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New 'Moulin Rouge' ballet perfect love story for season

| Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theater dancers rehearse for their production of Moulin Rouge at the company studios in the Strip District onTuesday, January 29, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pittburgh Ballet Theater dancers rehearse for their production of Moulin Rouge at the company studios in the Strip District onTuesday, January 29, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theater dancers rehearse for their production of Moulin Rouge at the company studios in the Strip District onTuesday, January 29, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
© Lois Greenfield
Eva Trapp in PIttsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'Moulin Rouge.' Credit: Lois Greenfield

Location is said to be the key to success in the retail business. Timing is the comparable exaggeration for the performing arts.

Variety is essential in arts programming, too. With many old favorites to choose from, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's artistic director Terrence Orr decided on a new romance, “Moulin Rouge,” for this year's Valentine's Day. The ballet takes place in Paris and was created by Jorden Morris, whose version of “Peter Pan” the company presented in 2011.

“Moulin Rouge,” which will be presented Thursday to Sunday at the Benedum Center, Downtown, was the result of a commission for a full-length ballet for the 70th anniversary season in 2009 of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada. The company's director and executive director wanted something very colorful and on a big scale.

“They wanted a romantic love story with lots of different styles of dance, audiences accessible and friendly — all those things they think are so easy to do,” Morris says.

The choreographer, who'd been working in Paris a bit, began wondering how to make a love story set in Paris that could be told through dance. He went to the Moulin Rouge and realized it would be a perfect setting because it's been a dance institution for such a long time.

The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower was constructed. The vibrant and quickly changing shows, ample champagne and beautiful women dancing the can-can were a big success.

As Morris began storyboarding his ideas, he chose music, as he had done with “Peter Pan,” by composers from the period being depicted. In the case of “Moulin Rouge” that's 1885 to '89 and the first world's fair. There are 27 compositions by 17 composers, including “Claire de lune” and “La vie en rose.”

The production features 150 colorful costumes created by Anne Armit at Royal Winnipeg Ballet and freelance designer Shannon Lovelace based on fashions of the time and the paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

“Everything had to be vetted through the people at the Moulin Rouge, so it became a team effort,” Morris says. “They were very happy to see a story told with more classical dance and historically correct.”

Morris decided to have prologue introducing the leading female role, Nathalie, after he learned from historical research that “a lot of young beautiful girls working as launderettes or selling flowers on the street would be auditioned by club owners.”

In the first act, Nathalie wins an audition to dance at Moulin Rouge and meets Matthew, a struggling, young artist who's come to Paris to be influenced by the belle epoch.

The third major character is the club owner, Zidler, whose interest in Nathalie ignites a love triangle in the second act.

Alexandra Kochis, who will dance Nathalie, says Morris' language is “very much based on classical-ballet vocabulary. He's created a lot of hybrid movement with can-can type dance. I think it's maybe demonstrative of that period in time — full of excitement and joie de vivre.”

But if Nathalie, in the first act, is a dancer's technical tour de force, Kochis says the second act is more about interior acting challenges.

“In a way, she feels she could have put the Moulin Rouge on a pedestal, thought it would lift her to a glamorous life,” Kochis says. “When she gets there, it's full of competition and lust — not what she was expecting. She thought she made it on dance, and it turns out people want her. She's torn between two elements in her life. It's a challenge I love. It's awesome.”

No historically aware story about Moulin Rouge could leave out the famous people who adored the club. Morris decided to include painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as an actor to play off Matthew.

Joseph Parr says it's the most challenging role he's undertaken.

“For everything else I've done, there was some part of me to draw on,” says Parr, who is a healthy 5 feet 9½ inches tall. Parr has done his research on the role and knows his character was “a huge alcoholic,” 5 feet tall with deformed bones and a great painter.

“This guy, I don't relate to at all,” he says. “I have to be a completely different person, which is a fun challenge, artistically.”

“Moulin Rouge” has been seen by more than 100,000 people since its premiere in October 2009. Extra performances have had to be added to every run or tour. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre added a Saturday matinee.

“What I've really enjoyed about this as a creator, director, is to have a creation that's been living for five years,” Morris says. “I get to massage and update characters, and play around with scenes. Every time I have a new cast, it's like giving birth again. Everywhere I go, having something that's a success, that's had this life span, is really wonderful for a creator.”

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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