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October 9th, 2013 AARON SPENCER | Dance
 

Punk de Bourrée

How ballet and punk rock keep a Wisconsin farm boy from flying off the rails.

perf_linsmeier2_3949ANARCHY IN THE BALLET: Michael Linsmeier “hulks out.” - IMAGE: Bethlayne Hansen
Growing up, Michael Linsmeier milked cows in rural Wisconsin. His family lived in a town of 1,600 people along the shores of Lake Michigan and grew half the food they ate. Linsmeier spent most of his time tending to calves, driving tractors and throwing bales of hay.

Today, Linsmeier spends his days doing saut de basques at Oregon Ballet Theatre and his nights playing drums with Taint Misbehavin’, a punk-rock band whose members are known for lifting their legs during gigs to reveal their perineums. He can whale on the drums for hours one night and come to tears watching a ballet solo the next. The disciplines are divergent, but both help him deal with a world that often feels chaotic and bleak, especially compared to the quiet life he knew growing up.

In both ballet and punk rock, Linsmeier stands out. In a studio where the other male dancers are clean-cut and stern-looking, the 27-year-old’s five piercings and 14 tattoos set him apart. With his band, he brings a thoughtful sensitivity to a genre typified by unhinged rebelliousness. Two years ago, when he showed up in Portland from Milwaukee, ballet rehearsal director Lisa Kipp wasn’t sure what to make of him.

“The first time I saw him in the lobby,” she says, “I didn’t think he was one of the dancers. I thought he was just somebody’s boyfriend.”

But to Linsmeier, “First-impression opinions are kind of bullshit.” He lives in two extreme worlds, but he doesn’t see them as antagonistic. Ballet requires a controlled finesse, while punk rock lets him release a primal energy. “It’s an adrenaline rush,” Linsmeier says of both art forms. “In punk music, just like with live theater, there is a real risk. It’s always how far you can really push it.”


Linsmeier credits much of his drive to growing up on a dairy farm with four siblings, an unglamorous upbringing but one he recalls fondly. Money was sometimes tight—his family occasionally accepted food donations from others at church. But he’s proud of the work ethic and sense of personal responsibility he acquired as a kid, even if things could be tough. Case in point: the time he accidentally killed a calf.

“It was a pain in the ass to feed,” Linsmeier says. It was always knocking over its pail, so he neglected it out of spite and the calf got sick and died. “For some reason, that really got to me,” he says. “I don’t know if it was because it was a baby or because I knew it was literally my fault, but it really affected me as to how sensitive life is.”

Dance became his ticket off the farm. When he was 13, a professor from the Virginia School of the Arts in Lynchburg came to his Manitowoc, Wis., dance studio, where his mom had enrolled him, somewhat unwillingly, in ballet classes. “He said it was ‘gay,’” says his mom, Linda, whom Linsmeier calls “Ma.” The professor helped him get a scholarship, and he left for boarding school.

There, the culture shock of “being able to walk to a 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee” was overwhelming. And for the first time, he saw how people lived outside his bucolic world, which took standard-issue teenage angst to dramatic heights.

“Discovering how people work and manipulate each other to feed the idea of success, I used to get depressed about it all the time,” he says. “Like, the world’s going to shit. We’re literally destroying everything we touch.”

At the same time, Linsmeier felt powerless to make anything better, an alien feeling for an attentive farmhand. These emotions came to a head when a dance teacher asked him to perform an improvisational piece.

“I didn’t know what else to do but just throw myself around and slam to the ground and jump high and fall on my face,” he says. “It was just an expression of aggression, just pure frustration. And it scared the crap out of my teacher, but it was also exciting. I finally got it. It clicked for me, what dancing is really about.”

After graduating, Linsmeier joined the Milwaukee Ballet, and there he began playing punk music. He and several other dancers formed the Quon Poppers, named after a Milwaukee suburb (they briefly considered christening themselves the Dance Belts).

While ballet helped fulfill Linsmeier creatively, punk allowed him to release his aggression. He stayed up late swigging malt liquor—he has a tattoo on his hip of the Mickey’s bee. Once, he ran drunkenly into the glass window of a door, slicing off the front half of his nose (you can still see the scar). His friend Justin Genna, who played in the band, said sometimes when out drinking Linsmeier would “hulk out and run off into the night because he was so sick of being around people and the city.”


These days, in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Southeast Portland studio, Linsmeier seems to have gotten a handle on his distress. On a Thursday in late September, he partners with Ansa Deguchi, who’s struggling with Nacho Duato’s Por Vos Muero. Linsmeier doesn’t have it down either, but his goofy grin hides that well. He and Deguchi are working on a counterbalance position, in which Deguchi does a crane-style pose on Linsmeier’s knees. They switch places to give Deguchi a sense of the weight, and Linsmeier starts giggling as he takes on a playful girlishness, acting the part.

“He’s my favorite partner,” Deguchi says. “We can talk about so many kinds of stuff outside of the company.” When asked what she and Linsmeier have in common, Deguchi pauses for a second, blinks and replies, “We drink.”

But Linsmeier’s breezy attitude shouldn’t be misinterpreted as flippant. He takes his ballet seriously, trying to imagine his lines are longer than his body—like he’s “leaving trails of light,” he says. He’s an expressive performer and skilled at playing characters, and he’ll dance the role of hopeless romantic Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream this weekend.

Kipp, the rehearsal director, says the company once got a complaint about one of Linsmeier’s tattoos—a fedora-clad skull on his back—that was visible in a production. An audience member complained the tattoo was “disrespectful,” which upset Linsmeier, Kipp says. Linsmeier, for his part, says he “didn’t give a shit about the complaint,” yet felt bad for the company being reprimanded.

“He has this appearance of being very rebellious,” Kipp says, “but he also is very thoughtful and caring because he really gave some thought to that, whereas I was like, ‘Oh my God, who cares?’”


You might expect Linsmeier’s personality to shift dramatically when he moves from the ballet studio to band practice, but it doesn’t. In his bassist’s Sellwood basement, after a beer run, Linsmeier sits shirtless behind his drum kit. His arms hammer in fervent, mechanical strokes. The glee he shows when dancing still beams from his face.

“He’s just, like, shredding,” says the band’s frontman, Eddie Regan. His bandmates agree Linsmeier’s stamina helps make him a good drummer. He can play longer and harder than any of them. “And he’s just so fucking nice,” Regan adds.

Not that his bandmates are hard-edge rocker types. One’s a nursing student, and one played lute and classical guitar for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They’ve been to quite a few of Linsmeier’s ballet shows, too, but they don’t necessarily like them.

“I wouldn’t pay for it,” says guitarist Krishan Nattar, a preschool teacher, who describes the majority of what he’s seen as “airy fairy, overly dramatic stuff.”

If that disappoints Linsmeier, he does a good job hiding it, passing it off with a shrug and just the slightest tinge of sadness. “I think they’re missing out,” he says. “I would love for everyone to love it. It’s a little bit sad when people don’t love it, but I’m not going to think about it too much.”

For a long time, Linsmeier thought he was wasting his life as a ballet dancer, just “twinkling his toes.” But he’s come to realize that ballet, and even punk rock, are his ways of brightening a world that he often still sees as grim. “I’m not saving the world or anything,” he says, “but it’s fulfilling to be able to influence people, to actually be able to make somebody’s day better.”

“It’s like I’m forgiving myself for living.” 


GO: Oregon Ballet Theatre performs Dream at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 222-5538. 7:30 pm Saturday Oct. 12; 2 pm Sunday Oct. 13; and 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday Oct. 17-19. $25-$142.

 
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