The Ballet’s “Hunchback” reborn as “Esmeralda”
Back in October of 2004, Michael Pink opened his second full season as Milwaukee Ballet artistic director with his The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He had created the piece, to an original score by Philip Feeney, for Britain’s Northern Ballet Theatre in 1998.
It’s back, retitled Esmeralda, after the gypsy girl who complicates life in Quasimodo’s belfry.
Six years ago, the complex costume ballet left many in Milwaukee, including me, cold. As it turns out, Pink had his own reservations about the show.
“I’m 12 years older and a little wiser,” Pink said, in an interview prior to a recent Esmeralda rehearsal. “The title change was always in the back of my mind. The story is really about her, more than the hunchback.”
Pink had always dreaded the Disney connection, and suspects at least some in the audience arrived expecting to see something as cute as the animated Hunchback. As ballets go, this one is gritty: In 2004, the lead character hung herself in full view.
“We’ve re-lit it for the scale of American theaters,” he said. “Last time, we tried to do it the way we did in the U.K., where theaters are so much smaller. It will be less of a blur this time. The nature of the story is dark, but you should still be able to see it.”
He’s worked to streamline and clarify the plot-laden, expository first act and to make the whole show look more coherent and orderly. (My personal recollection of Hunchback is of endlessly milling crowds.) Pink also said that at Northern Ballet Theatre, he felt comfortable leaving many choices up to the dancers, with whom he had worked for years. That didn’t work so well in Milwaukee, by his reckoning. This time around, he’s choreographing and directing more thoroughly.
“I’m giving myself one last chance to tighten it up,” Pink said. “I now realize how much we relied on the dancers. We’re trying to fill the space that had always been left to artistic interpretation, so the piece can stand on its own two feet. I’m feeling much more optimistic about it.”
The last time around, he felt that many of his dancers became too bound up in the strong feelings attached to their characters.
“The danger here, for the dancers, is to rely too much on emotion. That’s when they lose the structure and technique, and you can see them start to push and just go for it. All this week, we’ve been working on making the emotional connections without losing control.”
Esmeralda is a big story narrative with lots of acting and elaborate costumes. I’m not the only one who has criticized it for lack of dancing. Pink doesn’t see it that way.
“I have never regarded myself as a great step-maker,” he said. “I’m exploring ways to tell a complex story with the body. This is very hard, physically. The critics should see this piece without the costumes — there’s a lot going on beneath them.”
Esmeralda will run at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28-31, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $25-$89. Details and links here.