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Milwaukee Ballet's Dance that Argues with Despair

Apr. 11, 2017
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Photo credit: Mark Frohna

La Sylphide was born 180 years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark. Sans Pleurer (Without Crying) was born last weekend in Milwaukee. They share a longing for a better world and an aching fear that it’s forever out of reach. It’s easier to write about La Sylphide, a work of much historical interest that was wondrously staged and performed by Milwaukee Ballet. It’s easy to note its quaintness, loveliness and sincerity—“Wasn’t it beautiful?” was the comment from many audience members as we left the hall—and to heap well-deserved praise on the dancers, especially (on opening night) Luz San Miguel as the sublime title character and Rachel Malehorn as her antithesis, a spiteful witch. 

In fact, August Bournonville’s 1836 ballet, the oldest still widely performed with its original choreography, is bleak in outlook. Its protagonist, a dreamer who aspires to live in a peaceful, graceful fairyland, an elevated state drenched in all we call beauty, is punished and forever barred from ordinary joys; the grotesque is his fate. La Sylphide exemplifies the crushed idealism of Europeans in the early 19th century during decades of failed democratic revolutions and Napoleonic megalomania. “We know what’s possible,” Romantics cried. “Look at America! But we can’t reach it here.”

In Sans Pleurer, the finest work to date by Milwaukee Ballet’s young resident choreographer Timothy O’Donnell, nine men (who may represent one man’s struggle) express in extraordinary dancing a great ache for self-revelation and intimacy with other men. Though it ends in an image of suicide (or murder)—the result of the failure to admit emotions for fear of appearing effeminate, and the consequent embrace of an armored stance (symbolized here by suit coats) which men are taught to demand of themselves and of other men—there’s no air of defeat. Loneliness, shame, desire and mania are represented in thrilling sequences with Garrett Glassman, Barry Molina and Alexander Negron superb in prominent roles. In providing such a bold onstage example of male vulnerability, this courageous, hopeful work asks for a cultural revolution.

In La Sylphide, too, what’s onstage argues with the despairing narrative. Bournonville exploited the possibilities of point shoes (which were new in his day) to astonish audiences and bolster belief in human achievement. The sylphs move serenely on the tips of their toes, their skeletons and muscles uplifted, as if floating above the floor. It’s familiar in ballet now, but in the Milwaukee Ballet performance it was astonishing all over again.

Thursday, Apr 06
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

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