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Milwaukee Ballet opened its season Thursday night with a spectacular performance. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Opening act steals thunder from feature in Ballet's strong start to season

"Scheherazade" was the feature when Milwaukee Ballet opened its season Thursday night, but it was the opening act that stole the show, proving how exciting and thrilling this company can be.

The opening performance, choreographed by Mark Godden, was "Angels in the Architecture," a stunning story based on the life and faith of the Shaker sect.

The Shakers were founded on the belief that God was both male and female, and the sect was marked by a celibate and communal lifestyle with pacifism paired with a commitment to equality of the sexes.

Shakers are also known for their furniture, especially the invention of the ladderback chair and creation of the Shaker broom, which revolutionized the cleaning tool by making it flat instead of round. Simplicity of construction appealed to non-believers and is the lasting legacy of a sect that is all but dissolved.

The ballet is danced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Appalachian Spring Suite" by Aaron Copland. It's a fulsome piece of music that provides for a variety of moments for the dancers on the stage.

And what dancing they delivered. Six men and six women, all dressed in white, the women with long flowing skirts and the men in tight shirts. A simple set designed by Paul Daigle, who also designed the costumes, featured six brooms and six chairs perched on risers on each side of the stage.

There was no special story to be told, but it was a feast for the eyes and the ears as well as the heart. The orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Sills, jumped eagerly into the score and delivered the kind of musical performance that makes dance such a unique experience.

David Grill, a famous and accomplished designer, did the lighting, and it was an example of how great lighting can tell a story all by itself. His design created moods that wrapped the dancers in colors and warmth.

The ballet was a testimony to writer and poet Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived in the first half of the 20th century.

"The peculiar grace of a shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it," he wrote.

The dancers certainly delivered angelic performances Thursday night.

After the audience took an intermission to recover from the emotional opening performance, "Scheherazade" took over, the third time the company has staged this ballet, based on the tales of "One Thousand and One Nights" (also known as "Arabian Nights").

The ballet tells the story of Scheherazade, a beautiful woman sentenced to death for infidelity by the sheikh. But she promises to tell him a story that will delay the execution. She tells a story every night and delays her death.

The first is the tale of "Sinbad and the Sea," the second is "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp," the third is 'The Flying Horse" and the final scene is the "Massacre in the Harem."

The Rimsky-Korsakov score was perfectly played with the kind of enthusiasm that matched the ballet, choreographed by Kathryn Posin and costumes designed by Judana Lynn.

David Hovhannisyan, a ballet favorite, created the role of the sheikh with the kind of masculine determination that he is so appreciated for. In his 12th season with the ballet, he has lost none of his explosive grace.

Marize Fumero delivered an eye-opening performance as a sexy and sultry Scheherazade. From her first moments on the stage, she was such a vision that it was impossible to look elsewhere. Posin has cast her lead ballerina as a siren whose beauty and skill can make strong men weak. Fumero was up to the task and then some. She moved her body in impossible ways, and she and her sheikh danced beautifully together.

The entire evening was greeted with vigorous applause by an audience that was surprisingly sparse.

The ballet program runs through Sunday and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.


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