The full-length story ballet is back in style, thanks to a number of in vogue, internationally renowned choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, Stanton Welch, John Neumeier and Alexei Ratmansky creating new narratives or reimagining classical favorites.
Add Michael Pink to this list, who, for decades has created original and reimagined ballets while steering the helm at Milwaukee Ballet since 2002. His latest ballet, Dorian Gray, is an ambitious new project first envisioned in 1999. After premiering a pilot version on a small German company, Pink will now bring the full production to loyal dance-goers in Milwaukee.
Sparing Windy City Times readers from too much literary analysis, Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, has long been recognized as a good, though slightly controversial, example of literary excellence. Filled with hedonism ( pleasure and passion above all else ), arrogance, and homoerotic undertones, The Picture of Dorian Gray reads as easily as any trashy romance novel. Make no mistake, this is a great and historically significant piece of literature, which is probably why your middle school English teacher made you read it, but then didn't really tell you what it was about.
The book is thought to be a metaphorical autobiography in which Oscar Wilde is Basil Hallward, the painter, while the aesthete Lord Henry Wotton ( portrayed in Pink's ballet with spoken dialogue by actor James Zager ) is what the world perceives of him, and the pulpit for Wilde's philosophical platforms. Hallward is smitten by the young and beautiful muse Dorian Gray, who finds a proverbial fountain of youth in his portrait, but in it is forced to observe his decay. A few years after publication, the author found himself on trial for gross indecencies with men, for which the book was Exhibit A, and he eventually served hard labor before falling into obscurity and dying at age 46. Almost instantly a gay martyr, The Picture of Dorian Gray has long been a source of discussion in LGBT literature, but is perhaps now not so scandalous as it once seemed. In a 2011 article for The New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote:
"In many major cities, at least, gays and lesbians … no longer seem to need the tragicomic Oscar [Wilde]; the young gays of today can revel in the wit and wisdom of Neil Patrick Harris. All of which leaves Wilde in an interesting limbo. What will he mean in a perhaps not too distant time when homosexuality has ceased to be a conversation stopper?"
But there is so much more conversation to be had, particularly when pitting the story against a wordless artform carried out by pillars of youth and beauty. "When I look at my dancers," said Michael Pink in an interview with Windy City Times, "they are the beautiful people. There is nobody better to portray the story of Dorian Gray than the beautiful dancers because of the direct parallel: their lives as dancers will be over before they grow old. They will never grow old as dancers."
Moreover, Wilde's views about the pending post-Victorian society in which he lived, amid massive instrumentation arising out of the Industrial Revolution, are perhaps meant to resurface as we face a similarly volatile period of political, societal, and technological changeone in which the arts are often viewed as superfluous. Dance, theater, painting … are, at times, useless luxuries, as Wilde proclaims in the forward of the book, but starting conversations is likely art's biggest contribution to society.
The point is, dance seems a perfect vehicle for this story in particular, and Michael Pink wishes to extend such dialogues about art and dance beyond Milwaukee's borders. Pink's challenge has not been recruiting dancers, collaborators or enthusiastic audience members. Rather, Pink has maintained that getting national, or even regional, exposure has been his greatest hurdle. Chicago and Milwaukee are fewer than 80 miles apart, and yet there has been little collaboration between the Windy City's ballet companies and Milwaukee Balletand while some of his ballets have been commissioned by other companies, Milwaukee Ballet has yet to establish a viable touring schedule. "I have wonderful dancers who are committed to staying here in Milwaukee. You can see it all here," he said. "People should be able to access all aspects of dance and theater, and we have that here. We are close to many places, and what we see as a vibrant arts scene is one in which there is competition. Remove the dark cloud that we are inferior to Chicago and realize what we have here! We have it all, it's just, how do we embrace that and celebrate it?"
Need audience members read up on Dorian Gray before seeing the ballet? No, not really. According to Pink, the story will be accessible to most ages and levels of familiarity with the story, and the ballet will likely be interpreted and appreciated in very different ways by having read or not read the book. Perhaps that is a crucial part of the dialogue, and a number of pre-show talks and special events have been scheduled to bring dancers, literature buffs, and arts goers together to ensure that Dorian Gray the ballet isn't as silly as Wilde claimed art to be.
Wilde himself wrote, "A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears they get so angry and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressionsone is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral. What they mean by these words seems to me to be this. When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true."
Milwaukee Ballet presents Dorian Gray Feb. 12-14 and 19-21 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $31.25-98.25, available at the Pabst Theater box office, Milwaukee Ballet box office, by phone 414-902-2103, or online at milwaukeeballet.org .
There is a gala event prior to the Saturday, Feb. 20, performance including hors d'oeuvres and a moderated discussion with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee faculty specializing in LGBT literature. For more information on this event, contact Megan Spangberg at 414-902-2107 or firstname.lastname@example.org .