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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, July 28, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Michael Pink (foreground) demonstrates a movement to dancer David Hovhannisyan in a rehearsal of "The Nutcracker." Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Ballet

Theatricality drives Milwaukee Ballet's Michael Pink


The Milwaukee Ballet's 2010 edition of "The Nutcracker" is around the corner, and that again raises the profile of artistic director Michael Pink, who has been on a creative tear in the early months of this season. "Esmeralda," his new take on his older ballet "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," received its world premiere at the Marcus Center in October, and Pink choreographed the Milwaukee Rep's big production of "Cabaret" in September.

It was the first time he has worked with the Rep, but anyone surprised that he would sign on to choreograph a Broadway musical doesn't know the man or his work.

Pink -- who just signed a five-year contract extension with the Ballet -- was born into a theatrical family in England. His parents met in an amateur production of a musical, and he was a child actor, appearing in Shakespeare and pantomimes, that uniquely British style of musical comedy. Pink's siblings were also involved in theater, and Broadway show tunes were the background music of family life.

Young Michael sought ballet training because his mother thought it would be useful for his singing and acting ambitions. Those dreams took a detour into an unexpected career when he was accepted at the elite Royal Ballet School in London. A decade of performing with the English National Ballet followed.

Dancing many leading roles, Pink partnered with Natalia Makarova and worked with Nureyev. "But I was always dissatisfied as a dancer and got out at 28," he said during a long chat in his modest office at the Milwaukee Ballet headquarters in Walker's Point.

That dissatisfaction is reflected in his choreography as well as the way he has structured the Milwaukee Ballet. You could say his family background is evident in the story ballets he favors and the highly theatrical production values he incorporates into his work.

The Englishman speaks of the emotional content of dance and notes that dancers do not receive acting training. He describes his choreographic style as deeply rooted in storytelling and theater, and like a stage director Pink emphasizes honesty in performance.

"I don't want to be part of what is perceived as an elitist art form for the ladies who lunch," he said.

Pink's Gothic ballet "Dracula" has been performed from New Zealand to Denver, where the Colorado Ballet has revived it four times after the original 2001 staging there. He took the classic ballet favorite "Giselle" and moved it into a World War II ghetto for his "Giselle 1943." His new ballet "Peter Pan" was a huge critical and box office hit at the Marcus Center last spring.

Retooling the Milwaukee Ballet structure, Pink pancaked the traditional ballet hierarchy, emphasizing an ensemble of equals rather than a company led by stars.

"If you strive to be a poor relation to the Kirov Ballet or the Royal Ballet or the New York City Ballet, you will always be mediocre," the artistic director said. "We have 25 unionized dancers. I don't regard any person more important than the next one.

"They are all hand picked. You check your ego at the door. You work for the greater good of the company."

That was not the case when Pink arrived here in 2002. "When I came here, if neither of the two leading ladies were on stage, people (audience members) would complain to me," Pink recalled. Not anymore.

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