On Sunday, March 29th, we went to see the Milwaukee Ballet’s performance of Michael Pink’s “Giselle.” Liberally adapted from the original 1841 libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, Pink reimagines the story starting in the ghetto of an unnamed Polish town. Although the civilians aren’t specifically designated as “Jews” or the Fascistic soldiers “Nazis”, it’s pretty clear from the black uniforms and German/Polish signage what’s implied.

As the music starts, we see one of the townspeople, Hilarion (Timothy O’Donnell), clamber over the fence into the ghetto, eluding the searchlights and guards. As day breaks, he leaves vegetables he has scrounged and a bunch of flowers on the doorstep of the house where Giselle (Annia Hildalgo) lives, knocks, and then hides. Giselle is delighted by the flowers, but her mother (Rachel Malehorn) is more happy with the leeks and parsnips.

Enter Albrecht, a young officer of the occupiers. He is engaged to Bathilde (Janel Meindersee), the sister of his commander (Patrick Howell), but is intrigued by Giselle. Furtively, he doffs and hides his cap, belt and coat, revealing civilian clothes underneath. He then commences a flirtation with Giselle, and presses the gift of a necklace on her. Hilarion objects to this, and the two fight, but are separated by the townspeople, who strike up music and dancing to divert any attention by the guards. Giselle dances, but her mother, afraid due to Giselle’s weak heart, pulls her aside.

Albrecht ducks out as the guards do enter. Bathilde has arrived, and her brother is giving her a tour. Among other things, the people attempt to entertain her. When it is mentioned that Giselle loves to dance, Bathilde demands that she do so, and Giselle dances until she is exhausted.

When Bathilde leaves, Albrecht slinks back, only to be exposed when children find his bag and uniform. Giselle flies into a passion and dies. Bathilde, drawn back by the commotion, flings her engagement ring to the ground beside the prostrate Albrecht. As the curtain falls, her brother gives the order to round up the witnesses to his sister’s disgrace.

During the second act overture, we see the townspeople being “processed”, and then machine-gunned (tastefully done with light and sound effect--). As the ballet music proper starts, the dead rise and start adjusting to their new life as spirits. (Georgie had seen this ballet performed with the classical choreography, and said that Pink had adapted it wonderfully for this scene, preserving the steps but making it more ghostly). Giselle, now transfigured into an angelic being of light, comes among them and gladdens them.

Albrecht, wracked with shame and guilt, enters, seeking Giselle’s grave. She appears to him, expressing forgiveness. He pursues his vision of her, but encounters the ghostly townspeople, now bent on vengeance. They hound him to exhaustion and near death, with only Giselle’s intervention saving his life. As dawn breaks, the spirits depart, leaving Albrecht alone to face the day.

All the dancing for this piece was beautiful and powerful, with few noticable flaws. One objection that Georgie had was that the original first-act choreography was too broken up by the story insertions: she would have liked to see more sustained dancing. However, this was significantly mitigated by the power of the storyline and the wonderful character that Pink always puts into these scenes, and by the fact that the second act is pure dance, with much of the classical choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, directed by Andrews Sill, did a fine job with Adolphe Adam’s score for our performance.
Mark Morris is one of the best-known and most innovative choreographers working today (he was mentioned in my review of the Metropolitan Opera’s Orfeo et Euridice) so when we heard that the Mark Morris Dance Group was coming to the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center in Brookfield April 9th, we had to get tickets, even knowing that it was on OddCon weekend.

We made good time driving from Madison back to the Milwaukee area and had time for dinner at Kopp’s before getting to the Wilson Center. The Center is located in the middle of a large plot of marshy wilderness preserve (Brookfield’s Mitchell Park, not to be confused with Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park, which has the famous Domes) off of Capitol Drive. We were surprised and pleased to hear spring peepers calling in the distance as we walked in from the parking lot.

The main auditorium is a modernistic hall with lots of blonde wood, good sightlines, and decent acoustics. The usual concert-hall chandelier is replaced by an arrangement of frosted-glass birds, illuminated from within. Amusingly, they change color as well, which gives them rather an unfortunate resemblance to Christmas-tree ornaments.

