but its frankly not about them. Pinks priority is telling the tale, which he does with the greatest of care and intention through silent acting and dance. Case in point: La Bohemes ending depicts Mimis final breaths, and Pink opts not for a 45-second mens variation of mournful saut de basques as more ballet tragedies do. Instead, he offers a quiet, dance-free scene with Mimi surrounded by her friends, Puccini swelling in the background, as shes cradled in Rodolfos arms.
When: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee
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