Los Angeles Ballet
by Kathy Lee Scott
March 7, 2009 -- Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, Redondo Beach, California
Two standards and one premiere met the audience at Los Angeles Ballet's Director's Choice program, which opened on March 7, 2009, at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center in California.
The almost three-year-old company featured two Balanchine pieces, one from his earlier years and one composed later in life. Dancing the main role, guest artist Eddy Tovar personified the rebellious Son in the “Prodigal Son,” which Balanchine created to Prokofiev's "Opus 46" initially for Serge Diaghliev. Tovar's strong presence on stage pulled all eyes to him, especially when he resisted his Father's (Peter L. Atherton) demands to stay. Tovar displayed the Son's frustration through high leaps and fists pounding the air. He effectively mimed his desire to leave by gazing off stage over the small picket fence.
Leaving home, the Son meets a male corps de ballet who drink and make merriment with abandonment. The nine fellows enter in a Pilobolus-style formation: in a wide second, they march while grasping the person in front, like a monster caterpillar. Wearing skull caps and short, Roman-style skirts marked with black lines, the corps created a human carousel, lifted a member high, then gathered in three rows to greet the Son.
Only after the Son hands out gold horns and urns do the corps men accept him and carry him to the table. While indulging in more drink, the Siren (Melissa Barak) bourrées onstage, undulating her back. Wearing a tall, mitre-style hat, Barak manipulated her long, red train over her arms, around her neck and through her legs. The corps men enlivened the scene with their rapt attention to her moves, as well as nudges and mute comments to each other.
Following the theme of Rome, Barak's costume consisted of white tights with black lines etched across them, a red corset and short white skirt. Her attempt at alluring failed for this viewer. Instead, she gazed with cold eyes and a hard jaw while executing the steps well. Her attention seemed focused on the moves instead of the character. This is one of Balanchine's rare "story ballets," so she had material with which to work.
Tovar hunched his body when he stalked the Siren, which seemed an odd way for a man to approach a woman, especially one obviously inviting his attentions. A more upright and confident manner might have been more appropriate, although Balanchine choreographed it as Tovar danced it.
The couple worked well together, but the moves appeared rote instead of inspired. The lifts, however, were unique, especially when Barak slipped onto Tovar's shoulders from the front and he straightened. Another had her wrapped around his waist, clasping her feet with her hands, and she slid down his body to the floor.
Once the two entwined themselves, the corps jumped up and pulled them apart. They lifted the Son onto the table and held the Siren above him, like the simulated rape dance scene in "West Side Story." Then the corps and Siren turn against the Son until he's pushed against the table, uprighted into a pillar. After tipping him upside down for coins, they strip him of his clothes and shoes, leaving him in only his underwear.
Tovar's depiction of the Son's desolation and grief at his misfortune came across clearly and strongly. He felt the anguish of his despair and remorse. Crawling on his knees and using a cane to propel himself, he journeys home dressed in a ragged poncho and sandals. There, his father forgives him.
The bright, frivolous "An American Camelot," a premiere by Jennifer Backhaus to songs from the 1940s, gave the dancers a chance to enjoy themselves. Dressed in outfits reminiscent of the era, the ensemble jitterbugged, slunk and bopped around the stage. Although she put her girls in pointe shoes, Backhaus never used them in her choreography. Instead, the dancers crouched as they strode and shimmied their shoulders, bringing to mind the wolves that danced in 1940s and '50s cartoons.
Featured soloists Kelly Ann Sloan and Andrew Brader led the corps through four different songs. By the end, the pieces were so similar in tempo and energy there was little difference to distinguish one from the other.
The final piece, one Balanchine created in 1972, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” featured Barak, Brader, Peter Snow and Corina Gill. Former New York City Ballet dancer Karen Von Aroldingen and LAB Artistic Director Colleen Neary staged the work to the Balanchine Trust criteria.
The choreographer dressed the dancers in concert practice outfits to personify the strident music. In groups of five (either one man, four ladies or vice versa), the dancers wove intricate patterns with intermittent supported poses and lifts. They either followed the violin passages, which often countered the orchestral parts, or danced to the more melodic passages from the orchestra. The dancers put energy and joy into their moves.
In the first Aria, Barak alternately tantalized and rejected Snow. Their technique suited the strong choreography, in which Barak did backbends and Snow moved frantically around the stage. He provided her with solid partnering.
The second Aria paired the tall Brader with the more petite Gill. Gill injected a solemn, almost sad, persona onto the movement, giving the piece more emotional impact than just pretty, interesting manipulations. Brader's large hands steadied her in the supported moves and lifts.
Her pensive mood instantly lifted in the final Capriccio part, which Neary had described as Balanchine's tribute to his long friendship with Stravinsky. The choreographer incorporated Russian folk dance heel steps and hand positions among the more traditional ballet gestures. Dancers slapped hands with each other while executing the intricate patterns. By the end, everyone had paired up.