Pulling dance from a hat: Milwaukee’s ‘Genesis’ project

MILWAUKEE, WI — Every other year, Milwaukee Ballet’s artistic director Michael Pink sifts through a pile of applications one-by-one to select three choreographers. Some are up-and-coming, some pretty established. Pink wants a clear idea and the potential for a great piece. The only other requirement: be affiliated with a professional company.

Choreographers from all over the world applied for Genesis, Milwaukee Ballet’s biennial choreographic competition highlighting new work from living choreographers and infusing the company’s rep with contemporary dances to complement its impressive inventory of full-length story ballets.

2017’s finalists have impressive resumes, with multi-award-winning Enrico Morelli from MM Contemporary Dance Company in Italy, George Williamson, who danced under Krzysztof Pastor in the Polish National Ballet and has created work for the English National Ballet since 2012, and Mariana Oliveira, the LA-based Brazilian founder of The Union Project chosen from a pool of 54 applicants.

What do they get? Three weeks, eight dancers, and a four-night engagement opening this weekend at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater, fully produced by the Ballet’s in-house design team.

Choreographer Enrico Morelli, background, in rehearsal (photo credit: Nathaniel Davauer)

Visiting the company’s beautiful studios mid-process, it became clear that making a piece in three weeks is no easy task. Oliveira might have had a slight advantage, having worked in a similarly fast-paced environment just a year ago as a recipient of the Joffrey Ballet’s Winning Works competition, so while she was already cleaning with a week left to go, the two men were deep in the weeds still developing movement.

Moreover, the casts are determined by pulling names out of a hat – everybody gets four men and four women, and no one gets to choose who. Leslie Rivers, Milwaukee Ballet’s marketing manager, explained the benefits of casting this way. Aside being fair for the three Genesis finalists, she said it breaks the dancers out of their comfort zones because they get to work in pairings and styles for which they might not ordinarily have been chosen.

I watched each choreographer labor over minutia for what felt like a long time, but then the music came on, and all of the sudden they were dances. It’s a joint effort between dancers and choreographers that makes this magic happen; it’s what takes an arduous group pretzel into Morelli’s sweeping, sensitive embodiment of Chopin in The Noise of Whispers, or how spending five minutes to perfect turned in foot positions and sharp turns of heads becomes Oliveira’s comedia del arte-inspired Pagliacci, or carves the journey of mystical creatures who become progressively human by pasting over curves and under curves meticulously together one-by-one in Williamson’s Wonderers.

The grand prize is selected by a panel of judges, with an extra Audience Choice Award selected by Genesis audiences, who win too. Genesis introduces a pool of international choreographers to Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Ballet to them, which ultimately serves Michael Pink’s  goal to raise the profile of his company and get people to realize how awesome they are.

Genesis 2017 runs Feb. 16-19 at the Past Theatre, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets start at $34.25 and are available online at milwaukeeballet.org, or by phone at 414-286-3205.