MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Ballet is about to become the first major, local arts group to bring live audiences back inside the theater in any sizable number. The production of To the Pointe will be the first time the general public is invited to the Ballet since the pandemic darkened the local arts scene.
“We've been able to create health and safety protocols that we now know will keep us safe and that our audiences who will be in this space watching a performance, live, will also be safe. That’s our number one priority,” explained Michael Pink, The Ballet’s Artistic Director.
While safety is the top priority, Pink acknowledges for his dancers and for the community, getting back on stage and doing live performances is at a critical point.
“I know there are people who think we haven't been working and haven't been performing and in fact, if those people would just take a step closer towards us, they would really be surprised at just how much we have been doing, and how safely we've been doing it,” Pink said.
“It’s been a while,” Itzel Hernandez laughed. In her sixth season as a Milwaukee Ballet Company Artist, Hernandez is excited to finally perform in front of live audiences again.
“This program features all of us in specific ways and our strengths and it's very, very cool,” Hernandez shared. “It’s been almost a year. It's been a while. I just keep saying that. Almost a year since we last performed at the Pabst Theater so it's a very magical experience.”
It will be a very different experience. The dancers have learned to adapt to wearing special order surgical masks. It’s a challenge in what is already one of art’s most physically demanding forms.
“Visually. Athletically. It was just a challenge overall,” Hernandez explained. “We're used to be able to see, or feel our entire bodies.” The masks have forced the dancers, she says, to find new ways to connect with each other and the audience. “Mr. Pink keeps saying you have to smile with your eyes.”
Pink has changed up not only safety protocols but even production elements and choices themselves, all to accommodate this gradual return to live performances. “The return will be a slow and methodical one,” Pink admitted. “We know that we have to take baby steps. We are now producing performances that are just one hour in length. There will be no intermission, so our audiences won't have to leave the space, go to the washroom. Come back. We're minimizing points of contact.”
And the world is watching. The Ballet is not only the first major, local group getting back to in-person performing, but this company is on the leading edge of a global return to the performing arts.
“I keep getting messages from all over the world asking me, ‘how are you guys doing it? How many people are going to be watching? How are you doing online streaming,’” Hernandez said as she talks with friends and dancers from other parts of America, and Europe. Asked if it was an overstatement to say the Milwaukee Ballet is leading the world in a return to the stage she replied, “That's definitely not an overstatement. We're definitely the leaders of the pack right now at this point.”
To the Point will run inside the Ballet’s Third Ward studios, The Baumgartner Center for Dance. The relatively new home opened in the fall of 2019, and it’s a big reason the Ballet is able to be back in any form.
“Moving into the Baumgartner Center for Dance a year ago as of August was an incredible and major milestone for this organization,” Pink explained. “Little did we know that it was going to become the most important step because it has allowed us to continue to operate in the ways that we've talked about safely.”
Modern heating and air conditioning systems, ample space for social distancing, and a room for small audiences in a performance space are all priceless attributes of the new building.
The facility is a physical manifestation of the support the Ballet has and continues to receive from the community. The generosity in the Greater Milwaukee area which has kept our major arts groups afloat during this time is not lost on Pink.
“I think we'll see a very swift return, not all, we appreciate that. I think we'll see a significant shift as people return. More importantly, we hope they'll appreciate it even more and support it even more. All of our arts groups are hurting financially. We're so grateful to everybody who continues to support us. For the future, perhaps will be willing to increase attendance and realize the value of supporting the United Performing Arts Fund, supporting all of us, because this is our community. This is our City. This is what will elevate and lift us all through this.”
Tickets will be extremely limited. There will be about 50 guests per performance. The hope is to ramp up those numbers with approval from the City through the spring and to be back at the Marcus Performing Arts Center this summer. For information on tickets and showtimes for To the Point and future performances of the Milwaukee Ballet, click here.