Genesis hopes to begin a new ballet star’s career

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The lives of Lauren Edson and Gabrielle Lamb may change this weekend.

Both are contestants in Milwaukee Ballet’s international choreographic competition, Genesis. They have spent the last three weeks preparing original pieces that Milwaukee Ballet dancers will perform at the Pabst Theater Feb. 7-10.

The success of the dances will be determined by audience members, who will vote for their favorite after each of the four shows, and professional judges in attendance Saturday evening. Whoever earns the most votes will be invited back to Milwaukee Ballet next year to create a new piece for the company to perform. The winning choreographer will also gain a crucial foothold in the dance industry. It’s an opportunity given to very few dancers, one that neither of the two contestants wants to pass up.

Yet when asked why they deserve to win, their responses seemed nonchalant, verging on indifferent.

“I think we all deserve to win,” Edson said, speaking of Lamb, third finalist James Gregg and herself. “(The winner) will be based on everyone’s own perspective. I feel like I have a unique voice, but so do the others.”

Lamb similarly replied, “I’d like to think that I will feel happy with the outcome for whoever wins. I think we’re all winning already.”

So why would a competition with such high stakes leave contestants so composed? As Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink explained, there is more to Genesis than gaining the most votes.

“The prime objective is to give exposure to emerging choreographers who have already established themselves and are professional but still at the beginning of their careers,” Pink said. “It’s more about a creative process than the competition. The competition is fun. Somebody wins and comes back (to work with Milwaukee Ballet), but it’s more about the time spent together creating new work.”

Creating the work requires hours of practice and patience for the choreographers and dancers. Eight Milwaukee Ballet dancers – four male and four female – are assigned to each piece and work with its choreographer every day for the three rehearsal weeks. In the cases of Edson and Lamb, the majority of that time is spent combining dance techniques that blend classical ballet and modern dance movement.

“These dancers are incredible ballet technicians and maybe haven’t had exposure to contemporary dance,” Edson said. “I’ve really tried to meet in the middle to use their physical capabilities to the absolute fullest and at the same time challenge them to move in a new way.”

“It’s not like we come here and teach them something we’ve already planned out,” Lamb said. “You get into the studio, and you have some material prepared, but it really depends on the people in front of you. When you don’t know them yet, it’s really difficult to plan.”

All three finalists have participated in their fair share of competitions, but this type of preparation is new to them. In addition, all the finalists devise their new routines at the same location and in the same time frame, a competition style unique to Genesis.

“On one hand, it’s a little bit higher pressure for us, because the other two choreographers are here at the same time, and we’re aware of each other,” Lamb said. “But in a way it’s also nice because I like those other two choreographers, and I respect them as artists. When you’re the choreographer, you’re the only one in those shoes. It’s kind of nice to have a daily interaction with two people who are trying to do a similar thing to what I’m doing, to compare notes and realize how the experience is for other people. No one finds it easy, and everyone hits walls sometimes.”

In the choreography process, each finalist puts an individual personality into her or his work. Edson said she hopes her piece will move the dancers and the audience.

“I definitely want to feel like I have created something that is completely personal,” she said, “something that the dancers feel like they’re inspired to perform. It’s a difficult place to arrive at, but what is most inspiring to me is seeing it come from such a real place, seeing the dancers as human beings, seeing them be vulnerable and connect with each other and the audience. Ultimately, it’s trying to strip away any real performance aspect of the art and have them surprise me (by the fact) that it’s just them stepping on stage.”

When the unity of movement and musicality create that kind of personal connection, the result is a winning work that is both original and responsive.

“Originality is a difficult thing to find in dance,” Pink said. “Most things have been explored before, and it’s really trying to see the way in which people are using the material that they have and at what level (it is). Creativity is not something you can guarantee is going to happen.”

For better or worse, the fates of the final dances are in the hands of those judging the competition. While it echoes the dozens of other entertainment competitions that involve audience participation, Genesis hopes to give viewers the chance to see dance in a new light.

“We all come from very different backgrounds and have really unique things to say (in our pieces),” Edson said. “As an audience member, it’s exciting to feel like you can participate in some way and that your vote matters. (Genesis) is trying to be accessible to a larger demographic of people and expose dance to people who might not otherwise come see it.”

“All three of us are younger and have a more contemporary dance program than what Milwaukee Ballet does, so people will have the chance to see the dancers in a different light and also in a more intimate atmosphere,” Lamb added. “Of course, having a commission from Milwaukee Ballet would be wonderful, (but) it’s really up to the taste of the judges and the audience. Hopefully, they’ll be seeing very strong and distinct visions.”