The Milwaukee Ballet is hosting its biannual "Genesis" competition this week at The Pabst Theater. Audiences will once again have the rare opportunity to witness the world premier of pieces created by choreographers who have been hand-picked by Michael Pink, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet.
The competition, held every other year, draws applications from all over the world, but this year it just happened to be three Americans who won out: James Gregg, Lauren Edson and Gabrielle Lamb. Gregg, Edson and Lamb are currently in the thick of a grueling creative process and rehearsal schedule: they have 90 hours, spread over three weeks, to oversee teams of eight Milwaukee Ballet Company dancers and create an original 20-minute performance.
The choreographers shared with OnMilwaukee.com the thrill of being chosen, the challenge of the rehearsal schedule, and why they really don't care who wins.
Hurricane Sandy almost kept New York-based Gabrielle Lamb from getting her audition tape to Pink. "My boyfriend helped me. It was just this epic struggle," she laughs. But it was worth it. "We're all freelancers and you would just never have the opportunity to work with this many dancers of this caliber for this many hours."
Idaho native Lauren Edson considers herself in great company with her fellow contestants. "It's exciting to be with the two others, who I was familiar with. To get to be here in such an exclusive group of choreographers and just to see some of their process – it's really, really great."
Lamb agrees. "The first day I saw the names (of the other winners) that were there, I had an afternoon of extreme stress because I was like, I don't want to compete with them!"
The stress was just beginning, though. The trio are now wrapping up the three-week rehearsal and say they are surprised by just how many challenges it has brought.
"It's interesting, when you work all day, every day, you do get (creative) blocks during the day. It's just not normally how we work most of the time. So learning how to get past those blocks - there are ups and downs through every day," says Lamb.
"We've been really overstimulated, but in a good way," says James Gregg, who has been dancing since the age of nine and currently works in Canada. "There's so much positive energy here and everybody's been so great."
Edson relies on her dancers for support during those moments of creative deadlock. Sometimes she'll ask them to do dances or exercises that she knows won't end up in the final performance, but help her move forward with the piece by uncovering something about the choreography that she might not have realized before.
"Sometimes I struggle to pretend like I do know what I'm doing," she laughs. "I don't want them to think that I'm wasting their time because I think that anything they do is relevant to the work."
And it is: "It helps you get over that wall," says Gregg.
But the process, however intense it might be, is definitely worth it. "I had seen some Milwaukee dancers before and knew that they were very very talented," says Edson. "To have this much time and space and dancers, it's a difficult thing to round up on your own. So to have it provided is just really, really great.
Gregg agrees that his motivation to enter was "definitely for the experience. It's something you can put on your resume."
The winner of the competition will receive $3,000 and the opportunity to create an original piece for the Milwaukee Ballet's 2013-14 season. But the contestants say they are all each other's biggest fans and maintain there is no sense of competition between them.
"We just have a good energy, and it's about the experience, like I keep saying," Gregg says. "I'll be happy for whoever wins."
Prior to the Thursday, Feb. 7 evening performance of the competition, the Milwaukee Ballet is hosting an event called "Pints Before Pointe" at the InterContinental Hotel at 6 p.m. The pre-performance noshing will allow guests to meet the choreographers and enjoy hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar.
Leslie Rivers, Marketing Associate for the Milwaukee Ballet, says that Pints before Pointe is a great way to introduce the ballet experience to a younger audience.
"We always do it at the show for the Pabst, which draws a younger audience," she explains. "We saw it as an opportunity to introduce ourselves to a younger, excited audience market that might not even know they liked (ballet). It gives them an opportunity to see us in a different format."
And the one-on-one time with the choreographers helps make the performances more accessible.
"We like to have choreographers there to talk about their pieces because a lot of people will say 'Well, I don't want to try contemporary dance because I might not get it,'" she says. "We don't want them to feel that way. It's a comfortable, inviting format."
Admission to Pints Before Pointe is $35. To RSVP, call Rivers at (414) 902-2102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Genesis runs Feb. 7-10. For more more information and to purchase tickets, visit milwaukeeballet.org.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.