The Group performed four pieces. The first, “Italian Concerto” (all the dances were named for the music that accompanies them), music by Johann Sebastian Bach, was in three movements. Five dancers mixed and matched in the movements. Allegro was a very sprightly dance, in which I detected steps and movements from the classic hornpipe. Andante was a slower piece. I thought I observed an influence of tai chi chuan or something similar here, but that may have been partly influenced by the brightly colored yoga workout clothes the dancers wore. Presto was of course faster, and was playful, seeming to combine the actions of children on a playground with some 70’s disco dancing.

The second dance, “Going Away Party” was undoubtedly the most fun, and most accessible. Unlike the other pieces, which were accompanied by live musicians from the MMDG Music Ensemble, these dances were to music by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Seven dancers rang changes on the various themes (Playboy Theme; Yearning; My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You; Goin’ Away Party; Baby, That Sure Would Go Good; Milk Cow Blues; Crippled Turkey; and When You Leave Amarillo, Turn Out the Lights) attired in a mix of costumes that would represent what you would see on young people downtown Saturday night in someplace like Amarillo in the late 40’s/50’s. The dancing worked out to be inspired by Western Swing, as seen through the Technicolor lens of an MGM musical.

After intermission, the Group gave us “Excursions” which was the least successful piece on the program. Costumes were back to workout wear, and the dancing, set to movements IV, III, II, and I of Samuel Barber’s Excursions for the Piano (Op. 20), only seemed to be frenetic and pointless motion. There were efforts made at setting a scene or telling some event, but which went nowhere. In one movement, a square area was marked off on the stage. The dancers entered it, stooping, as though coming in under a tent flap, then assumed postures of distress, exhaustion or injury. Were they refugees? Prisoners? The sick? This was never made clear or the significance even suggested. In another, the dancer march determinedly around the stage, one by one falling out as though dead, until the march comes round to them again, whereupon they rise up and resume marching. Deeply symbolic of something, potentially, but we had no idea of what.

Just to show that there’s very little that is genuinely rational about art, the last piece “Grand Duo” (Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, by Lou Harrison) wasn’t actually a whole lot more structured than “Excursions”, yet we liked it much better. Perhaps it was that the piece just seemed much more joyous, or –more intentional? In the first section, Prelude, the dancers start out on a darkened stage. An intense beam of white light crosses above them. One by one they reach up, some of them managing to get a hand up into the light in a spiraling motion that resembled seedlings coming to the surface. The pale hands in the white light reminded me of the Egyptian lotus-bud hieroglyph, an impression reinforced by the men’s loincloth costumes and the classical outfits given the women. Stampede was an exercise in group motion, and A Round was a particularly good bit in which to study the dancer’s movements and Morris’ choreographic vocabulary as motions were taken up and passed around among the dancers. The last portion, Polka, was a thrilling, celebratory, ecstatic dance. Harrison’s atonal music was more like rapid rhythmic noise, but for this kind of fast, powerful, precise dancing, that’s really all you need. Polka ended the program on a high note, and drew a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd.
On Saturday night, October 25, we went to see the Milwaukee Ballet
production of "The Sleeping Beauty," to the music by Pyotr Ilyich
Tchaikovsky. We were interested in this production for a number of
reasons. First, neither of us had ever seen a full production of this
famous ballet. Second, we were interested to see what Milwaukee Ballet
Director Michael Pink had done with it. We had heard from an
acquaintance who had recently seen a Chicago performance of the full
original choreography by Marius Petipa, and who had reported that it
was rather dull. However, when the papers reported that Pink had cut
an hour's worth of repetitions and reworked framing material while
retaining the classic Petipa set pieces, we were enthusiastic.

What we got was indeed a "good parts version," with some of Pink's
trademarks added. As noted here previously, he does the evil/weird
characters awfully well, and the villainess Carabosse (danced by
Jeannette Marie Hanley) is no exception. She has been given four
goblinoid minions (Marc Petrocci, Garet Erwin, Katie Rideout, and Bret
Samson) who most often move as one entity with Carabosse as they
crawl, writhe and spin about the stage, sometimes carrying Carabosse,
and sometimes seeming to drag her like out-of-control horses.

