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Timothy O'Donnell reflects on his final contribution to Milwaukee Ballet

Timothy O’Donnell has held many titles in his career: dancer, graphic artist, art director, photographer, and even current resident choreographer at Milwaukee Ballet. After this weekend, he is trying on a new title: retiree.

Since starting at Milwaukee Ballet in 2012, O’Donnell has directed seven world premieres with the company. He will debut his final premiere at Milwaukee Ballet this weekend with their triple-bill show Originals. The show is broken into three performances: The Kids Have Names, choreographed by O’Donnell, Strangeland by Price Suddarth, and Gelem, Gelem choreographed by Nelly van Bommel.

“What connects the three pieces is the emotional journey that they take you on,” said O’Donnell. “You will leave each piece vibrating in a distinctly different way.”

For his piece, O’Donnell focuses on the timeless teenage experience. The Kids Have Names dives into pressures teenagers face, whether it be social, academic, or sexual. The piece urges audience members to reflect on how we treat and perceive growing pains in today’s society and whether that perception is setting us up for the best possible future.

“It’s very easy for us as adults to look at young people and think, ‘Oh, you think you have problems now, just wait until you’re 30. But we’re forgetting that the first time you’ve ever experienced anything, or the first time you go through something, it’s real and it’s extreme,” O’Donnell says.

O’Donnell wanted to remove his piece from the present day so audiences could more easily process these experiences from a distance. The piece takes place in the 90s and utilizes Radiohead for the musical score to create that distance.

“The millennials are going to feel a lot of nostalgia when they watch this piece. I mean, some of them have butterfly clips in their hair,” says O’Donnell. “[Radiohead] has an honesty there to it that I can almost draw on my experience. Sounds and smells have memories attached to them in a lot of ways.”

O’Donnell feels it’s important to tell these stories that contain social or political themes as a choreographer. He says that without pushing an agenda, art in this medium has the potential to start a dialogue regarding these issues in a personified way. As a person without any form of social media, O’Donnell explains this is his only platform to get those messages across.

“I love it when I get to interact with people post performance, and they will actually tell me things…about my own work that are deeply true that I didn’t know until they told me,” says O’Donnell. “Art, whether it be on a wall or dance, there’s a space there for people to find themselves in that work and tell me what the work means, because…art is a group activity in a lot of ways.”

Nearly 11 years since his start, O’Donnell plans to retire from Milwaukee Ballet after Originals’ premiere. He hopes to continue his relationship with the company but wants to push himself to continue his artistic journey.

“It would be so easy for me to just spend the rest of my career in Milwaukee Ballet. But I think I would do myself an injustice because I need to go to other places and learn from the way different people do things,” says O’Donnell. “I would love to be able to come back and share everything again with Milwaukee. One day, I dream of running this company in the future.”

Until then, O’Donnell is thrilled with his last contribution to Milwaukee Ballet. He reiterates that his piece in Originals, The Kids Have Names, is authentic and honest as to who he is.

“These moments where I’m sharing thoughts and trying to engage people in conversation is really who I am as a choreographer and a creator of work. So, I feel good that that’s the note I am signing off on,” says O’Donnell.

Originalswill run from Feb. 9-12 at the Pabst Theater.


Cait Flynn was an assistant producer for Lake Effect 2022 to 2023.
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