Monday, July 26, 2010

City Ballet of Los Angeles’ ‘Concerto Project’

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on July 25, 2010.

On July 22, City Ballet of Los Angeles performed the final installation of its three-week summer series, Concerto Project, against a magnificent backdrop. In front of a wall of windows in a cavernous loft space overlooking City National Plaza on South Flower Street, dancers sidled up next to office buildings gilded by the sun’s slanting rays and slid past the smooth façade of the public library – washed a warm golden beige in the fading daylight. It was a glorious setting for dance, and a fitting one for a company so devoted and connected to its city.

Founded by former American Ballet Theatre dancer and Los Angeles native Robyn Gardenhire as a school in 2000 and then as a professional company in 2003, City Ballet of Los Angeles has worked since its inception to become a dance institution of and for Los Angeles: offering training at low or no cost to children from the economically depressed Pico Union District, introducing ballet to thousands of elementary school students throughout LA, and developing a company that reflects the diversity of its city and brings ballet to new audiences.

Envisioned as a platform for the dancers’ choreography in the rich architectural environment of downtown LA, the Concerto Project series featured different works each week, and Thursday’s mixed bill included eight pieces in various stages of progress. While some rushed endings and not-quite-believable dramatic shifts pointed to areas for further development, captivating concepts, inventive movement, superior dancing, and the most racially diverse audience I’ve seen at a ballet concert all affirmed that LA needs its City Ballet.

Artistic Director Gardenhire’s “Salt” is a taut, restrained thriller (like Angelina Jolie’s new film?) that releases a fury of fiercely thrown limbs and then pulls back, tauntingly, at the height of the action – dancers strutting coolly and eyeing each other warily. Perris McCracken strikes through the space with charging chassés and biting lunges, torso at an aggressive forward pitch. Jessie Taylor joins her in a throwing, flicking face-off center stage, while Felicia Guzman, Genevieve Zander and Jin Cho build a circling, weaving, chasing counterpoint to their stationary standoff. I’m baffled when the dancers strip off their shirts at the end, but hopefully this piece is only a taste of more “Salt” to come, and maybe then all will become clear.

All is definitely not clear in CBLA dancer Mary Tarpley’s “Porcelain” – a love triangle that pulls me back and forth between confused and intrigued. Guzman and Zander are pushy, devoted sisters who dream about future love as they waltz wistfully in long tulle skirts. Zander’s prince shows up, but love’s not what she imagined, and being left out is definitely not what Guzman had in mind. Tarpley builds a funny, touching physical connection between the women, but it gets murky, or maybe just overly angsty, as Zander spends more time with Prince Juan Toledo-Espinoza and Guzman’s spirited dancing fades into vague reaching. The first and second sections feel disconnected, but the bond between the two women and the arresting partnering between Zander and Toledo-Espinoza clearly indicate an emerging choreographic talent.

Also promising is Rick Gonzales’ duet “Rabbit Hole,” where a shift in desire turns intense devotion to unwanted advances without warning. Here, Gonzales and McCracken join forces to let her fly and spin with superhuman height and speed, until she feels his assists as pushes and fights against them in dangerous collisions. Gonzales’ history with New York’s City Ballet surfaces in McCracken’s long-legged walks and contorted, bent-legged turns that look like Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, and these angular elements keep the tension building. In the end, I can’t quite buy the drama because it doesn’t emerge convincingly from the dancers’ physicality, but I’m still looking forward to Gonzales’ next work.

And I’ll seek out every opportunity to be inspired by City Ballet’s dancers – like Taylor, who embodies the lingering strains of the cello in Gardenhire’s “La Vie Ante’rieure” with supremely satisfying musicality.

Photo: City Ballet dancers Jose Reyes and Genevieve Zander / Photo by Julie Hopkins

Monday, July 19, 2010

American Ballet Theatre's 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Music Center

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on July 18, 2010.

