MILWAUKEE, WI: Since 2002, Michael Pink has remained at the helm of Milwaukee Ballet, the longest sitting Artistic Director in the company’s 45 year history. Pink’s impressive resume as a dancer rival those of the world’s most prestigious artistic directors, however, unlike many of his colleagues, Pink is also one of his company’s primary choreographers. Because Pink has the advantage of a home company as the main vehicle for his choreography, he does not necessarily have the same level of international exposure as other notable ballet choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon or Stanton Welch, whose ballets are in demand around the world.
Pink’s vivid imagination and love for a good story have created some impressive ballets that could easily stand up outside Milwaukee. While Wheeldon gets busy creating a brand new Nutcracker for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet has performed Michael Pink’s unique Nutcracker production for more than a decade, and I was delighted at the invitation to view it for the first time last weekend.
Considering a relatively small operating budget, it is astonishing to witness the level of sophistication the Milwaukee Ballet brings to its productions. Zack Brown’s exquisite Nutcracker sets adorn the 2,305-seat mid-century Uihlein Hall at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, a glorious, if understated, venue designed by Evanstonian Harry Weese.
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As the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra plays the overture, we peek into a vignette of Drosselmeyer in his workshop with an assistant, crafting puppets and the famed nutcracker doll that will, inevitably, turn into an enchanted prince. The gauzy curtain rises on the opulent Tannenbaum living room, and the story begins.
Some Nutcrackers have a Clara, some a Marie; Pink’s Nutcracker has both, as he reimagines the storyline as a magical mystery tour of three siblings: Clara, her older sister Marie, and brother Fritz. Clara (danced by Alana Griffith) and Fritz (Marc Petrocci) are playful and blithe, keeping up their mischeivious, childlike enthusiasm through the whole ballet, while mature Marie (Annia Hidalgo) pursues love interest Karl, Drosselmeyer’s assistant (danced by Alexandre Ferreira).
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Pink’s attention to detail is second to none; any departures from convention to the original story only serve to improve it. Pink shows intention and continuity where other Nutcrackers don’t, and he is unafraid in allowing the Tannenbaum family; the life-sized fantasy characters of the subsequent fight, snow, and land of the sweet scenes; and the story itself to get a little ridiculous – in a good way.
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The thing about the Nutcracker ballet, you see, is that it’s a loose story at best, particularly when it comes to everything after the party scene. Where most productions shove Clara in a corner to sit on a throne as divertissement after divertissement shamelessly show off the company’s soloists, Pink infuses the second act with characters from the first act. Clara and Fritz play with a Chinese dragon, a team of clowns (replacing the first act mechanical dolls and traditional Russian Trepak), and a shepherdess with her three adorable geese (in place of the Marzipan candy/girl with a flute dance).
The tale comes to fruition as Marie and Karl emerge for the grand pas de deux in place of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Pink maintains the original Petipa version of the grand pas, because you can’t really mess with that. Although, while the use of first-act characters for the sugar plum pas probably makes more sense, Pink’s innovative, challenging, breathtakingly beautiful passes of partnering in the first act pas de deux left Ferreira unable to do the job in the second (and who can blame him? He’d already been dancing for nearly two hours).
Stamina aside, the technique and performance quality of Milwaukee Ballet’s dancers; the feats of magic from its production team; a well-rehearsed, adorable children’s cast; and the high bar set by Michael Pink are reasons enough to venture across the border and check out this world-class company.
Michael Pink’s Nutcracker continues through Dec. 27 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (929 N. Water St., Milwaukee). Tickets are $35-102, available at milwaukeeballet.org or by calling (414) 902-2103.