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A Brave and Beautiful ‘Dorian Gray’

Milwaukee Ballet’s uncanny staging of Oscar Wilde

Feb. 16, 2016
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Photo by Mark Frohna

Unbeautiful Lady Ashton (Rachel Malehorn) of the narcissistic London Victorian one percent smashes her full-length mirror in despair. Enormous cloth festoons above her seem to harden into carved stone decorations from ancient Greece and the lighting grows pre-Raphaelite. The uncanny singing of an innocent youth and the impassioned romanticism of a violin pierce the air. In a moonlight silver suit, Dorian Gray (Patrick Howell on opening night) stands in the mirror’s frame. The artist Basil Hallward (Davit Hovhannisyan on opening night), euphoric, paints his muse’s portrait: Dorian is model and image. Basil’s friend Lord Henry (James Zager) speaks, asking to meet this young Adonis.

So begins the sensationally beautiful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Michael Pink with composer Philip Feeney, designers Todd Ivins and David Grill, conductor Pasquale Laurino, the Milwaukee Ballet company and a 10-piece orchestra. Built from a draft that premiered in Germany in 2014, this new Dorian Gray rivals the beauty of the Pabst Theater where it plays through Feb. 21.

In adapting Wilde’s tale, Pink bares its tragic nature. Art for art’s sake was the motto of the fin de siècle aesthetic movement of which Wilde was a leading advocate. Wilde also saw that what’s defensible in art is not a model for behavior: Beauty doesn’t justify immorality. “A new Hedonism—that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol,” Lord Henry tells Dorian, urging the lovely lad to take his pleasure now, for beauty fades.

In the novel, Dorian’s supernaturally unchanging beauty masks a growing inner ugliness revealed in Basil’s painting. In Pink’s production, we never see the painting, only the empty frame and the emptiness of Dorian dancing beside and within it, contorted, pitiful, in choreography devoid of glamour.

Pink gives each character identifying traits. Lord Henry’s is that he speaks aloud. Although carefully woven into the fabric of the ballet, his speaking becomes an intrusion not only because the words have malevolent consequences but because the physical production is jarred. It’s a brave choice and a challenge that Zager meets.

No company could dance this better. In addition to those already named, the first night’s cast featured Luz San Miguel, heartbreaking, as Dorian’s first victim, and Isaac Sharratt, forbidding, as his last. The climactic pas de quatre by Howell, San Miguel, Hovhannisyan and Sharratt that ends in Dorian’s suicide will stay with me forever.

The show runs through Feb. 21 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org

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