The ballet opens with Carabosse dancing her curse of barrenness on the
King and Queen (Denis Malenkine and Nadia Thompson, the company's
Ballet Master and Mistress), whose monarchy she hopes to bring to an
end. Instead, the Lilac Fairy (Diana Setsura) provides the royal
couple with a baby girl that they discover under a rose bush in the
garden, and decide to raise as their own.

The story proceeds in the familiar fashion: there is a christening
celebration, and the various fairies bestow gifts of honesty, grace,
prosperity, song, and generosity. Enter Carabosse, who professes
outrage at not having been invited. The King blames the lapse on his
Master of Ceremonies, Catalbutte (Joel Hathaway), who is carried off
to punishment by Carabosse's servants. Not mollified, she then
pronounces her dreadful "gift"--that on her sixteenth birthday, the
child will prick her finger on the thorn of a red rose, and die. The
Lilac Fairy again intervenes, and amends the curse so that the
Princess will instead sleep for a hundred years until awakened by the
kiss of a Prince.

The second scene again starts with Carabosse, who creates a simulacrum
of a young girl, and arms it with the poisoned red rose. The scene then
transitions to Princess Aurora's sixteenth birthday celebration. Luz San
Michel, petite even among ballerinas, expresses the Princess very well,
charmingly receiving homage from her subjects. It is in this scene that
the famous "Sleeping Beauty Waltz" is heard, although choreographically
it is a pretty round dance done by the peasants in honor of their
Princess. After Aurora flirts with her four suitors, the rose child
(Amelia Foss) appears and teases her with the red rose, which she
eventually gets, and, of course, pricks herself. The celebration turns
to alarm as the Princess falls fainting. The King homes in on the rose
child as the culprit, but she is replaced by Carabosse. Carabosse fells
Aurora's suitors and is about to make good her prophecy of the Princess'
death with the sword of one of the princes when the Lilac Fairy comes to
the rescue. Not prepared to fight the Lilac Fairy, Carabosse disappears
with a mocking salute. Aurora is borne to her canopied bed, and the
Lilac Fairy casts the spell which will put the whole castle into
slumber.

As the second act opens, it is a hundred years later. We are introduced
to Prince Desire (Ryan Martin), who is part of a merry hunting party
hosted by the Duchess (Rachel Malehorn). The Duchess and other women of
the party have eyes for the handsome prince, but he is lead away by a
vision of the sleeping princess. In the most dramatic sequence, Desire
is waylaid by Carabosse and her minions. The stage was lit by swirling
green lights that well evoked a running battle in the deep woods. The
prince scatters the goblins and fells Carabosse with a blow from his
hunting dagger. Forest spirits and the Lilac Fairy guide Desire to
Aurora's bedside, where he awakens her.

The last half of the act is taken up with dances in celebration of
Aurora's rescue and marriage to Desire. Besides the fairies, other
storybook characters appear, including Puss in Boots and the White Cat
(Darren McIntyre and Susan Gartell) in a very clever and funny pas de
deux, and Princess Florine and the Bluebird (Yuki Clark and Marc
Petrocci) in a very athletic leaping dance.

As far as we could discern, the dancing was flawless and the orchestra,
conducted by Andrews Sill, well in hand. Costumes were pretty and not
overdone. We approved of Mr. Pink's decision to go with minimal sets,
but agreed with the Journal/Sentinel critic in that we thought the
cyclorama used to project sky and mood effects rather loomed
distractingly over the dancers.

However, that was the only quibble, and we were very happy with the
production and the performance.
The season finale for the Milwaukee Ballet is typically a mixed program, and this year was no exception. What was uniform in the mix was the very high quality and interest factor of all the pieces.

The first act was the "white scene" "The Kingdom of Shades" from La Bayadere, a classic ballet by famous choreographer Marius Petipa, to music by his frequent collaborator, Ludwig Minkus. When first produced, La Bayadere was very ground-breaking, and this scene became the inspiration for similar set pieces in Swan Lake and Les Syphildes.

This scene is virtually a program in itself, and, as Georgie said, includes virtually the complete vocabulary of steps and combinations found in 19th century ballet. It opens with the entrance of the corps to a forest glade, then a pas de trois, featuring, in this performance, Jennifer Grapes, Courtney Kramer, and Susan Gartell. Then, a pas de deux of  Diana Setsura as "Nikiya," the temple dancer and David Hovhannisyan as "Solor" the prince. following that, each principal got brief, but pretty solo turns, and the scene continued with more ensemble bits until the grand finale. 

