Milwaukee Ballet’s truly International competition
Edgar Zendejas, Lucas Jervies and Mauro de Candia didn’t look much like competitors, as they sat around a table talking about the dances they’ve been creating for the Milwaukee Ballet for the last few weeks. They could have been more collegial.
Still, they are the finalists in the Milwaukee Ballet’s biennial Genesis International Choreography Competition. The company will perform their new dances Thursday through Sunday at the Pabst Theater, and something will be at stake. Three professional judges will make their calls, the audience will cast ballots. Two choreographers will get $1,000 or $2,000 and a thank-you-very much. One will get $3,000 and a contract to create a second work for the Milwaukee Ballet. The audience votes for a $500 bonus for one of the three.
So why is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat not at the top of their minds?
“We were selected out of 50 people,” Jervies said (artistic director Michael Pink selected the finalists from video entries). “We’ve already won. We don’t see it as a competition — it’s a triple bill. The only thing is, you have to apply for it.”
All three trained extensively in classical ballet, had careers that took them to modern takes on classical technique, and recently quit dancing to focus on choreography.
Zendejas, 41, a Mexico City native, danced with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal for nearly 20 years. Before that, he danced in Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance Company and in the Gus Giordano Jazz company. He founded his own company, ezdanza, in Montreal in 2006 and has been its full-time artistic director since 2009.
He could have stayed on as resident choreographer for Les Ballets Jazz, but: “I wanted a place where I could express myself freely,” he said.
De Candia, 30, hails from Barletta, in the far south of Italy. (“We say we’re almost Africa,” he said.) He trained at the ballet school of the La Scala, Milan, at the Bèjart School in Lausanne, and at Académie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace de Monaco. In 2001, he joined the Hannover Opera Ballet, in Germany. He started choreographing for productions there at 21. He retired from the stage in the spring and works as a freelance choreographer throughout Europe. He has an entrepreneurial mindset and has started ongoing companies and educational projects in his hometown and around southern Italy.
The three agreed that the structure of the Milwaukee competition is ideal. They drew dancers’ names out of a hat (with adjustments for gender balance), so they don’t waste time casting or arguing over casting. They have weeks to develop a dance. And that dance plays to a big audience as part of the MBC’s regular subscription season. Most competitions are more private affairs that culminate in studio showings.
They also agreed that good showings here could help them break into the American market, which is hard to crack. They all send off DVDs, but this time they knew Michael Pink would actually look at them.
Each choreographer works with eight dancers and has 90 hours of rehearsal over three weeks to create a 20-minute work with recorded music. At the time of the interview, they were far along in the process.
De Candia calls his piece Something I Had in Mind.
“I had no single concept,” he said. He described it as bits of work he’s collected in his mind, reconsidered and fit together in various ways. The music, Paganini’s Variations on “A Carnival of Venice,” “led me to some images and I just put them all in. It’s like sketches. It’s kind of funny, maybe, but there is a lot of speed and technique. It’s demanding for the dancers, but it looks light. There’s also a kitschy Edit Piaf song. We don’t have to take ourselves too seriously.”
Zendejas laughed when I asked him about music.
“I misread the rules,” he said. “I thought we had to have original music.”
Perhaps that led to serendipity. He came armed with a piece written for him by Paris-based Jean-Phillippe Barrios, a Spaniard Zendejas has worked with before. Both the music and the dance are called Mara, which means means “mother” in Catalan.
Zendejas started with an idea before he made a step. After a couple of sessions of moving freely with the dancers, he asked them to write little essays about friendship, which emerged as the central theme of his dance.
“What they wrote was beautiful,” Zendejas said. “Some were a little dark, but you could still see the love in their ideas. They inspired me to make dances for them. The dance captures the energy of a true, full community.”
“Classical ballet is deep within me,” Jervies said. “But there is also William Forsythe and Marco Goecke. And I’ve worked with Aboriginal dancers, whose feet move almost like hands.”
As Jervies discussed his piece, dance Douglas McCubbin came into the room and handed him a cane. Of course he had to explain.
“Now, as a company manager, I have to be quite serious,” Jervies said. “But I’ve always been the prankster, the class clown. Dancers can get frustrated. In rehearsal, I’ve made them laugh and loosen up by walking with the cane and impersonating an old lady. The cane became a symbol in the piece, of a sad clown.”
The piece turned out to be about the balance of seriousness and humor and responsibility and levity. Memory comes into play, too, when someone makes a sharp career transition, as Jervies has.
“The original music was Bruch and Beethoven, but when I got done, that made it melancholy,” Jervies said. “That’s not me. I throw stuff away — trophies, cards, all of that — and move on. So I scrapped the music and got something from Eugene Ughetti, a Melbourne percussionist. It’s intense and fast. I just had to change the dance a little.”
They’ve all had their aesthetic adventures, and their pieces won’t look anything like Swan Lake. But de Candia spoke for all when he declared his love for ballet style and technique.
“Classical ballet is the evergreen,” he said. “Ballet can still lead to something and still has something to teach us.
“You will see point work in my piece. And you will see a tutu — something I never use. But you will also see people rolling on the floor.”
Genesis runs Feb. 10-13 at the Pabst Theater (144 E. Wells St), with multiple performances each day. Tickets to the performance range from $25-$89. To order tickets or for additional information, call the ballet’s ticket line, (414) 902-2103. Tickets will also be available from Thursday on at the Pabst website and box office, 414 286-3663.
Finally, I want to bring your attention to a special promotion. TCD, Radio Milwaukee 88.9 and the Milwaukee Ballet are throwing a Pints Before Pointe promotion on opening night, Thursday, Feb. 10, at ZEN DEN at the InterContinental Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave.
The hotel adjoins the Pabst Theater, so you’re under one roof for the whole evening. The evening begins at 6:30 p.m. with talks by all three choreographers and music from DJ Marcus Doucette. The $35 ticket includes both the event AND a prime seat for the concert and first looks at sketches by 21 area artists drawn during rehearsals for these pieces.
NEW THIS YEAR— Sample complimentary brews courtesy of BUFFALO WATER BEER COMPANY! RSVP 414-902-2102 or firstname.lastname@example.org