On Friday night, October 19th, we went to the Marcus Center to see the Milwaukee Ballet's production of "La Boheme." This was a world premier of a new ballet, set to the music of the opera of the same name by Giacomo Puccini, with choreography by Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Micheal Pink.
The story of the ballet mostly follows that of the opera, which was based on the play by Henri Murger, which in turn was derived from Murger's novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème.
(Poor old Murger doesn't get much love, and isn't even mentioned in the ballet program notes. Puccini essentially stole the play--such were copyright protections in the 19th century--.) For all that derivation, the basic plot is a simple one, and translates well to the ballet idiom.
The story opens at the apartment of Rodolfo, a struggling poet, and Marcello, an equally unsuccessful painter. It is Christmastide, and bitterly cold. They sacrifice a canvas and pages of Rodolfo's novel manuscript to the stove for warmth. Their friend Colline, a philosophy student, enters, but declines to feed any of his books to the furnace. Then comes Schaunard, a musician, who's actually had a paying gig, and brings cheer of food and wine. As each new man enters, the dancing changes, from a pas de deux,
but also with each character's addition to the dynamics of the scene. After fobbing off the rent collector with a glass of wine and a lot of badinage, the party makes to go out to the cafe. Rodolfo stays behind to work on an article that is due, so he is still home when the upstairs neighbor, Mimi, a poor seamstress already in the grip of "consumption" comes to the door to ask for a light for her candle. Enchanted by her etherial beauty, Rodolfo lingers with her, and eventually persuades her to come out to the cafe with him.
At the Cafe Momus, the party encounters Marcello's former lover, Musetta, an "entertainer", in company with her current sugar daddy. Musetta behaves badly, flirting with every man in the Cafe, and ditching Alcindoro in order to invite Marcello and the other to a late-night party at her place.
Here, Pink adds in a scene not done in the opera, which helps clarify what happens later. At the party, Musetta takes Mimi under her wing, and loans her one of her couterier gowns. Her beauty set off by the dress, Mimi attracts admiring attention from other men, which touches off a strong spark of jealousy in Rodolfo. This scene also gives Pink the opportunity to do one of his "party pieces" wherein there are a couple of secondary narratives going on in the background. Will the scantily-dressed Moulin Rouge dancer go home with some one? (In very Parisian fashion, a male and female couple are the leading contenders--.) Will Schaunard, who gets unfortunately coarse when drunk, hook up? (Evidently not--.)
The in the fourth scene, it is late winter. Relations between Rodolfo and Mimi have been rocky. in a confession to Marcello, which Mimi overhears, Rodolfo admits that he can't deal with the fact that Mimi is dying and there's nothing he can do about it. When Mimi reveals her presence, they recall the joy they have had together, and detemine to stay together and see what the spring will bring.
The last act is a warm day. As in the first act, Colline and Schaunard drift in to hang out with Rodolfo and Marcello. Musetta arrives, bringing Mimi, who is too weak to go upstairs to her rooms, and near death. The men do all they can to comfort and revive her, including Schunard going to pawn his overcoat to buy medicine. in a few minutes of privacy, one last dance recalls the lovers' first meeting. The others return with their offerings, but nothing can be done, and Mimi slips away.
We saw Nicole Teague and Alexandre Ferreira in the principal roles of Mimi and Rodofo, and they were excellent. Annia Hildalgo as Musetta, Timothy O'Donnell as Marcello, Ryan Martin as Schaunard, and Marc Petrocci as Colline also danced to the highest standards, with great skill and expression. As the ballet is very romantic and somewhat low-keyed as befitting the subject matter, there isn't a lot of "bravura" dancing, but there were many strong character dances: Musetta's tango-esque number at the Cafe Momus, Schaunard's farewell dance with his coat (technically a pas d'ane,
but almost a pas de deux--
), and Petr Zahradnicek's agile dancing as Benoit the landlord, surprising in his skinny-cut suit (which we suspect had some alterations by the costume department). The dancing given to Mimi tends to be soft and languid, although not entirely enervated, and shows her level of spirit as well as physical energy. Rodofo's choreography harks back to the classical danseurs'
role of lifting and supporting, but with a modern energy and dynamic. Marcello, Celline, and Schunard were all distinct characters with individual styles.
This version of the story is updated to 1950's Paris, another great time for la vie de boheme,
but not so modern that Mimi's plight is unlikely. The costumers splashed out on a mixure of reproduction and vintage clothes, which looked wonderful, especially the Dior-inspired party dresses. The settings looked much like any setting of "La Boheme", but had some nice touches such as the glazed windows in Rodolfo's flat, which reflected ghostly images of the dancers behind them.
Pink's "La Boheme" was a lovely ballet, well produced and mounted. Pink is a marvelous story teller in stage direction as well as dance. One expects to shed a few tears for Mimi. i was holding up well in the last scene until the moment when Rodolfo is trying to light the stove for Mimi, fruitlessly striking sparks from his lighter, not noticing, as everyone else has, that it is already too late. I didn't just tear up, I absolutely wept.
If this ballet is revived anywhere, I strongly recommend it for fans of the dance.
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