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A Different Cast at Milwaukee Ballet

This season, new faces from around the world debut in lead roles

Nov. 18, 2016
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When you see The Nutcracker this December or Milwaukee Ballet’s international choreographic competition Genesis in February, you’ll see an unusually large number of new faces onstage. Four well-known dancers left the company last spring but six were hired and one, Timothy O’Donnell, was promoted to leading artist, joining Annia Hidalgo, Davit Hovhannisyan, Patrick Howell, Luz San Miguel, Nicole Teague and newcomer Jonathan Batista in that remarkable group. 

The Nutcracker’s long run offers many opportunities for casting experiments. A new dancer in any role means a new interpretation of that character. An exciting feature of Genesis is that its competing choreographers cast their premieres without preconceptions and therefore often uncover skills in younger dancers or demonstrate unexpected partnering possibilities. 

“I was blown away,” O’Donnell said of his promotion. “I never thought it would happen in my career now. I’m not your traditional classical prince.” He finds the new dancers perfectly suited to the current company: “So much of what we end up doing onstage is about the relationships between us as people. After a couple weeks, I felt like they’d all been here forever. And they keep you on our toes. When people come in with a new set of talents, it’s inspiring. It stops you from being complacent.”

Batista knew of Milwaukee Ballet from his friend Alexandre Ferreira who left last spring for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. They’d studied dance together in their native Rio de Janeiro and stayed in contact. “I watched Alex grow here as an artist, as a person, as a dancer,” Batista said. “So when I was looking for a place to challenge myself to become the dancer I aspire to be, I knew Milwaukee Ballet was an option.” He feels the responsibility of being hired as a leading artist. “It was a huge step for me. I was in a car accident last May and was for a short time in a coma. I’m myself again now and I’m looking into how to grow.”

Marie Collins grew up in Hong Kong and toured China with the Hong Kong Ballet before graduating from Butler University last year. She was offered contracts elsewhere but “I loved the atmosphere in Milwaukee and in this company,” she said. “Everyone in the company wants to be here; it’s not like that everywhere. I love how every dancer here is different.” 

Randy Crespo auditioned because his friend Ariel Soto is here for a second season. Both men trained with the National Ballet of Cuba. “I’d heard Michael’s ballets were cool and dark and have lots of drama and I’m excited to try that. In Cuba, what we do is really classical in the old style of ballet,” he said. “I’m excited for Genesis, too, because the choreographers have to make their ballets based on the dancers.” 

The Eliot Feld Ballet’s outreach program found third grader Alexander Negron in a Brooklyn public school and gave him an ongoing scholarship. Later, he trained at the School of American Ballet with Milwaukee Ballet dancer Barry Molina. After three years dancing on the West Coast, he wanted a more nurturing environment. “I’d heard only good things about Michael,” he said. “What’s really valuable to me is that the company morale is so high. A lot of places don’t have that community with the staff and the leadership.”

Lizzie Tripp started at the Milwaukee Ballet School and just completed two strong seasons with MBII. “Family is important to me,” she said, “And I know everyone here.” Finally, born in Japan and raised in Oregon, Lahna Vanderbush danced in last season’s Alice (in Wonderland) and stayed.

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