MILWAUKEE—While taking a brief hiatus from dancing, Timothy O’Donnell visited Milwaukee Ballet to take class on a whim. Artistic Director Michael Pink invited him to join the company that day, and the city to our north is now O’Donnell’s full-time home. In addition to dancing for Milwaukee Ballet, O’Donnell is also its Choreographer-in-Residence and assists with design and art direction for the company’s promotional materials. In a real sign of permanence, the born and raised Australian even just got his Wisconsin drivers license.
In a phone interview, O’Donnell explained how he first became aware of the small-ish but robust Midwestern ballet company from 9,000 miles away. The recently retired Douglas McCubbin, now the Company Manager, visited O’Donnell and encouraged him to apply for Milwaukee Ballet’s Genesis Competition, an initiative featuring three emerging choreographers from around the world to duke it out for a coveted prize: setting a work on the company the following season. O’Donnell grabbed the victory in 2009, setting his work Boléro-Let There Be Light in 2010. So in 2012 when O’Donnell popped in for that class, he wasn’t entirely a stranger to Milwaukee Ballet.
In his latest work, The Sixth Sin, premiering tonight at the Marcus Center, explores themes of body image and envy, and the crippling anxiety that can result from constant comparison and false expectations perpetuated by the media. As a dancer, the work’s inspiration and the realities of working in an aesthetic artform whose instrument is the body is a parallel not lost on him, and personal experiences from throughout his career have fueled The Sixth Sin. “I wasn’t able to focus and do my work because I was putting all my energy into hating myself,” he said said in a phone interview.
Not simply an exercise in reflexivity, O’Donnell is also using dance to give a voice to socio-political themes about which he is passionate. “This is my avenue to make political statements or social observations,” he said. “Five and six year olds have severe anxiety due to body image. This is my avenue to say something about it.”
Positioned two months after the premiere Michael Pink’s Dorian Gray, and previous seasons’ Mirror Mirror and Dracula, the pros and cons of beauty and envy appear to be a running theme at Milwaukee Ballet. In an interview about Dorian Gray, Pink said, “When I look at my dancers, they are the beautiful people. There is nobody better to portray the story of Dorian Gray than the beautiful dancers because of the direct parallel: their lives as dancers will be over before they grow old. They will never grow old as dancers.”
So, too, does The Sixth Sin draw connections between dance and beauty, envy, and perfection. The semi-narrative work follows morphing storylines through a series of vignettes. “The story follows people who, theoretically, are the perfect people…” said O’Donnell, “People continued to envy them as they are falling apart. Their lives are horrible!” When considering the enviable figures in American life today – the Kardashians and the Bachelors and the So You Think You Can Dancers of the world – the lives we see and the lives they live are likely very different. And yet, we go on revering them anyway, or at least perpetuating the facade by placing unattainable goals and standards on ourselves.
The world premiere of The Sixth Sin is tonight, alongside the Milwaukee premiere of Trey McInytre’s Beatles-scored A Day in the Life, and a new piece by Garrett Smith, the winner of the 2015 Genesis choreography competition. O’Donnell insists that audience members needn’t be dancers to enjoy this mixed bill, which can sometimes be harder to sell than the traditional full-length ballets. “Come along!” he said with a thick Australian accent. “The program as a whole is incredibly diverse.”
“The Sixth Sin” premieres March 31 as part of the mixed bill Kaleidoscope Eyes March 31-April 3 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N Water St, Milwaukee. Tickets are $35-$102, available online at www.milwaukeeballet.org or by calling 414-902-2103.