The second piece, Aubade ("Dawn Serenade"), was a world premier of an orginal ballet by the Company's Artistic Director, Michael Pink, to music by Francis Poulenc. The stage is bare except for a ramped area at the back, which might be a levee, or might be a rampart. In pre-dawn grayness and mist, seven men stand waiting and watching. as the day lightens, three women (the same dancers as the pas de trois above) dressed in shades of spring green enter.  Two pair off, but the others engage in a series of dances of flirtation and competition. Georgie noted that you don't often see pas de deux consisting of two male dancers, which added interest. The piece comes to a contemplative end as the background continues to brighten, the men leave, and the women take up their watching positions on the ramparts.

If Bayadere is about romance, and Aubade about flirtation, Anthony Tudor's 1954 ballet of Orpheus in the Underworld is about desire, lust, and jealousy.  The location is an 1870's Parisian cafe, with a set that wittily refers to Manet's painting, A Bar at the Folies Bergere, complete with the barmaid/landlady played by the Company's Ballet Mistress, Nadia Thompson.  The dance, set to the music of Jacques Offenbach, describes the actions and interactions of an evening's customers, including a painter (Patrick Howell), the landlady's daughter (Jacqueline Moscicke),  a debutante (Tatiana Jouravel) and her friends, a Prince (Douglas McCubbin), an operetta star (Luz San Miguel), and the "Queen of the Carriage Trade," (Jeanette Marie Hanley), plus waiters, and male and female locals.  When the prince enters, all the women throw themselves (sometimes literally) at him, until the operetta diva enters and demands his attention, as well as that of any other reasonably attractive man in the bar.  Troublemaking as she is, it is nothing to when the "Queen" enters, playing off the prince and the officer against one another, initiating a challenge, which devolves into an entertaining barroom brawl.  After the landlady clears the floor, the customers filter back, and things are reasonably calm until the floor is rushed by the band of street women. Heated by drink and excitement, they have cast off jackets and blouses and engage in the rawly sexual  "can-can", which is the climax of the ballet. Worn out, the customers gradually depart, leaving the painter, the landlady, and her daughter in the dark and quiet.

All of these pieces were quite lovely in their own way, from the formal to the raucous.  Dancing by the members of the company was uniformly strong and precise, with only a few stutters noted in the corps in the subtly difficult opening of La Bayadere, which did not at all detract from what followed. All in all, it was a very enjoyable program, and we are looking forward with interest to the next season. 
On Saturday night, February 17, we went to the Milwaukee Ballet’s program, “Premiers of Passionate Dance.” At the time we bought our series tickets, this program was to have been a revival of the Margo Sappington ballet “Virgin Forest”, which was a quirky and amusing set of dances inspired by Rosseau’s paintings, with original music by Paul Schwarz. We had seen and enjoyed this piece the first time around (A Milwaukee world premiere in 1987) and were looking forward to a reprise. We weren’t too pleased when, after we had received our ticket package, it was announced that “Virgin Forest” was being replaced with an as yet unnamed new ballet by Sappington.

Apparently, Sappington, who is a Tony-award winning Broadway choreographer as well as doing ballet, had been dazzled by William Shatner’s recent recording Has Been, which combines his poetic musings with voices of people who can actually sing, and jazzy music by Ben Folds. (You’ve got to give Shatner credit—the man just keeps coming back. You’d think after the universal derision his Star Trek-era recording efforts garnered he would think he could afford to leave that arena alone--.)

The program opened with “Agon”, a ballet by the dominating figure of American ballet in the 20th Century, Georges Balanchine. We are not great fans of Balanchine, but Georgie, who had seen the work in New York forty or so years ago was very interested to see how the Milwaukee Company would do with this work. One of the reasons we are not particularly fond of Balanchine is because his ideal dancer would have been Olympia the dancing automation: he was very rigid and controlling in his art. He is one of the people we class as “wizards” because, while he did marvelous things in his lifetime, it is debatable whether or not anyone would be able to reproduce them after he was gone. The Milwaukee Ballet did do a very creditable job, evidently with some help from beyond the grave: the program notes that, in addition to being performed by arrangement with Boosey and Hawkes, Inc., publisher and copyright holder, “Agon” a Balanchine Ballet ®, is “presented by arrangement with The George Balanchine Trust, and has been produced in accordance with the Balanchine Style ® and Balanchine Technique ®. Service standards established and provided by the Trust.”