There have been many versions of The Sleeping Beauty since the original premiere at St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre in 1890, each with its own vision of how best to honor Marius Petipa’s legendary choreography, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s masterful score and Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s groundbreaking direction. American Ballet Theatre has brought Beauty back in six different productions – the most recent reincarnation the result of executive decisions and choreographic additions by ABT Director Kevin McKenzie, 1970s prima ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, and dramaturge Michael Chernov. And since its 2007 premiere, this Beauty has been called “toddler-tailored,” “a mess,” and perhaps most damning of all, “Disney-esque,” by critics who know their Beauties.

But while the opening performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as part of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center July 15-18, confirmed many of their criticisms, neither jarring omissions nor garish costumes could keep me from springing to my feet, propelled by the exhilaration that glorious art brings, when Princess Aurora (Gillian Murphy) and Prince Désiré (Marcelo Gomes) took their bows.

Yes, the central struggle between good and evil loses potency where dancing that communicates one force or the other has been trimmed out of the production. When the evil fairy Carabosse (Nancy Raffa) exits in a pyrotechnic blast at the end of the Prologue, for example, the curtain falls almost immediately, but we need to see the benevolent Lilac Fairy (Michele Wiles) restore classical order, harmony and balance, even for just a few moments, to believe that goodness has prevailed, that she has indeed softened Carabosse’s curse, and Aurora will not die, but only sleep, from a prick of the finger. And yes, the trimming gets really out of hand in Act II, when Prince Désiré sails to Aurora’s castle, battles Carabosse, finds his sleeping princess and wakes her all in such a hurry that I actually miss the kiss. Harrumph.

But other directorial decisions work with Marcelo Gomes’ brilliant performance to bring us a more believable, more admirable and endearing Désiré than I’ve encountered elsewhere. Instead of a moody, melancholy youth, this Désiré cavorts with friends and flirts with a countess until the Lilac Fairy reveals to him a larger purpose he can serve and a truer, deeper kind of love he can know. In a vision sequence that features some of Petipa’s most exquisite choreography, the prince glimpses the gentle, forthright Aurora through scattering, shifting lines of fairies who keep her at a dream’s elusive distance. His speedy decision to marry her might raise some eyebrows, but when the vision fades, his dancing conveys such a determined and irrepressible desire to act on his love that we believe him. And the shy smiles that creep across his face while he leaps and jumps with calm, assured strength at his wedding celebration suggest that each tour is an outpouring of sincere joy.

Désiré’s world, the world Aurora finds when she wakes, is modeled on the court of Louis XIV – the birthplace of classical ballet. And while the original Sleeping Beauty looked to celebrate this time period and identify St. Petersburg with it, the enormous curling wigs, exaggerated shows of gentility, and coquettish scheming in ABT’s version seem to function as foils to Aurora’s direct, unadorned clarity, restraint and humility. Gillian Murphy’s remarkable performance draws the contrast in sharp relief, as her arabesques crystallize like a delicate frost and sweeping, turning ports de bras bloom with the gentle inevitability of silently bursting rosebuds. In the Grand Pas de Deux, we fall in love with the subtleties of her dancing: in her sissones, the delightful delay in her second leg and the precise care with which she draws that lagging foot into neat contact with the first; in her renversés, the way she wholly devotes her eyes and arms and heart to a particular bend and direction, while her leg floats around and carries her away in another.

Petipa’s choreography still has the power to make us fall in love with his ballerina, but somehow The Sleeping Beauty also makes us, with none of Murphy’s splendor to speak of, feel loved. When Aurora pricks her finger and falls asleep, all around her think she’s dead. They’ve been told this isn’t so, but when faced with the appearance of disaster they forget and despair. Ah, these are my people. But instead of giving up on them, the Lilac Fairy mercifully reminds them that she has saved the princess from that dismal fate. And with her back to us, she glides to and fro, fingers flowing and arms waving tenderly in a caress that comforts as they fall under her spell.

