Watching Davit Hovhannisyan prowl a rehearsal hall, it’s easy to think of a glorious eagle, sharp features, sleek lines and the air of a master of all he surveys.
In his thirteenth year, the most accomplished male dancer at the Milwaukee Ballet is both frightening and enthralling as he works and works on the intricacies of a ballet.
Arriving in Milwaukee just two years after the naming of Michael Pink as artistic director, Hovhannisyan has been one of the most crucial cogs in the turnaround of the company from one that struggled for attention to one of the top regional ballet companies in the country.
He has created numerous memorable roles for Pink and is the perfect match for a man who ranks among the leading storytellers in the world of ballet. Pink is a favorite internationally – and Hovhannisyan has been an integral part of the building of that reputation.
Hovhannisyan will dance the male lead in "La Sylphide," the classical ballet choreographed by August Bournoville in a program that opens April 6. The ballet will be paired with "Sans Pleurer," created by Timothy O’Donnell, the choreographer in residence for the ballet company.
The Bournoville version – still one of his most celebrated works – is one of the oldest surviving ballets in the world and has been danced in its original form by the Royal Danish Ballet ever since its creation.
"Sans Pleurer" is a ballet that was spawned by O’Donnell’s trying to answer two questions: Why are men raised to suppress their emotions, and what are the long-term effects on their lives? The cast is made up of 10 male dancers.
Hovhannisyan first hooked up with ballet when his mother put him into the school for the Armenian National Ballet in his hometown of Yerevan. When he was 17, the company toured the United States and when they went home, he stayed in the United States, not wanting to face the mandatory two years in the military.
He pieced together a living installing water pipes, working at a car wash and as a waiter, all the while sending out audition tapes.
"Milwaukee came out of nowhere," he said. "I got a call from Denis (Malankine, ballet master) and he invited me to audition. I didn’t even know where Milwaukee was. I just got the address from a magazine. But now, after all these years, I love it here. It’s home to me, both the company and the city."
Hovhannisyan is a great storyteller and admits that doing "La Sylphide" is both a challenge and a ballet that is unfamiliar to Milwaukee audiences who are so in love with Pink’s work. The ballet is so particular that Dinna Bjørn, the Danish repetiteur who is widely regarded as the greatest specialist in the work of Bournoville today, was brought in. A repetiteur works with the dancers on the steps in a particular ballet.
"She is very particular," Hovhannisyan said. "Each movement has to be perfect. There is a tremendous among of technique involved. Inside your legs are burning but on your face you have to look like you are enjoying it. You just have to know how to look calm, because the audience can always tell. It must look like joy. The audience can read. They can see it in your face. There have been cases in the beginning of my career and and people said, ‘That must have been painful, I could see it in your face.’ I’ve gotten better since then."
Hovhannisyan is 36 now and the end, while not in his neighborhood, is at least on the horizon. But he’s not ready to even consider his next steps (pun intended).
"I still absolutely love every second of the dance," he said. "When you feel the connection with your partners and the audience is the best part of it. I love working with the younger dancers. I remember what it’s like when you are young, how stubborn you are. You don’t want to listen to anybody or take any notes. I think I can help them, as long as they want the help."
He’s also been a big help in building an audience for the company and, along with the other leading artists, setting a standard for all young dancers to embrace.
"La Sylphide "and "Sans Pleurer" open Thursday night.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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