I kid you not; the boldface print and registry marks were just like that. I’ve never seen anything like that before.

In any case, Balanchine is indeed all about the technique. The title, “Agon” is a Greek work meaning contest or struggle, the root of our word “agony”. Danced to original music by Igor Stravinsky, the abstract ballet does have elements of a contest as the dancers face off, one against one, two against one or two, four against four, four against eight, underlined by the percussive and dissonant score. I was amused to see a “costume design” credit was given for one “Karinska,” since the costuming is extremely basic and speaks more of the rehearsal hall than performance: black tank leotards and “ballet pink” tights and shoes for the women, white t-shirts, black tights, white socks and slippers for the men. The stage is bare, and a uniform lighting was maintained throughout the piece. Although the movements of the music were given seventeenth century dance names (which were not included in the program) the actual dances bear no resemblance to antique dance, but are instead concerned with testing the dancers’ strength and precision, rather than grace or beauty. The comparative lack of emotion reinforces an impression that what we are seeing is some form of dance kata, or something akin to the “compulsory figures” in a skating contest. For all of the competition built into the choreography, the passion we see is a pure cold passion for the dance. The Milwaukee Ballet rose to the occasion extremely well, with the last pas de trios and the long last pas de deux (danced by Diana Stetsura and David Hovhannisyan) being particularly fine. Georgie thought that the performance compared well to her memory of Balanchine’s own company, given that a certain, perhaps improving, humanity creeps in in the absence of the Great Enchanter’s compelling personality.

Sappington’s ballet, entitled “Common People,” after one of the cuts on Shatner’s album, is diametrically different from Balanchine’s in many ways. The costumes are bright and individual; the music is tuneful and pleasant; it has humor; the lighting is moody and sets scenes; the dancing, though precise and very tightly choreographed, nevertheless comes over as freer and emotionally expressive. This is not necessarily to say that Sappington is better than Balanchine (although I enjoyed “Common People” more than “Agon”); they are very different. I suspect that in ten years “Common People” may seem dated, whereas “Agon”, due to its purity, will still be seen as a classic.

“Common People” is also the opening dance of the piece, and has the energy and color of a rock dance in a high school gym: everyone dancing to the same music, but each interacting with the music and each other individually. This seemed a good theme: “Familiar Love” is the sexy slow dance; “Ideal Woman” the one where a few really good dancers get out and dominate the floor while everyone else watches; “I Can’t Get Behind That,” is the following one where the other individuals that think they have chops show them off. Shatner’s words are pithy, though not terribly profound, sometimes funny, occasionally a bit ribald. There are some touching bits: “Familiar Love” is thought to be an elegy to his late wife, and the ending tag “Has been--might again!” seems to be Shatner’s motto.

All the company members danced with great verve and style: Marc Petrocci was particularly noteworthy in “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.”

The third ballet of the evening, “Second Before the Ground,” by Trey McIntyre to music by the Kronos Quartet, lies somewhere between the two prior pieces. Costuming is again austere, the men wearing khaki work pants held up by suspenders over bare chests; the women simple short dresses also in tan, only touched by a bit of roseate hue on the featured females. Some lighting effects are used, but sparingly. The first movement opens with a lone man showing off a hornpipe-like jig to the sound of a country fiddle over a very Caribbean percussion, which gives a combined impression rather like a WPA-era folk ballet as performed in Jamaica.

As other dancers join, the “passionate’ portion of this ballet kicks in, as a first couple (Petrocci and Luz San Miguel) focus in on each other in a very traditional sort of “sweet/cute” courtship dance. In the second pas de deux Andrey Kasatsky portrayed a shaggy-haired broad-shouldered lunk who attempts a “me man, you woman” seduction as performed by Jethro Bodine. The “lucky” woman (Jennifer Miller) turns the tables and ends the piece riding off stage on his back.

