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The set and lighting design are highlights in the Milwaukee Ballet's "Dorian Gray." (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Milwaukee Ballet reaches new heights with Pink's "Dorian Gray"

It's a very rare thing when the unexpected happens in a theater, and you find yourself at the end of a performance trying to remember if you have ever, ever seen anything quite like what you just watched.

That's the reaction to the groundbreaking production of Michael Pink's "Dorian Gray," that had its world premiere at The Pabst Theater Friday night.

This Milwaukee Ballet production was so surprising and so breathtaking that words will not do it justice. Ballet fan or not, the only thing that should happen is that you rush to see this.

You will be able to say that you were in on the ground floor of a ballet that is destined to become a classic.

The ballet is based on the novel by Oscar Wilde. It's about a young man named Dorian Gray who sells his soul to the devil so he will remain forever young. His portrait, hanging in a frame, ages as the man remains young and sinks into the siren song of the flesh and the hedonism of an age.

It is a story of high drama and a slow descent into a hell of your own making.

The ballet features spoken word, with actor James Zager portraying Lord Henry Wotton, the devil in Dorian's life and the narrator in this production. Zager is a force on the stage, and it is Wotton, at the beginning of the play, who sets the theme for both Dorian's life and the rest of the evening for the audience.

"The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it," he says.

And yield Dorian does, over and over and over, until the horrifying ending.

There is so much excellence in this production that the whole of it is greater than the sum of its parts. And its parts are spectacular.

The twin work of scenic and costume designer Todd Edward Ivins and lighting designer David Grill have is perhaps the most thrilling combination I've ever seen on a stage, anywhere.

Ivins is an Associate Artist at Milwaukee Rep and has always been inventive and focused on the story being told. Grill is a famous designer, having won dozens of awards for things like lighting the halftime shows at Super Bowls and the opening ceremonies at Olympic Games.

The two of them have created a miracle set out of simply built multi-dimensional frames and a graceful hanging of drapes. Grill's lighting uses these elements to change moods and places. The use of multi-pane mirrors hanging over the stage and reflecting the action on the stage is one of the most inventive design elements I've ever seen.

All of the wonders of design however, don't mean much unless there is a performance to wrap the art around. The ballet company and the ballet orchestra deliver.

The score by Philip Feeney, a frequent collaborator with Pink, is a journey all by itself, twisting and turning with surprising moments that both reflect the story and lead it through a turbulent journey. Listening to the score is an experience that almost calls for seat belts because the air around you is not all smooth sailing.

The dancers in this company have never been more powerful and evocative. It's almost as if they fully embraced the reality of this world premiere, and they found depths in their dancing and acting that had been undiscovered.

Patrick Howell danced Dorian on opening night and will alternate with Timothy O'Donnell. Howell gives us a character with the callowness of youth and the sophisticated experience of the voluptuous sensualist. He is delicate when needed and slovenly and misdirected when he has to be. It's the best performance I've ever seen him give.

Luz San Miguel dances Sibyl, the love of Dorian's life. She is his one touch with the reality of love, and San Miguel captures the precise nature of a young actor playing Juliet and grasping the heart of a devoted fan. The sorrow of their relationship is a critical element of the production.

At the end of the firt act, Pink has stage double pas de deux (that's plural) between Howell and San Miguel and then, improbably, between Howell and David Hovhannisyan. A dance with two boys is exceedingly difficult to stage, but this one mixed power and emotion that moved the audience.

The most striking scene is in the second act when Dorian is seduced by the Duchess of Monmouth, danced by Anna Hidalgo. It is about as sexy as it gets and is an eloquent example of the joy that dance can be in the hands, and bodies, of stars. Hidalgo was both sensuous and menacing in a bravura performance. There was not a sound from the audience as we watched this vixen lure our hero to both exquisite and painful depths.

There may have been a misstep or two on opening night, but it can be pardoned as excitement and exuberance from the dancers.

This ballet continues to offer proof that Pink is in the very front ranks of contemporary ballet artistic directors and choreographers.

There will be purists who say that there should never be an actor in a ballet speaking dialogue. Yet it is the courage of Pink that allows the development of new and exciting forms of ballet.

In contemporary ballet today, there is so much emphasis on dancing skills and fancy movement that he is a refreshing breath that harkens back to the storytellers. He has taken a story from Wilde that is full of everything that makes for a great tale and crafted a ballet around it.

Everything about it is just fantastic, and I would hope that the world of ballet beats a path to the Milwaukee door to make arrangements for this production. It may well become a standard by which all new ballets will be compared.

It also moves the Milwaukee Ballet into the forefront of regional ballet companies in this country. If the ballet world is looking for a place to create a new national ballet, away from the traditions of New York and Washington, the Milwaukee ballet would be a great place to start.

"Dorian Gray" runs through Feb. 21 at the Pabst Theater and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.


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