Photo: Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center welcomed the return of American Ballet Theatre to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, July 15-18, with 'The Sleeping Beauty' (pictured: Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes). / Photo by Gene Schiavone

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lula Washington Dance Theatre at the Hollywood Bowl

This preview was first published at Culture Spot LA on July 9, 2010.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2010 Hollywood Bowl Jazz series kicked off on July 7 with performances celebrating the glorious tangle of influences that produced and continue to develop jazz music worldwide. The star-studded, soul-stirring lineup included Cameroonian bassist and vocalist Richard Bona, New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard in collaboration with LA’s own Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and Nigerian Afrobeat artist/activist Femi Kuti with his 13-man band, The Positive Force.

As Richard Bona and his six musicians layer hot, slippery, overlapping rhythms, the bright shades of bossa nova, jazz and funk burst into the gray twilight and seem to push the heavy cloud cover far from the Hollywood hillside. Bona and company fade out riffing on Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” while the stage rotates to deliver Terence Blanchard’s ensemble front and center. As the sky deepens to black, the bright, easy energy of Bona’s set now focuses to a single, searingly radiant point. In white spotlight, Blanchard’s Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan pulls what sounds like a rushing, hesitating farewell from the keys in Aaron Parks’ achingly beautiful “Ashé,” and Blanchard joins him with gently throbbing trumpet.

After such gripping intensity, the entrance of dancers in Choices – choreographed by Lula Washington to excerpts from Blanchard’s new album – initially feels disappointingly dissipated. Scattered thinly across the vast stage space, the dancers’ serpentine arms and languid poses don’t quite connect with Dr. Cornel West’s recorded reflections: “justice is what love looks like in public … braininess falls short of what it means to be human and making the right choices.”

But then a compelling conversation between movement and music emerges; dancers echo Blanchard’s running, trilling trumpeting with surging shakes side to side, and later on, a vertical throw of the arms ricochets through the group as unpredictably as the notes ring out in Almazan’s piano solos. In a setting that naturally overpowers the human form, Washington’s work resonates where she partners effectively with the surrounding forces to reach us through the distance. When a wave of twirls sweeps dancers across the stage in a blur of swirling white just as a gust of wind rolls off the hillside and through the Bowl, the effect is sublime.

West intensifies the choice of “what kina human being you gonna be” by asking in the same breath, “how do we prepare for death?” Our ultimate limitation heightens the significance of each decision, and Washington eloquently suggests this truth by distilling the action to a single, focused duet. Here, deliberate gestures – by turns passionate, fearful, and painstakingly careful – carry tremendous weight, and the couple periodically cracks under the pressure, circling their arms wildly to cast off the load.

Music, words and movement surge and crash together in a final collage evoking the “history of black people in America.” Dancers fly onstage with exuberant Lindy kicks, and a woman in turquoise responds to Blanchard’s rhythms with jumps like hiccups – bent forward at the waist and arms hanging loose in the West African style that lies at the root of American jazz, tap and modern dance. “Hope … Katrina … black bodies hanging from southern trees,” West’s deluge of words suggests endurance rather than resolution, and the dancers’ flapping, stomping, grooving exit and the band’s final blast testify to this spirit.

Headliners Femi Kuti & The Positive Force close out the evening with biting social commentary, friendly call and response song, raging horns, pulsating rhythms that accelerate and sustain at impossible speeds, and remarkable dancing that feeds off and fuels it all. All the band members dance, but the three women who sing backup dance incessantly – skittering on the balls of their feet, jumping into low turns, and miraculously producing contrasting, shifting rhythms in feet, knees, hips, rib cage, arms. The movement reveals musical qualities my ears can’t access, and I’m grateful for the chance to experience jazz as a fully embodied form.

Jazz at the Bowl 2010 continues July 14 with Smokey Robinson and Lizz Wright, and Lula Washington Dance Theatre next performs as part of the Grand Performances series, on July 30 at California Plaza in downtown LA.