The Picture of Dorian Gray

Duration: 103’
Ballet in 2 Acts for actor and chamber orchestra, commissioned by Milwaukee Ballet.
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Pink
Designer: Todd Edward Ivins
Lighting Design: David Grill
First performed at the Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee, on February 12th 2016, performed by members of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Pasquale Laurino

Philip Feeney writes:

In the summer of 2015, I was contacted by Michael Pink, director of Milwaukee Ballet, enquiring whether I would be interested in composing the music for a new full-length chamber ballet based upon Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, an excellent and haunting subject for his latest story-ballet.

He had already created a full-length ballet on this theme for Ballet Augsberg, Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray, collaborating with the composer Tobias Schneid, whose wonderfully rich score was played by the Augsberg Philharmoniker. However, rather than reduce the Augsberg production in order to fit into the Pabst theatre in Milwaukee, Pink opted for creating a new purpose-built production ideally suited the theatre’s dimensions. This meant that the live orchestra would need to be a smaller chamber orchestra, consisting of no more than ten musicians, in order to fit comfortably into a smaller pit.

This seemed too exciting a project to turn down, and I immediately set to work, with several video-conference meetings online with the choreographer, and a serendipitous encounter in Paris, while Michael and his family were over in Europe on a family holiday.

One of the things that initially struck me most about the synopsis was the emphasis that Pink, following Wilde’s example, placed upon the heady, almost narcotic, symbolism of lilac blossom. My thought was to write two simple lilac songs, taking the lyrics from Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, and to have them recorded by a young chorister, Hedley O’Brien. This liminal treble sound, so pure in spirit, is littered throughout the score, and acts as a perfect counterpart to the darker, more decadent progress of Dorian’s fate.

The score is written for a small orchestra consisting of violin, viola, cello and bass, with flute, oboe, clarinet and trombone, supported by piano and an additional keyboard player, providing percussion and other extraneous sounds. The clarinet player doubles as an alto sax, and the oboe doubles with the cors anglais, both of which feature abundantly in the musical texture, especially in the music of Act 2, which at times takes on a more jazzy ‘Kurt-Weillesque’ feel, contrasting with the underlying ominous waltz undercurrent that characterizes much of act 1. This musical step helps underline the twenty-year gap in the narrative between the acts, during which time Dorian has retained his extraordinary youthful countenance while everyone has aged.

One particular feature that distinguishes Pink’s production is the inclusion of an actor, who joins the dancers onstage in the part of Lord Henry Wotton, a speaking role created for this production by James Zager. It feels entirely appropriate to have Oscar Wilde’s dark and sardonic wit not simply just the subject of the ballet, but to be actually articulated, to be the substance of the ballet, text rather than subtext. It did however require quite a lot compositional maneuverings to ensure that the choreography, the words and the music were all in the same place at the same time!

In many of my ballet scores I like to use audio and sound elements to provide an extra listening dimension, helping to add an additional layer to underline the narrative. The Picture of Dorian Gray is no exception. The ballet starts with fragments of a Chopin Nocturne evocatively heard through a thin gauze of electronic mist. The music, from Chopin’s Mazurka in B flat minor, op.24, no.4, provides much of the material for the entire ballet, so in a very real sense is a kind of hidden narrative. The idea of using Chopin was actually Michael Pink’s, one that I enthusiastically embraced – the balance between darkness and luminosity that you find in the Chopin mazurkas I felt was entirely suited to the world of Oscar Wilde.

A further example of the audio that features in Dorian Gray are the electronic digital swells that periodically underline the action in the ballet. In the final scene these swells start to overwhelm the live orchestra, epitomizing the mental crisis that ultimately overwhelms the protagonist.

Pasquale Laurino, the brilliant conductor for the Milwaukee premiere, noted that one of the lilac songs, that so hauntingly wind their way through the score like poisoned ivy, is in the Dorian mode. He wondered if this was a pun, a reference, to the name of the protagonist of the ballet, Dorian Gray. I would like to say that the conceit was all mine, but I have to admit that it was pure co-incidence!