Winter Series” premiers brand-new ballets

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Pabst Theater is a small, cosy theater, with all the dignity of an 119-year-old building — the perfect atmosphere for fresh choreography. The small audience feels appropriate for the premiers of four works in “Winter Series,” and the theater’s age serves to gently remind the audience how old an art ballet is.

The reminder is well taken, as contemporary choreography often feels disconnected from the programmatic stalwarts like “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker Suite” that often represent classical ballet. For all that has changed in ballet, “Winter Series” shows that its modern form can still move audiences with careful execution.

The show begins with an explosive piece by Timothy O’Donnell danced not by the main company, but by the Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II students of the Milwaukee Ballet School. The dancers were flawless and did not betray their inexperience.

O’Donnell’s piece opens slowly, but much of it is fast and exuberant, except for a poignant section later on that features just two dancers and a mournful piano playing in the background.

Gabrielle Lamb’s HappenStance is calmer, but perhaps more creative. At the beginning, a circle of eight stands above two tightly entwined dancers. The total stillness invests the moment with the gravitas of a scene from a Shakespearean tragedy.

The two stay entwined and move in concert for a surprisingly long time. The result is an engaging and rare female-female duet — the two clearly have chemistry. Lamb strays from convention again with a long section of just five male dancers.

At the pre-show social, Pints before Pointe, Lamb admitted she had never choreographed a group of that size before. “HappenStance”’s best moments belie that disclaimer, as all 10 dancers stand for a moment of carefully arranged stillness, like in the opening, or form beautiful lines and arcs. Other times, the group’s size meshes poorly with Lamb’s vision, and it borders on incoherent. “HappenStance” has whimsy, too, like when the dancers appear to be controlling each other like marionettes. Whispers of laughter at a few points suggested that the audience appreciated a few moments, but they were rare. The piece could have drawn more from the “jokes” that she explained in the program, partly inspired her piece.

“Scene/Six” is by Luca Veggetti, a longtime friend of Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink. After many years of trying, Veggetti has a chance to showcase his work in Milwaukee.

In “Scene/Six,” Dancers seem hesitant as they move each other, more languid than liquid, their arms and legs bent into jagged hooks. The atmosphere is eerie, even gothic. The foreboding music, yellow-green lighting and glacial motion suggest something sinister or sick, with shades of Mirkwood or the Wicked Witch’s castle.

The track by Kaja Saariaho, “Vent Nocturne,” accentuates the nightmarish quality. It’s a suitably dissonant score for the clashing movement on stage. “Nocturne” is slow, even plodding as the violas patiently contort themselves. Scene/Six requires immense subtlety; fortunately, dancers are able to articulate both lethargy and energy when required to. Out of the four works, it is the least energetic and hardly a crowd-pleaser. The slower sections frequently risk going beyond being moody and becoming stifling. Its inaccessibility is regrettable, but as an inventive study in horror, it is a worthy choice.

O’Donnell’s second piece, the enthralling “Talk To Me,” makes an excellent counterpoint to “Scene/Six”’s unrelenting solemnity and was a smart choice for the finale. Quirky and fun, the piece isn’t afraid to be explicit. Paired dancing predominates, although dancers grow more independent from their partners as the piece goes on.

“Talk to Me” is set to the lesser-known “Concerto in G Major for Two Mandolins” and an electric rendition of the already explosive Vivaldi piece “The Four Seasons.” As the music vamps and wails, dancers perform exhausting sequences of complex motions. Luckily, the company is up for the challenge.

“Winter Series” was definitely experimental. After all, its opening night was each piece’s first. This makes for enthralling moments of discovery, present in every piece but most prevalent in “Talk To Me.”

Not every experiment works, however. Such is the risk of choosing not only contemporary but brand-new pieces. For those willing to wait out some of the misses, there are great moments here, particularly the gorgeous final minutes of “Talk to Me.”