Ballet

When Life Gives You Limóns

The José Limón Dance Company brings its acclaimed Centennial tour to The New LA Theater Center for 4 performances at 3 pm and 8 pm on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 25 and 26.

Limón was the first Mexican-American to successfully establish a modern dance company in the U.S. A seminal figure in American 20th century dance, he remains an artistic hero to the Mexican people.

This Dance Magazine Award-winning show presents two historic dances based on literary sources. “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejia,” choreographed by the legendary Doris Humphrey for the debut concert of the Limón Dance Company, was inspired by the famous poem by Federico Garcia Lorca.

Humphrey was one of the first choreographers to weave spoken word into the fabric of her creations. This dance – a landmark masterwork combining theater, dance, and music – represents the fulfillment of her visionary life work. Creating the piece at the end of World War II, Humphrey “…intended to signify the struggle of all men of courage who contend in the ring of life, and who meet a tragic end.”

Also on the program is “The Moor’s Pavane,” based on Shakespeare’s tragic Othello. Premiering nearly 50 years ago, and utilizing the ‘pavane’ and other dance forms of the high Renaissance, the piece won the Dance Magazine Award for outstanding creation in the field of American modern dance. Since the 1960s, it has been featured in the repertory of such companies as the Paris Opera Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre.

On the same weekend, the Miami City Ballet performs the West Coast debut of Twyla Tharp and Elvis Costello’s “Nightspot” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 24-26.

Known for her innovation and creativity, Twyla Tharp has created some of the most intriguing and memorable works in modern dance repertory. “Nightspot” is her collaboration with Elvis Costello. His score for this dance intertwines original music with various motifs and quotations from his existing catalogue of songs. “Nightspot” features costumes designed by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Also on this program are Christopher Wheeldon’s “Liturgy,” and two George Balanchine works – “Tarantella,” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” all with live orchestra.

Miami City Ballet’s artistic director, former international star danseur Edward Villella, and dance historian and writer, Elizabeth Kaye, offer a pre-performance lecture one hour prior to curtain in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Grand Hall. — Penny Orloff

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Urban Renewal

In the wake of ABT’s migrating swans last week, a small inner-city dance academy in the heart of Compton won honors and recognition of excellence.

Compton is more known for gangster rap than for ballet.

Carol Bristol-Henry and Compton Dance Theatre received the Addie Patterson Award for Outstanding Service in Community Development from the City of Compton. The U.S. House of Representatives bestowed a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, and the California legistlature presented a Certificate of Recognition.

With a BA in Psychology from Howard University and an MA in Dance and Dance Education from NYU, Bristol-Henry trained at Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. “I reluctantly started teaching dance at Compton High School to earn money between gigs,” she says. “Making a difference was unintentional.”

Most days after school, she noticed that idle students would fight just to entertain one another. The more studious sought refuge in the few available after-school activities. “I offered to teach dances to three students after school,” Bristol-Henry remembers. “They invited their friends and relatives. It started getting pretty crowded.”

Rapidly running out of room, Bristol-Henry scrambled for space in which to hold classes. “I had to,” she says. “Several kids confided in me that dance was their only reason for showing up to school every day.”

In 2002, Bristol-Henry founded the 501-c-3 nonprofit Compton Dance Theatre Foundation in order to meet eligibility for financial support. Since then, the organization has won numerous grants to stay afloat. “Funding remains the biggest challenge we face,” said Bristol-Henry. “Our ability to survive is tested all too frequently.”

Evidence of the quality of CDT’s dance training is apparent in student dancers’ discipline and technique. One of them, 11-year-old Victoria Portor, auditioned and was accepted to American Ballet Theatre’s 2008 summer intensive program, during ABT’s recent residency at the Music Center.

Contributions are tax-deductible. Compton Dance Theatre can be reached at (310) 669-9908, or www.comptondancetheatre.org. — Penny Orloff

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Balanchine Act

Colleen Neary knew she faced an enormous challenge in choosing three daunting George Balanchine works for the Los Angeles Ballet’s Spring 2008 program.

Well into the company’s second season, Neary and her husband, co-artistic director Thordal Christensen, are putting finishing touches on Balanchine’s famously difficult “Four Temperaments,” the virtuoso “Tarantella,” and Balanchine’s tribute to Broadway, “Who Cares?” for performances at UCLA’s Freud Theater on February 22 and 23, Glendale’s Alex Theatre on March 1, and Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on March 15.

Balanchine holds a central place in the LAB repertory. After his death 25 years ago, Neary became one of a small group of Balanchine Trust repetiteurs, former colleagues of the legendary choreographer who preserve the dances for the future. In that role, Neary has staged Balanchine ballets for companies around the world. Teaching his uniquely American ballet style and staging the dances is “a big honor for me,” she says. “There’s a whole new generation of dancers who didn’t know him. I try to give them a sense of what he was like, to bring him alive for them.”

It is with this sense of mission that Neary undertook to teach her young company the monumental “Four Temperaments,” created by Balanchine almost 70 years ago. “Musically, it is very challenging,” she explains. “The Hindemith score was so ahead of its time. It is very demanding, but our dancers proved themselves in other, very difficult repertory last year.”