The third couple (Tatiana Jouravel and David Hovhannisyan) is literally brought together by others, turning an initially purely sexual attraction into a real though physical relationship.

The final movement is an exuberant dance by the company over the sound of a possibly African chant, which ends with the couples paired off, and the lone dancer ending the piece in the same place and posture he began—just as the four men that begin and end “Agon” do. McIntyre’s ballet does not have the rigidity of “Agon”, but the choreographer does insist on some unnecessary repetition of classical moves that water down the freedom of what is otherwise almost a “folk” ballet.

Having been loosened up by the Sappington piece, the audience received the simple warmth and occasional humor of “Second Before the Ground” very readily, and ended the evening by giving the cast a standing ovation, something we have not seen at a Ballet since the premiere of “Scheherazade”. Although I would have been more inclined to give the ovation for “Common People,” we both agreed that the Ballet had more than earned that accolade over the course of the evening.
On Saturday, February 18th, we went to the Milwaukee Ballet for a revival performance of their production of “Scheherazade,” choreographed by Kathryn Posin to the music of Nicolai Rimsky-Koraskov. This was a new production for the Ballet about two years ago, and we snagged cheap seats at the last minute after taking in the buzz about the beautiful production, costumes, and dancing, and were very glad we had. That production was particularly notable for the spectacular dancing of Amy Fote in the title role. Kara Wilks, who essayed Scheherazade this time was not quite so bravura, but this was not a bad thing. Her dancing blends well with the ensemble of the rest of the cast. We also sprang for better seats this time, and were able to enjoy some of the subtleties of the performance whereas we had been dazzled by the more purely spectacular aspects last time.
The piece opens with the familiar framing device of the “Thousand Nights and a Night.” The Vizier (“Evil Vizier” is a redundancy--) reveals to the Caliph his favorite wife’s dalliance with a slave. They are taken in the act and slain, and the Caliph also kills the other women of his harem. Scheherazade becomes the Caliph’s wife in an attempt to bring his murder spree to an end. She beguiles him with her tales, “Sinbad”, “Aladdin,” and “The Flying Horse.” Each of these scenes is a story ballet within the ballet. “Sinbad is particularly effective, with dancers representing the powers of the ocean manipulating a large piece of water-colored silk in wave motions that roll over Sinbad, swirl around him, and drag him into an undertow, from whence he finally drags himself to safety. “Aladdin” has the second-best dancing role in the part of the Djinn, and the costume and set of the “Flying Horse” are just beautiful. The climactic scene, “The Massacre in the Harem,” begins when the woman-hating Vizier falsely accuses Scheherazade of infidelity, which triggers another bloodthirsty rampage on the part of the Caliph. A mad chase through the palace ensues as the guards seek to carry out his edict of death, and the characters from Scheherazade’s stories materialize and take part in the battle. At last, the harem women, guards, and characters all lie dead, and the Vizier is dragged to perdition by the spirits of the women he has betrayed, leaving only the Caliph and Scheherazade alone in the ruin. Scheherazade berates, then, reasons with the Caliph, who is overcome with remorse for his actions. Picking up the Magic Lamp where it has fallen from Aladdin’s hand, she gives it to the Caliph and directs him to summon the Djinn, who appears and grants the Caliph’s one wish—to undo all the damage he has done. Women, guards and characters all arise from death, and live happily ever after.

The program opened with a premier production of “Coronach,” a ballet by Lila York to the music “Maninyas,” by Ross Edwards. This is a second Milwaukee Ballet production for York, who created a work called “Celts” last season that was well received. If there was a Celtic connection to this piece other than the name, I could not see it. Georgie, who is more ballet-savvy than I am, was impressed with the challenging choreography and skillful dancing. While I can’t disagree with that, I was looking in vain for some thematic component tying it together. “Maninyas” is a pleasantly melodic piece made up of a number of short movements or motifs, and the dancers recombined in solos, duets, quartets, and company pieces as the music changed.

