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Milwaukee Ballet’s New Rendition of ‘Dorian Gray’

Michael Pink reimagines his production of Oscar Wilde’s classic

Feb. 2, 2016
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Photo by Tom Davenport

“How sad it is!” murmurs the young and beautiful Dorian Gray as he gazes at his painted image in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. “I shall grow old and horrible and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. If only it were the other way! I would give my soul for that!”

Michael Pink began to imagine a ballet adaptation of Dorian Gray’s pact with the devil when he understood that beauty, at that crucial moment, lay in the silent picture and words were the corrupting force. His thought was that the dancer playing Dorian, beautiful because ballet is beautiful, should speak aloud the fateful words that generate subsequent horrors. In the first draft of his Dorian Gray for Ballet Augsburg in Germany just over a year ago, he tried that idea and it didn’t work.

“The structure of the piece worked really well in Germany,” he said. “That gave me the confidence to come home and start redesigning the internal parts. As I say with all my ballets, the first time around is draft one, the next is draft two and the final production would come in the third. But I think we’re very close now to the definitive production in terms of the relationship between a speaking actor and the dancers.”

The speaking role in the new Milwaukee Ballet production is Lord Henry Wotton, the older man whose dazzling phrases seduce Dorian to a life of hedonism. “It’s been more of a challenge, I think, than anything I’ve ever done,” Pink says, “because I’m truly trying to combine movement dialogue with spoken dialogue.” As example, he describes a three-way conversation between Lord Henry, Dorian and the portrait’s painter Basil Hallward. “I have to integrate them so well that you feel Lord Henry is just another dancer using his voice. And his lines are like the recitative in an operetta; they have to sit at the right place in the music or you won’t hear him.”

This second draft, set to a brand new score by Pink’s great collaborator Philip Feeney, played live by a 10-piece Milwaukee Ballet orchestra, and featuring new sets and costumes by Todd Ivins and new lighting by David Grill, is so transformed that the upcoming run at the Pabst Theater qualifies as a world premiere.

Milwaukee actor James Zager plays Lord Henry. One acting challenge, he says, is “outlining my thought process and emotional journey so I’m actually landing my lines on the downbeats, remembering I’ve got, like, five more bars to work up to saying the next line.” Memorizing his lines proved another challenge since the cues from fellow performers are entirely visual.

It’s Lord Henry now who says, “How sad it is! You’ll grow old but the picture will stay always young.” Hearing him, Dorian’s soul moves silently.

“I want to speak so badly but I can’t,” says dancer Patrick Howell, who created Dorian in Germany and shares the role here with Timothy O’Donnell. “You have to speak through movements and facial expressions. It’s a play within a ballet or a ballet within a play.” 

Of the role, he says, “I think anybody can relate to Dorian. One of my favorite Wilde lines is ‘I can resist anything but temptation.’ Find me somebody who can resist temptation at every point and I’ll find you a liar. Dorian is interesting to me because he’s so impressionable. Lord Henry turns him into this pleasure seeker for whom the thought of walking around without his youth and beauty is too much to take. In real life, being a dancer, I think about how short a career it is. At the top of your ballet career, you have the physique and all of these things that surround you, but it’s going to go away. You’ll have the knowledge you learned from it. All you can really do is to try to guide the younger ones in the right direction.”

He pushes his imagination. “It’s almost like you’ve been living a fantasy. You make all these beautiful ballets. The highlight of what you do for a living is on a dark stage in front of people you can’t even see. You’re this image to them. Then one day the curtain drops. Maybe you’ll just sit there and think, what happened? I don’t know. It’s hard to think about. But Dorian, even if he has to sell his soul to the devil, is never going to know that feeling. That’s never going to happen to him—living without people wanting to look at you, wanting to see you.”

He returns to happier thoughts. “Dorian Gray, in coming here, is coming to its home, where it should be. It’s the kind of work this company does best. We are Michael Pink dancers.”

Feb. 12-14 and 19-21 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. Call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org for tickets and information on the many pre-show events.


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