Milwaukee Ballet’s “Esmeralda”
Reduction of a 460-page novel to two hours of movement costs in breadth and development. A choreographer, unlike a novelist, hasn’t the time to build inevitability and tension in waves as crises bubble to crests and then subside.
Michael Pink hastened to report incident in Esemeralda, his treatment of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, which the Milwaukee Ballet opened Thursday. A busker must fail in his street show and fall in with thieves and beggars. A noble officer must be smitten and woo a street dancer. Quasimodo must be mocked and beaten. The gypsy must charm a crowd with her dancing and show brave kindness to the hunchback. A hypocritical priest must attempt murder and repeatedly attempt rape, and finally commit murder indirectly by causing the poor girl to be hanged.
And that’s not the half of what occurred as Pink rushed to tell the story, as Philip Feeney’s clever, vivid — OK, lurid — music underscored each event. (The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra played fiercely under Andrews Sill.) Mime is at a minimum, except for the feigned conversations in the crowd scenes. Mostly, Pink has found ways to embed the storytelling in dancing. A great deal of it — much more dancing than I remembered from six years ago — fills Esmeralda.
Narrative often trumps beauty in this piece. The ensemble dances Act 1, for example, derive from the misshapen walk and gestures that Ryan Martin, in a heroic performance, brought to Quasimodo. The raggedy costumes of the street people of Paris flap about arms and legs flung in unison at hideous angles. It’s ugly as sin, but then it is sin for a nasty mob to bait an unfortunate fellow human being in this way. A fascination with the grotesque is part of the story — the beautiful cathedral does have its gargoyles — but I like to see the body in beautiful motion at the ballet. (Ballet does have a historical knack for making evil beautiful, as in the Black Swan, but Pink didn’t go for that.)
A scene centered on Diana Stetsura, as the officer’s high-born fiancee, full of airy, long-lined elegance, gave some relief from the mob’s scuttling movement and grubby clothing. But I think Pink’s intention is to make Esmeralda the flickering flame of beauty in a dark world. Julianne Kepley shone brightly in the title role. She’s a girl-next-door type, sturdy and athletic, with a nifty, clean attack and confident, centered balance. Her first big solo is straight-ahead classical virtuosity, with a little gypsy character flourishes. The sensual, sexual number she uses to intimidate Stetsura’s character comes as a bit of a shock. We thought she was so innocent.
If Esmeralda falls short, it’s not for lack of trying or lack of skill on the part of the dancers, who were unfailing in their energy and commitment. I also admired Marc Petrocci, as Gringoire, the would-be actor. In a long, greasy wig and with his slick, yet desperate way of trying to ingratiate himself with the mob of thieves, Petrocci was completely charming in the way of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. David Hovhaninisyan made a dashing and easily virtuosic Captain Phoebus, just the guy to sweep Esmeralda off her feet.
Much to like and even admire lies within Esmeralda, but in the end its emotions feel a little cheap and its pace a little frantic. Its nasty incidents pile up like a chain reaction accident on the freeway, but they do not accumulate power. You become inured and stop taking them seriously. When Esmeralda dies at the end of a rope, we’re supposed to be devastated. We’re not.
The line-up of lead roles mentioned above will repeat on Saturday. They will change as follows Friday and Sunday: Luz San Miguel (Esmeralda), Michael Linsmeier (Quasimodo), David Hovhannisyan (Frollo), Petr Zahradnicek (Gringoire), Ryan Martin (Captain Phoebus).