We have been very pleased with the Ballet performances we have seen lately, and are planning on getting some series tickets for next season, which includes a revival of the Ballet’s original production of “The Virgin Forest,” which we have enjoyed, and versions of “Don Quixote” and “Romeo and Juliet,” both choreographed by Michael Pink, who so pleased us with this season’s “Dracula”.
Alverno College, a Catholic women’s college near our home, has an interesting community outreach program. Among more usual arts and lit part-time classes open to the public, they host a themed dinner each semester. For a reasonable price, you get quite a good meal and some appropriate cultural program. This semester’s offering was Egyptian, and had an enticing menu plus a performance by the Trisha (name added after comment below) Mideastern dance troupe, one which has been around Milwaukee for twenty or so years, and which frequently appears at the Holiday Folk Fair, among other venues.

The meal was excellent, starting off with a very good hummus and whole wheat pita bread, and a salad of chickpeas, olives, avocado and capers with a lemon-oil dressing. Main courses were served buffet style and included an Egyptian roast chicken with figs, couscous with currants, roast eggplant with rice, and a nicely spiced white fleshed fish. All were very good, and followed by a substantial hunk of chocolate cake (reflecting a French influence on modern Egyptian cooking). We were well fed.

There were nine dancers (out of a possible twenty—the others, including the teacher, were busy on a week night--) who appeared in their costumes from the last Folk Fair, which were beledi dresses of modest cut, but made of fuchsia spangled fabric, with matching headdresses, sheer sleeves, and dark patterned harem pants underneath. The dancers wore soft ballet slippers on their feet as well. The spokeswoman explained a number of terms, including that “beledi” means “folk” as in folk dance. The dances included a “two hanky dance” or flirting dance; the sword dance; a Moroccan cane dance (which is normally a men’s dance); “Women of the Well,” a traditional dance; a new dance to the music of Shakira (a popular Lebanese fusion singer); “Eyes of Love,” a bride’s dance; and ended with a “contest” shimmy dance. The performers were very good and put on a good show. As a group, they had excellent uniformity and precision (especially in the playing of their zils) although a more practiced dance eye (Georgie’s--) could see variations in shimmy, some more graceful in steps, some with better arms, but this you see in a professional corps de ballet also.

We sat at table with four women, three of whom were Alverno alumni, and made pleasant conversation during the meal as well. As we were departing, one of them remarked, “It makes you realize there are parts of your body you haven’t used lately.” To which I couldn’t help but reply, “Lately?”
On Saturday, we went to the Shish café in Madison (technically Middleton) specifically to see Fritha Coltrane, daughter of local artist Diane Coltrane, dance. Shish is a Syrian restaurant, with a menu similar to, but a bit more upscale than, Abu’s here in Milwaukee. Unlike Abu’s, Shish has fish dishes as well as the more standard Mideastern fare. In order to compare, we ordered their sampler, and found that most of the dishes compared favorably with Abu’s, with a few regional differences. The kabobs were very good, and chicken schwarma was different and interesting. Tabouleh here is mainly parsley, instead of the formulation I am familiar with, in which wheat groats are the main ingredient. I think I slightly prefer Abu’s hummus and baba ganoush, and Abu’s falafels are definitely better.
We were there for the first of two sets of Fritha’s dancing. The dining area is an L-shape with tables around the walls and a decently wide aisle which was the area where she performed, in classic café style, working around the waiters. We had a good spot near the bend of the L, and could see as much as possible. We were pleased to see there was a full house. I lost track of the number of dances, but she gave us a good set with a variety of fast and slow dances. For those of you that don’t know her, Fritha takes after her mother, which means she is tall, slim, blonde, and very Scandinavian looking. She has trained in classical ballet, acrobatic dance, and studied with well known Mideastern dance masters, and all of this shows in her work. One wonders what the devotees of traditional dance think when she, with her very pale skin and luminous ice maiden features, performs. From what we could see, she was very well received by a mixed audience. The exception was one bearded white man who seemed to avoid looking at her whenever possible, and got very red-faced when he did look at her. His female companion, however, couldn’t take her eyes off Fritha. Another table of four women were having quite a jolly good time and did nothing to hide their appreciation. We joked with Fritha that her mother’s fabric artistry seems to have come down to her in that her veils seem to move by force of her will alone. When the set was ended, we were able to congratulate her on her performance before heading home.

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