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Milwaukee Ballet lead dancer describes the new, darker version of 'Snow White'

Susan Gartell rehearsing for "Mirror Mirror"
Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Ballet and Timothy O'Donnell, used with permission

Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink is well known for his vision and skill as a storyteller. Tomorrow, May 15, his world premiere of "Mirror Mirror" comes to the Marcus Center and will run through Sunday, May 18. "Mirror Mirror" takes a look at the story behind "Snow White", with an emphasis on the evil stepmother. Yesterday, May 13, Milwaukee Ballet's sole dancer performing the role of the stepmother, Susan Gartell, shared her perspective on this new production and hinted to what we can expect.

Gartell has been performing for her parents since she can remember and officially started taking ballet lessons at about 7-years-old. This is her ninth year with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and she spent the previous two years in Milwaukee Ballet Two- their studio company.

Gartell's role as the stepmother, Claudia, in "Mirror Mirror" is one that requires a great deal of stamina, not only because of the difficult technical and emotional work involved, but because she performs the challenging role for each performance. She explained that this is partially because of her elaborate costume, which includes eight custom-made body suits that each take two weeks to make and would be impractical to craft for an additional dancer. She described her role as Claudia saying,

She's definitely evil. She does some terrible, terrible things in this ballet but she's much more layered and much more complex.... She has these four demons that surround and manipulate her. They're very much literally these little devils on her shoulder that are whispering these little cues and egging her on. They're driving her deeper and deeper into the circus. At the beginning of the story she's vain, beautiful, and powerful and by the end she's become this truly evil person. She really embraced the darkness and becomes completely evil.

And while this seems more-or-less in keeping with the classic Disney villain, there are also differences in her character. For one thing, Gartell described her desire to kill Snow White almost as if it wasn't personal. Claudia is so focused on maintaining her power and beauty and Snow White is a mere roadblock on her way to achieving her goals. However, her way of killing Snow White varies and takes a turn for the darker side. Besides the incredible choreography Gartell gets to perform on her own and with her four male dancers (playing demons), she explained the uniqueness in the role in that she gets to indulge:

You definitely get to indulge in things you obviously would never get to do in real life. I mean, I get to string [Snow White] up from a tree and suffocate her! There's some very physically fun things to do and it's a very glamorous role- I have these amazing costumes and it's very sexy and physical so I feel I'm indulging on all fronts, so that's very exciting.

This production as a whole differs from the well-known Disney film in several ways. Gartell describes "Mirror Mirror" as much truer to the Grimm fairy tale than the Disney or film versions. She said that it focuses equally, if not more, on Claudia's story as it does Snow White's and emphasizes her motivation for killing her stepdaughter and how she arrived at that gruesome purpose. As she says,

It delves much deeper into the story and is really dark, as is the original fairy tale. When you're a kid you don't realize when you're hearing these fairy tales that some of them are very dark and can be kind of scary. But children just accept them as what they are, so this does not shy away from that.

While this production is much darker than the Disney version, Gartell assures audiences that it is still something that both young and old audiences can enjoy. Children may miss the dwarfs, but there is plenty of the magical, classic tale left along with what Gartell describes as a "much more human perspective", as adults can enjoy the insight into both Claudia and Snow White's characters.

This insight into the characters surely comes from Michael Pink's talent for storytelling. Gartell described Pink's artistry saying,

Michael Pink is so good at storytelling that it becomes a completely different world…. He does an amazing job through wardrobe, lighting, sets, of creating a completely different world for the audience and making illusions to things through various effects. It's much more abstract, kind of like a Tim Burton movie or something, but it is literally a fairytale.

Michael Pink's vision literally transports audiences to another world. While ballet is meant to provide audiences an escape into a different time or place, Gartell explained how this is done in "Mirror Mirror"-

They're going to take a journey and escape reality for that time that they're in the theater. This isn't just them sitting and watching technical ballet- this is really an experience, this is really a ballet.... It's going to be cheerful and magical but it will also be dark be interesting and suspenseful and sexy and all these other things.

Any world premiere is bound to come with surprises and offer audiences something they've never seen before. With something like "Mirror Mirror", audiences have the unique opportunity to see something the whole family can appreciate as it's based on such a classic tale. Gartell shared her hopes for audience reception saying,

I hope the audience can appreciate what can be accomplished locally. We have this amazing ballet, we have these brand new sets and music. It's a brand new, world premiere! We have a composer, a lighting designer, all these people that come in from all around the world to the Marcus Center in Milwaukee. There's so much talent and effort that goes into it that I hope when they stand up after the show they think, 'Wow!' that they were blown away and that they didn't think that existed in their city if they've never been to the ballet before or that it raises their expectations if they did.

"Mirror Mirror" runs tomorrow, May 15 through Sunday, May 18 at the Marcus Center. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (414)902-2103.

It's such an ambitious show on so many levels. Technically it's very difficult, physically it's very demanding, aesthetically- set, costume changes on stage- there's so much going on. I think they're going to be really inspired and really happy because it's kind of a picture perfect ending and it's really joyous and it's so heartwarming you almost cry a little bit. It's very sweet and I think that it will appeal to a lot of people.

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