Milwaukee Talks: Milwaukee Ballet's Michael Pink
In what ways is the artistic director of a ballet company similar to the President of the United States?
"What are you supposed to do in four years? All you're doing is inheriting stuff from before," joked Michael Pink, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet, who this season celebrates a decade with the organization.
"It's not different in any of these institutionalized jobs. You have to deal with what you're inheriting first. And then you get to start to make your mark, in year three or maybe four."
There is no doubt that Pink has made his mark. Not only has he held the job longer than any other artistic director, he has focused on unprecedented artistic collaborations within Milwaukee's artistic community and presented original works like "Dracula" and "Peter Pan."
For the Milwaukee Ballet, Pink is paying off. Last year he and Executive Director Dennis Buehler oversaw one of the Milwaukee Ballet's most successful fiscal years to date. The company performed for over 40,000 patrons during the 2011-12 season, a 20% increase over the previous season. Box office receipts reached $1.7 million.
But the Englishman is unsurprisingly modest about his achievements.
"I'm lucky I avoided the ax," he said. "I must have done something right."
The Milwaukee Ballet will perform Pink's latest piece, "La Boheme," later this week at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
Pink took a break from his grueling rehearsal schedule to talk with OnMilwaukee.com. In an interview in his office, he discussed his career, the future of the Milwaukee Ballet and what he calls the "wild insecurities" of the industry.
OnMilwaukee.com: What do you think are the most dramatic changes you've made in the company? When you started it was known for being a very top-heavy organization, with lots of principal dancers and soloists and so forth.
Michael Pink: Yeah, I don't subscribe to the class structure; I mean especially an organization where there's so few dancers – if you have 25, 24 dancers, they're all going to have to work equally well and what you want is a diverse team of people and their strengths. I would love all my artists to be just artists. And I changed the whole structure from being principals and soloists and corps – which are just antiquated categories – to just "artist" and "leading artist."
What's that saying – the cream rises to the top. You see the obvious people that can do those things, and I think we have less ego and less ego issues – we don't have any issues with anybody who assumes they're greater than anyone else, and that's lovely. We're all playing our part. But I made that day one - there was a line of people telling me how I was going to run this company to fit in with their schedule, etc. … and I thought that God forbid I should stand in the way of their careers and they should just go pursue their careers ... and they did. (Laughs)
OMC: You're officially the longest-serving director of the Milwaukee Ballet. What made you want to take this job in the first place 10 years ago?
MP: You know, it was a time in my life and career when I knew I would end up working in America. England has the old-boy network and it's very, very hard in the theater world – you're either part of an institutionalized system like the arts, or you're not. And I've always been too much of a naughty boy, and in my youth I used to be very outspoken about the idea of saying, "This is the way we do it and you have to stand in line and wait your turn."
But that's the way the English system used to work, and frankly to me it was just pointless. And now it's changed and I'm really pleased, and that's why the Royal Ballet and Wayne McGregor (resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet) have more radical and different people doing this because they've realized, you don't maintain your audience. The ballet world is no different than the straight theater or opera or symphony in that we have to adapt to our current environment and we're providing a product, so it better be good and it better be accountable.
OMC: People don't usually think of ballet as business.
MP: This is a responsible business. And you know, the fact that in the boom years, arts' charities were viewed as luxury items and people would throw money at them and it was great and you could do lovely things like invite stars to your house and show off and we want to encourage that and get back to that … but it's still a business and if it's not managed fiscally well and responsibly then really it's an insult to the people who are believing in you and giving you the money.
So I think that any arts organization that feels it should exist only because of its self-importance is on the wrong track. And I'm not going to name any names. (laughs)
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