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‘Scheherazade’ and ‘Angels in the Architecture’

New era for Milwaukee Ballet begins with a visionary double bill

Oct. 11, 2016
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Photo by Mark Frohna

“I tell people, if you’re unhappy with what you’re looking at just close your eyes and listen to the music,” said Michael Pink about Milwaukee Ballet’s season opener, a music-inspired double bill of Kathryn Posin’s Scheherazade set to the Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov masterpiece, and Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture set to Aaron Copland’s awesome Appalachian Spring. This is music that has inspired and comforted many of us since childhood, and the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra under Andrews Sill will play live. Yet after seeing the dancers rehearse both works, I can’t imagine anyone will close their eyes.

“We’re at the beginning of a new era,” Pink continued. “We said goodbye to some very popular and strong dancers last season. I think one of the things people will be looking for is who will replace them. We don’t need to replace them. We need to celebrate the existing company. We’re seeing the next generation. We’ve brought in some wonderful new dancers, people our audience will have the privilege of getting to know over the course of the season. It’s a bit like restarting a love affair.” 

This double bill is perfectly chosen to reintroduce the company. Posin’s ballet dramatizes four stories from the Arabian Nights—tales of Sinbad, Aladdin, the Flying Horse and the frame story of the storyteller and the murderous sheik—and it offers a banquet of rich roles for individual dancers. Godden’s ballet embodies Shaker spirituality and requires the dancers to form a communal identity, simultaneously maintaining a heightened sensitivity to every other dancer on stage and an unusually personal relationship to the inspiring music, their communal bond.

Posin had already made several ballets here including the acclaimed Of Rage and Remembrance, the world’s first ballet about AIDS, before Pink’s predecessor, Simon Dow, commissioned Scheherazade from her in 1991. He left before rehearsals started in 2002. Pink helped Posin with the 2003 premiere of the work and she, in turn, helped him adjust to his role as artistic director. Scheherazade was a hit. Pink revived it in 2006 when he’d assembled a company of dancers he could call his own. Now it marks the start of another era.

“The stories in Arabian Nights are from Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern sources,” Posin said. “You could say that Scheherazade was the first anthropologist. She studied people’s behaviors and myths; kind of like Margaret Mead. And for 1,001 nights, she told the king—who was deceived by his wife and killed a new wife every morning—stories that were so entrancing and provocative, and that didn’t end in the morning, so he didn’t kill her. She taught the king the story of a little boy who found a lamp in a cave, of a man who fell in love with a woman on the moon and needed a flying horse. She embedded in her stories the beliefs of the real Muslim religion and of all religions, which are humility, kindness, forgiveness and trust. She’s a woman who’s teaching a man not to kill, teaching him that stories from around the world have meaning, teaching him to believe that goodness exists and that there are people who are kind.”

Godden was commissioned in 1991 to make a work for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet where he’d trained and worked as a dancer and as the company’s first resident choreographer. The company’s new artistic director had died in a car accident and Godden took to playing Copland’s Appalachian Spring for consolation.

“It was something I needed to connect with because of the sudden death and the many changes in our lives then,” he said. “I knew it was Martha Graham’s ballet. She and Copland worked together on it. For the ending, Aaron Copland used a hymn called ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple’ that’s attributed to the Shakers. So I started looking into the Shakers. I knew they were craftsmen but not to what extent they’d put their spiritual life into their craftsmanship. The more I found about them, the more I found they have many similarities to our dance lives. Unlike them, we’re not celibate by any stretch of the imagination. But we have a very structured life. Yet when we walk on stage we’re supposed to experience who we are, our own spirituality, each in our way. We’re supposed to let our own idiosyncratic expressions come out. The Shakers were like that. They had many rules but each was supposed to experience God in his or her own way. I think that’s what every dancer wants. When a Shaker makes a chair, he wants to be uplifted, he wants illumination. As dancers onstage, we want to be one with everything that’s happening because when you are, often you don’t know what to say.” 

Milwaukee Ballet’s Scheherazade and Angels in the Architecture will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 20-22 and 1:30 p.m., Oct. 23 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.

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