INSIDE: The Milwaukee Ballet’s “Ballet Russe Reimagined” with Nicole Teague-Howell
It’s a reflection of a world where young, not yet iconic artists like Picasso, Matisse, Coco Chanel, Debussy and Prokofiev worked with an imaginative new dance company — on sets and costumes and scores — alongside some of the greatest dancers and choreographers of any age.
The Milwaukee Ballet is admired for a lot of things, probably most often for their very high standards of performance, and for the impact and success of Michael Pink’s choreography. But there’s another dimension to their excellence that probably gets less attention than it should — the relentless imagination of their programming. It’s an important part of being a truly great dance company, and they’re uniquely adept at it — never more so than with their new program Ballet Russe Reimagined.
To revisit three iconic ballets from more than a century ago might seem at first like a gaze into a distant mirror, but the closer you look, the more you start to see. You can see that the distance in that mirror is an illusion, created by old black and white photos and yellowed newspaper clippings, which obscure too easily the immediacy of a legendary scene.
As you get closer to it, the Milwaukee Ballet’s Ballet Russe Reimagined begins to seem more like an ultra HD close-up of a world that could just as easily be right now. It’s partly the story of a young twenty-eight year old composer looking for his first real break, and how his scores for The Firebird and The Rite of Spring launched the career of Igor Stravinsky. It’s a reflection of a world where young, not yet iconic artists like Picasso, Matisse, Coco Chanel, Debussy and Prokofiev worked with an imaginative new dance company — on sets and costumes and scores — alongside some of the greatest dancers and choreographers of any age. We can only imagine what it must have been like when all of them were trying to make dance the way all of us try to make dance now, and it’s an exceptionally promising idea for a dance concert. Perhaps the most imaginative part of the whole undertaking is in the reimagining itself.
In an original work entitled Sacre, Milwaukee Ballet Resident Choreographer Timothy O’Donnell explores the themes at the center of Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring. “My ballet, Sacre, will take the audience into the world of the Ballets Russes,” he tells us in The Milwaukee Ballet’s wonderfully rich Audience Guide. “Starting at the point that Diaghilev first discovers Nijinsky, the ballet will investigate the turbulent relationships between the key figures who made the Ballets Russes so successful. Their histories and relationships became the very foundation of the tale I wished to retell, centered on one single idea: sacrifice.”
Garrett Glassman transforms Bronislava Nijinska’s haunting Les Noces in a work interwoven with another Ballet Russes classic, Pulcinella. “One of my initial thoughts was, ‘How can I merge influences from several Ballets Russes works to create one reimagined piece?’ I finally narrowed it down to a piece that could incorporate aspects of both Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces and Léonide Massine’s Pulcinella.”
Nicole Teague-Howell takes a brand new look at the story of Michel Fokine’s The Firebird, “I was drawn to The Firebird because I saw an opportunity to interpret the folkloric aspect of the story into a very human one,” she says. “I want to highlight intense connections and emotions by focusing on aspects of humanity that are not always easy to face.” She’s looked deeply into this intimately distant past, re-examining every aspect of the legendary Firebird in a work she calls The Firebird: Rise. We asked her about what she found as she set out to transform the inspiration of a century past into a new kind of imagining. Here’s what she told us:
My story is a closed circle, beginning and ending with a woman’s triumph over evil.
Johnny Nevin: Your vision of The Firebird will bring quite a new presentation of this famous piece to the audiences at The Milwaukee Ballet’s Ballet Russe Reimagined, because your choreography embodies so much careful thought about how to tell this story. You’ve created a work which mainly features the women of the Milwaukee ballet, you’ve completely reimagined the trajectory of Stravinsky’s score, and you’ve re-explored the possibilities of the story on many levels. Can you tell us more about how you developed such an imaginative new uderstanding of what The Firebird can be — a hundred and ten years after it first changed the world of ballet?
Nicole Teague-Howell: I’ve re-imagined The Firebird, inspired by Michael Fokine’s ballet, into a modern day fairytale. Fokine, assisted by Benois and Diaghilev, combined material from unrelated folktales into a single cohesive story. What these two versions will have in common are roots to the making of a typical nursery tale; good, evil and a damsel in distress. The characters will be used as concepts. My damsel will represent all women and a struggle to rise above a universal evil, whether that be oppression or any other form of abuse. The strength of The Firebird aids her and ties each section together. I want Firebird to be more than the original ballet portrayed her. Like the folkloric Phoenix, Firebird rises from what’s been burned. I want to breath life into the 100 year old ballet, but I want the spirit of it to remain with us.
My story is a closed circle, beginning and ending with a woman’s triumph over evil. She’s backed by a corps of women who are a mirror image of her emotional journey.
I love sharing a finished product with our audience, there’s something almost magical about live theater, but I sometimes wish everyone got to see what goes into the making of it.
Johnny: All three of the works at Ballet Russe Reimagined are set to scores by Stravinsky, whose works were a major new chapter in the way that music and dance are made together. As a choreographer, you’re exceptionally conscious of the impact of music on dance — you’re previous work for The Milwaukee Ballet — Pull — was set to an original score by LUXI, and for The Firebird you’ve very much re-created the through-line of the sections in the Stravinsky score. Can you tell us how you view the always-dynamic interplay of choreography and music, and how you see that playing out in Ballet Russe Reimagined?
Nicole: The challenge of using Stravinsky’s original score is finding my own narrative within it. Fokine had the luxury of coordinating closely with Stravinsky, to create the exact sounds he needed for his dialogue. What I’ve done is rearranged the order of the tracks to cater to my story. The last work I choreographed on the company had an original piece of music created for it. It was with a local musician named LUXI. The way we were able to construct the music mirrored how I was choreographing it. Music and dance really bring two worlds of art together. Both inspiring each other and both completing the picture together.
This process has also been a bit of a reflection of itself. I wanted to create art that empowered the women involved and in turn have empowered myself. I’ve been inspired by my peers over the thirteen years I’ve been dancing in Milwaukee and have been lucky to be surrounded by such strong women. You only make it this far in this profession if you persevere. I hope to showcase strength and freedom and give people a sense of hope.
I love sharing a finished product with our audience, there’s something almost magical about live theater, but I sometimes wish everyone got to see what goes into the making of it. For now, come enjoy what we’ve worked hard to build and hopefully we can take you on a journey.
Thursday, February 13, 2020 at 7:30 pm
Friday, February 14, 2020 at 7:30 pm
Saturday, February 15, 2020 at 7:30 pm
Sunday, February 16, 2020 at 1:30 pm
Tickets are available online from etix.com or call the Pabst Theater Box Office at (414) 286-3663.
The Milwaukee Ballet has put together an excellent Audience Guide with much more to discover about the history of Ballet Russes.