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'Esmeralda': A 'Hauntingly' Beautiful Production

ESM rehearsal 1

The crunchy leaves underfoot, the hazy glow of orange and yellow harvest moons in the night sky, the showdowy outlines of church steeples decorating Milwaukee’s skyline. This is the perfect setting for our production of Esmeralda, running October 28-31 at the Marcus Center. Esmeralda will be a fitting show for a spooky Halloween weekend – from the haunting score by Philip Feeney, Quasimodo’s incredible make-up, the dancers in their tavern rag costumes and long hair flowing (not pinned up in typical ballet buns) to the dark and chilling end of the ballet.

I haven’t seen this show since I was at Colorado Ballet when they did it in the spring of 2005 (then called The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and I can see from watching rehearsals that Artistic Director Michael Pink has made some strong changes to the piece. Now called Esmeralda, this ballet is certainly dance drama at its peak – the way Pink masterfully directs a slow-motion scene from Quasimodo’s deaf point-of-view, the smug and cruel circle of she-wolves in Fleur’s room, and the rabid rage of Frollo throughout are striking and shocking.

I sat in on a rehearsal Friday with Education Assistant and Releve Coordinator Lori Flanigan. Watching a rehearsal without costumes and up close is a powerful experience. You can see the sweat, hear the labored breathing and really see the expressions of the dancers (so committed to their acting under Michael’s direction) in vivid detail. We watched Luz San Miguel as Esmeralda and David Hovhannisyan as Frollo in the rather violent scene where she is thrown in jail and then paraded in front of the townspeople to be taken to the gallows. Feeney’s music gives us a map telling us where to go inside our hearts and minds – the striking bells remind you that this is all happening under the watchful eye of Notre Dame – as much a character in the ballet and Hugo’s novel as anyone else. As Esmeralda is tied up with ropes encircling her, the stone gargoyles come to life, crawling around her further emphasizing her horrific situation. (It is admittedly amusing to see the dancers with gargoyle masks and pink and purple leotards on when they try the masks on for the first time.) As Esmeralda is taken out to the street the crowd of people are bursting with opinionated fervor – pointing, spitting, shaking their fists, miming her impending hanging, encircling her with a judgmental furor that is indeed disturbing.

The intensity of that scene is broken up by the hectic atmosphere of the studio… The other cast “marks” the movement on the side, Milwaukee Ballet II dancers dot the studio (noticeable in their formal black and pink “uniforms”), Stage Manager Andrew Nielson and his assistant Doug McCubbin are helping dancers move the scenery trucks “a vista”, or in plain sight – a Michael Pink characteristic that gives a scene a more cinematic effect as things move and fade in and out of view. Ballet Mistress Nadia Thompson gives guardsmen Darren McIntyre and Justin Genna a note about the torch props they’re holding with a warning that if not held right their hair will catch on fire, boys practice their incessant tours (ballet turns) in the back of the studio and Patrick Howell does a comedic interpretation of Frollo while he’s marking it to make sure we are still watching him! And we are.

This show has a bit of everything – gorgeous music and incredible costumes, big sets and passionate pas de deux, a story whose politics and characters ring as true today as the bells Quasi rings in Notre Dame. Come and spend some of your frightfully fun weekend with us – you’ll be sure to hear a more sinister note to those church bells as you leave the theatre, heading out into the night to trick or treat. Click here for more information on Esmeralda.

Alyson Chavez
Director of Education