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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Milwaukee Ballet launches new MKE MIX program with new works from rising choreographers 

Ballet dancers in a dramatic pose; one laying on her side on the ground, extending an arm up to touch another dancer bending forward and extending her leg high in the air.
Marie Harrison-Collins and Lahna Vanderbush in a Studio Rehearsal for "Filament." Photo by Rachel Malehorn.

For its 23-24 season closer on May 16-19 at the Pabst Theater, Milwaukee Ballet will present MKE MIX, featuring three contemporary ballet works by choreographers Gabrielle Lamb, Penny Saunders, and Nelly van Bommel. This is the first show mounted by Milwaukee Ballet with the distinction of having a roster of female choreographers and is the launch of a brand-new contemporary ballet performance series from the company.  


For the first time, Milwaukee Ballet welcomes choreographer Penny Saunders for a re-staging of her lauded dance “Soir Bleu.” The other two featured choreographers—Nelly van Bommel and Gabrielle Lamb— are making their return to Milwaukee Ballet with world premiere performances of their works “NADIR” and “Filament,” respectively. Both van Bommel and Lamb are past winners of Milwaukee Ballet’s Genesis International Choreographic Competition, a biennial choreography competition produced by Milwaukee Ballet which produces and presents new works by three choreographers. Each artist is selected to compete by Artistic Director Michael Pink. The dances are developed at Milwaukee Ballet’s facilities with company dancers over the course of three weeks, and draw heavily from contemporary dance forms beyond ballet. Milwaukee Ballet audiences then experience the results, cast votes for their favorite works, and the winning choreographer receives an invitation to return to create another work for the company. The contest not only yields “boundary-pushing” new ballet works, but also functions as a transformative launch pad for selected choreographers.  


“I did the Genesis competition in 2013. It was the beginning of my choreographic career, though I was an experienced dancer. It gave me quite a boost,” said Gabrielle Lamb. “It was my first opportunity to create a longer work with a fully professional, mature company. After that, I did get a lot more invitations from other ballet companies, contemporary companies, college and university dance departments.” 


“When I was here the last time, I was working in a more contemporary way,” continued Lamb. “I’ve gone back towards ballet and classicism: exploring “what can we do with a pointe shoe?”  

A male dancer stands as a support to a female ballerina who is leaning backward, with her back arched and right foot en pointe.
Jacqueline Sugianto and Barry Molina in a studio rehearsal of "Filament." Photo by Rachel Malehorn.

Lamb’s work “Filament” in MKE MIX leans into this embrace of classicism in both the physicality of the dancers’ movements, and the music, using both contemporary classical music by Brad Mehldau and classical works by Johann Sebastian Bach. In a section of the dance featuring a movement by Bach, the intricacy and rhythms of the music serve as mechanisms to propel dancers’ connections and gestures, as they weave through and react to one another in dynamic, asymmetric formations. 


Meanwhile, Saunders’ work “Soir Bleu” is inspired by the renowned realist painter Edward Hopper—most well-known for his painting entitled “Nighthawks”—a lonesome scene of a sparsely populated diner at night, from the perspective of an outsider on the street. Saunders drew inspiration for the dance not only from Hopper’s works, but more so his interior and relational life beyond the canvas.  

In front of a warbled mirror backdrop, a male dancer is supporting and propelling a female dancer across his shoulders. The female dancers legs are extending in front and behind her.
Kristen Marshall and Craig Freigang in a "Soir Bleu" studio rehearsal. Photo by Rachel Malehorn.

Soir Bleu explores both such transitory moments and the long-enduring relationship between Hopper and his wife Jo, who posed for his paintings and gave up her own artistic career for his,” writes Saunders, in the MKE MIX program notes.  


Finally, van Bommel’s work “NADIR,” is a high-octane dance with multicultural influence—at once full of humor and moments of elation, vacillating into frenetic but tightly-orchestrated moments of missed connection and desperation. After the MKE MIX performance on May 17, van Bommel will lead a talkback during which she will share about her process of creating new works. This post-show event is free and open to all ticket holders of that evening’s performance. 

A group of dancers hoists a smiling male dancer into the air.
Milwaukee Ballet company members in a studio rehearsal of "NADIR." Photo by Rachel Malehorn

This inaugural performance of MKE MIX is an exciting extension of Milwaukee Ballet’s existing programming—with a twist—as these three distinguished choreographers build upon their ascendant careers with new works, deepen their connections to Milwaukee Ballet, and delightfully complicate audiences’ perceptions of what ballet can be.  


Milwaukee Ballet’s MKE MIX runs from May 16-19 at the Pabst Theatre. Learn more and purchase tickets, here.  

About the Choreographers (courtesy of Milwaukee Ballet) 


A nationally renowned choreographer, Gabrielle Lamb has presented new works and won competitions around the country, including a Princess Grace Award. She was a 2020 Guggenheim fellow and currently directs Pigeonwing Dance in New York City, in addition to recently being selected as a 2024 Hearst Choreographer in Residence at Princeton University. 


Penny Saunders is Artist in Residence at USC Kaufman School of Dance and Adjunct Assistant Professor at The University of Utah School of Dance. She is also Resident Choreographer at The Grand Rapids Ballet. Past accomplishments have included support from The New York City Ballet Choreographer Commissions Initiative, participation in the Guggenheim Works & Process and The National Choreographers Initiative, and receipt of the 2016 Princess Grace Choreographic Fellowship. Her works have been presented nationally and internationally to great acclaim. 


Nelly van Bommel’s award-winning work has been featured in France, Taiwan, Canada, and the United States. She is an Associate Professor in the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, State University of New York, currently serving as Director. A recipient of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2010, her work has been described as “magically teeter[ing] between tragedy and comedy, classical and folk, serenity and wildness.” 


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