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What is La Bohème?

Alexandre Ferreira and Nicole Teague as Rodolfo and Mimi, with Timothy O'Donnell and Annia Hidalgo as Marcello and Musetta.

Okay everyone, let’s get it out in the open… The word on the street is that La Bohème is an opera. Ding, ding, ding! Yes, chances are if you were ringing in on Jeopardy and the blue screen read, “Puccini’s story about four starving artists and a dying girl,” you would hit your buzzer and answer (in the form of a question of course), “What is La Bohème?” But this week, you’d only get your daily double if you responded, “What is a world premiere ballet by Michael Pink?” (Did you know that Michael was once an answer on Jeopardy for his ballet, The Hunchback of Notre Dame??? But I digress…) Bohème has been adapted over the years into movies, poems, songs and musicals – perhaps most famously as the Broadway sensation RENT. And yes, La Bohème is usually done as an opera; and while this is only the second time in a hundred years that it’s been done as a ballet, the real question is, why not a ballet? Passionate artists, beautiful women, love, loss, life, death… This all says ballet to me.
Here’s why I love Michael Pink: he’s not afraid to tackle a story – a big story. You could easily say that Dracula is best known as a novel, Romeo & Juliet as a play, and Peter Pan as a Disney movie. But when it comes to Michael – all of these have been done as successful ballets; stories known specifically for their beautiful words, poetic verse and dependence on vocal actors turned into ballets where the spoken word would suddenly seem superfluous. Michael has loved Bohème for a long time. It is fitting that it was the first opera he saw when he was something of a struggling artist himself. This story can become somewhat of a mirror for any young aesthete and to this day, Michael is enamored with the raw veracity of it – throwing caution to the wind for a night on the town with a pretty lady, buying a canvas to paint on instead of paying the bills, living and dying for your art, and especially for love.

This is a different type of Michael Pink ballet. He’s chosen to work with a small ensemble cast. While you’ll see street and crowd scenes filled with dancers from the Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II Program and children from Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, the story zeroes in on Rodolfo, Marcello, Mimi and Musetta. This chance to work with the dancers so intimately has given Michael a chance to create onsite, with the dancers’ help, utilizing their unique talents and physical voices, if you will, to influence the movement and the characters. He has clearly loved this experience – you can see it in rehearsal as he coaches the dancers, singing the choreography to them as they move across the floor. The music is stunningly beautiful – and while arranged specifically for the ballet by conductor Andrews Sill, it is all there – recognizable and heartbreaking.

I watched the in-studio dress rehearsal on Friday, sitting in the corner with the staff. This is always fun; Studio A at 3:15 on Friday, the week before we head to the theater, the Company does a final run-through and we are invited in to watch. The mirrors are covered up so the dancers make sure they aren’t dependent on watching each other for steps; the wardrobe staff wanders on and off the “stage” – sometimes mid-scene to fix a blouse, to add a jacket. The artistic staff sits in the front of the room taking feverish notes; the lighting designer has arrived – pouring over his computer, the stage manager and his assistants check props and set pieces. It is intense.

I can tell you this – each time a character came out in costume, we gasped. These dresses are to die for. Paul Daigle’s 1950s designs are gorgeous. The first pas de deux with Rodolfo and Mimi had us teary eyed already. The camaraderie between the four main characters (Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard) is endearing and strong – and fun to watch! There are beautiful moments where an unexpected pas de trois sketchhas you desperately watching on the edge of your seat – hoping the characters will see what’s really happening and find each other; a double pas de deux where one couple celebrates love and the other battles and blocks it. Michael’s skill at expressing emotions through movement digs at your heart – there are moments in all of his pas de deux (be it Snow Pas in The Nutcracker, the balcony scene in R&J, Mina and Dracula) where you say to yourself, yes, if I could move like that, that is what love feels like when it’s real. As in any real tragedy, there must be moments of lightness and something to laugh at and with – and Musetta will enchant you. Annia Hidalgo is a mistress of comedy and charm. And, you’ll get a chance to see our four new dancers – in particular, the handsome and compelling Tim O’Donnell as the sensitive painter Marcello, but also Mayara Pineiro as a sexy waitress, Erik Johnson in the Café Momus and Etienne Diaz on the streets of Paris.

So it’s been done as an opera – Michael’s never been afraid of a challenge. Underneath the glitter of the Eiffel Tower and the hustle and bustle of the Parisian streets lie a gorgeous group of bohemians – dying to share some of their beauty with the world. Michael has unearthed these gems and given them new life – la vie boheme! I can’t think of a more fitting way to start Michael’s 10th anniversary season, than a piece about art itself, about life and love and beauty.

Alyson Chavez
Director of Community Outreach

Side photo: Luz San Miguel as Mimi, with David Hovhannisyan as Rodolfo and Annia Hidalgo as Musetta.