Mil­wau­kee Bal­let in­ter­prets ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as Belle’s story

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

Cor­ner­ing Michael Pink when he’s in the process of cre­at­ing a world-pre­miere bal­let is like try­ing to cap­ture a sun­beam.

The new work’s many as­pects — from dance moves to cos­tumes to tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments to orig­i­nal mu­sic — seem like so many dif­fer­ent wave­lengths, and yet Pink’s laser-like in­ten­sity fo­cuses them into one.

Pink’s new­est beam of light is his bal­letic retelling of the fairy-tale clas­sic Beauty and the Beast opens April 12 at the Mar­cus Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts..

“This is killing me,” Pink, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Mil­wau­kee Bal­let, says al­most cheer­fully. “The bal­let runs about one hour and 45 min­utes, and I have all but 20 min­utes chore­ographed. When I fin­ish that up I will have the pro­duc­tion set for ev­ery bar of mu­sic.”

Given the bal­let’s scope, Pink has his work cut out for him. He and his team must pull to­gether a cast of 42 pro­fes­sional dancers and 51 child per­form­ers with com­poser Philip Feeney’s orig­i­nal score, cre­ate lav­ish cos­tumes, and per­fect ex­tra­or­di­nary tech­ni­cal cues, which in­clude the tran­si­tion of a hand­some prince into a hor­ren­dous beast — and back again.

“This is like The Nutcracker all over again,” Pink says in ref­er­ence to the an­nual hol­i­day show. “But in this case, it’s all new.”

Pink re­turned to the orig­i­nal source ma­te­rial for his nar­ra­tive, care­fully avoid­ing heavy over­laps with the Dis­ney “Be Our Guest” ver­sion. Noth­ing wrong with Dis­ney, he ad­mits, but the orig­i­nal tale, which dates back to the 18th cen­tury, al­lowed for greater artis­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Pink also notes a woman penned the story, which 16 years later was re­vised by an­other woman. The fe­male au­thor­ship goes far in sup­port­ing Pink’s the­sis that Beauty and the Beast is a tale of fe­male em­pow­er­ment.

“This re­ally is and al­ways has been Belle’s story,” he says.


The orig­i­nal 1740 ver­sion, La Belle et la Bête, was writ­ten by French nov­el­ist Gabrielle-Suzanne Bar­bot de Vil­leneuve. Her tale was abridged, rewrit­ten and pub­lished by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beau­mont in 1756.

In Pink’s adap­ta­tion, a young prince in­her­its a king­dom from his tyran­ni­cal par­ents, con­tin­u­ing their heavy-handed rule with ar­ro­gance and in­dif­fer­ence. An en­chantress ar­rives at the cas­tle and turns the prince into a beast to match his beastly be­hav­ior, with the stip­u­la­tion that only true love, freely given, can re­turn him to his orig­i­nal form.

But there is a time limit on this of­fer as mea­sured by the life of the beast’s mag­i­cal roses. If the roses die be­fore love is of­fered, the prince will for­ever re­main a beast.

A nearby mer­chant, fallen on hard times, finds him­self lost in the woods and hap­pens upon a beau­ti­ful cas­tle. He is wined, dined and given beau­ti­ful gifts. But on his way out, he spies a mag­nif­i­cent rose and plucks it for his daugh­ter Belle. Sud­denly the beast ap­pears, en­raged at the ap­par­ent theft of the flower. The ter­ri­fied mer­chant makes the only deal he can — trad­ing Belle, for whom he plucked the flower, for his own life.

The plucky, well-read and strong-willed young woman agrees to save her fa­ther, live with the beast and, well, you know the rest.

“It’s al­ways been a story driven by Beauty, but it’s gen­er­ally told from the Beast’s point of view be­cause he’s male and he’s pow­er­ful and he’s this big, hairy beast­i­etype char­ac­ter,” Pink says. “His curse is to have to find true love that will come to him will­ingly, and only if he earns it will he be free from his curse.”

Pink’s Beast will not be the man-bull crea­ture fa­mil­iar from the Dis­ney car­toon, but still no less fright­en­ing with his “won­der­ful long hair and big chops,” the bal­let mas­ter says. In ad­di­tion, the beast will be wrapped in a thorny rose bush that keeps grow­ing, get­ting larger and knot­tier.

In the end, with­out love, the vine will suf­fo­cate him.

“He is wrapped in the vines of a rose bush, but not so much that he is un­able to move,” Pink ex­plains. “I wanted some­thing to re­mind us that he is a trou­bled man, not re­ally a beast in the an­i­mal sense.”


Pink’s ver­sion un­folds on two lev­els. In ad­di­tion to clas­sic ro­mance be­tween the beauty and the beast, a sec­ond tier ex­ists that con­cerns it­self with the towns­peo­ple — in­clud­ing Belle’s two sis­ters, their two fi­ancés, and her fa­ther, who is the con­nect­ing link be­tween the two worlds. The dis­tinc­tion is crit­i­cal for the way Pink has chore­ographed the bal­let.

“The Beast and Belle come to near clas­si­cal bal­let bor­der­ing on the con­tem­po­rary, while the com­mu­nity is chore­ographed in a more com­mer­cial style, al­most like a Broad­way mu­si­cal,” Pink says. “In nei­ther case am I look­ing for re­al­ism, but rather more styl­ized move­ment within the mu­sic.”

The two tiers pro­vide not only con­trast in the sto­ry­line, but also greater depth in the pro­duc­tion’s look and feel, he says.

“Ev­ery­thing is rooted in the pro­fi­ciency of the clas­si­cal dancers,” he adds. “It of­fers an abun­dance of chal­lenges and has some se­ri­ously good vir­tu­oso stuff go­ing on that highlights the skills of the dancers.”

Ni­cole Teague-How­ell will dance the part of Belle, and Isaac Shar­ratt will play the Beast. Davit Hovhan­nisyan will dance the Prince’s role, and Pa­trick How­ell will play Belle’s fa­ther.

The orig­i­nal score is com­posed by Philip Feeney, Pink’s long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor in the United King­dom who cre­ated the scores for Peter Pan, Drac­ula and other Mil­wau­kee Bal­let pro­duc­tions. The cre­ative team also in­cludes Emmy Award-win­ning light­ing de­signer David Grill, Cana­dian cos­tume de­signer Paul Daigle (La Bo­hème) and New York City-based scenic de­signer Todd Ed­ward Ivins (Mir­ror Mir­ror).

“We needed to find a way to tell the story for all ages and in other ways than Dis­ney has cho­sen to do,” Pink says. “It’s very funny, very col­or­ful with guest ap­pear­ances by a lot of fa­mil­iar fairy-tale char­ac­ters.

“The char­ac­ter of Belle started out seek­ing ad­ven­ture,” he adds. “She ends up locked up with a beast in a cas­tle. I don’t think that was quite what she had in mind.”


Ni­cole Teague-How­ell will dance the part of Belle in Mil­wau­kee Bal­let’s

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