The program will also include “Who Cares?” featuring big Broadway-style chorus numbers and a Gershwin score that includes pop standards such as “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You,” “S’Wonderful,” “Lady Be Good,” and “I Got Rhythm.” In 1937, Broadway songwriter George Gershwin asked Balanchine to come to Hollywood to work with him on the score of the Goldwyn Follies. During the production, Gershwin collapsed and died of a brain tumor. Thirty-three years later, Balanchine choreographed “Who Cares?” to 16 of his favorite Gershwin songs, arranged and orchestrated by Hershy Kay. A teenaged Neary danced in the original New York City Ballet cast.

A composer in his own right, Hershy Kay also reconstructed Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s Grande Tarantelle for Piano and Orchestra for Balanchine’s dazzling stand-alone pas de deux, “Tarantella,” also on the current LAB program.

In addition to preserving the Balanchine legacy, Neary and Christensen’s far-reaching vision for LAB includes commissioning and mounting new ballets by Los Angeles choreographers and designers. Audiences for Spring Repertoire 2008 get the first look at “Lost in Transition,” a world premiere by award-winning choreographer and Los Angeles native Melissa Barak. “’Lost in Transition’ is very edgy and different,” Neary says. “And it’s big. It fits right in with this huge Balanchine program.”

Look for a Forty Unders ticket giveaway for the ballet next week. — Penny Orloff

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Nuttin’ For Christmas

If you get nothing this Christmas, make sure you treat yourself to the L.A. Ballet’s delightful production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” The show opened at the Alex Theater last week and continues December 22 and 23 at Royce Hall, and the 29th and 30th at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

Pay no attention to the lackluster review in the L.A. Times. Instead, heed these words of FineArtsLA reader Sam M., who was so disappointed he didn’t win the Forty Unders ticket giveaway last week, he went out and bought tickets for his first night at the ballet.

“And it only cost me sixty dollars,” Sam wrote to us. “But seeing as how I had such a ball, you are forgiven. Also good was the lax security, meaning I got to sit in the orchestra section fifth row center without having paid for the tickets. I’d have felt like a fool if I’d paid $200 for the same tickets. Then again, I was so in love with the show, I felt bad that they didn’t have more money and perhaps if I could afford it I’d have given more. Oh, and naturally I’ve fallen in love with a ballerina. Or two or three. I don’t think my girlfriend approved.”

FineArtsLA recently spoke with L.A. Ballet cofounder and Denmark native Thordal Christensen, who choreographed the production with his wife Colleen Neary.

FALA: You inaugurated the Los Angeles Ballet with “The Nutcracker” last year. What have you learned since then?

TC: Once you choreograph a production and put it on the stage, it’s hard to go in and make too many changes. We’re trying to look at it with fresh eyes, because you always want to try to clean it up and make the story be the main thing. It can be anything from does it make more since for Drosselmeyer to go to the father instead of the children at this point, to anything that helps the story make sense.

FALA: Are the dancers more confident this time around?

TC: There’s no question they’re more confident. I could see that throughout last season: With every show we did, they got more and more comfortable and confident, and you need to be confident on stage. They’re looking fabulous. There are a few new dancers this year, some lovely girls and a new gentleman. It’s a really nice group.

FALA: How will the audience perceive this confidence? The dancing is sharper? The dancers are jumping higher? There’s more energy coming off the stage?

TC: Yes. Last year we had a group of 30 dancers who came from everywhere, and now they know what Colleen and I really want when they go on stage. That’s how you make a cohesive company, by working together. And not just doing one production together, but many, so they have a feeling of what it is we’re going for. It takes time.

FALA: And what is it you’re going for?

TC: Anything from musicality and phrasing to how they are on stage. We’re not a Russian company. We don’t necessarily act with gestures. We really try to become the people we are on stage.

FALA: A more natural approach.

TC: A much more natural approach, and I think a very Danish way of telling a story. There’s a long tradition in the August Bournonville tradition of how to tell a story, and I’m very much a child of that.

FALA: How would you characterize the production?

TC: It’s classically based; the costumes are fabulous. This was originally a production the Royal Danish Ballet did with an amusement park in Copenhagen. Because we had these two big institutions collaborating, we had a very good budget. When we started Los Angeles Ballet, I thought “Maybe we can get these costumes,” and they were very good with me. The costumes are fabulous: You’re talking about a $1.7 million production. But we did not get the sets, so we opted to set it here in Southern California in 1912, so the production has a local flair.

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Moor Love

By Michael Mattis

A footnote in the program from last weekend’s superb performance of “Othello, a Dance in Three Acts,” by the American Ballet Theatre, reads:

The Tarentella (named for the Taratula spider whose venomous bite causes delirium) swept medieval Europe and was believed by the church to have satanic connections. It was subsequently outlawed by the authorities for purportedly causing insanity.

Further research reveals that the Tarantella originated in Taranto, Italy, where the local wolf spider is said to deliver a hallucinogenic venom that can only be cured by dancing wildly.

ABT’s production of Othello, part of this season’s Dance at the Music Center program, had the dark, layered, dreamy quality of just such a venom-induced vision, building from an edgy reverie to a hypnotic nightmare whose crescendo comes so suddenly it shocks. For Othello, danced brilliantly by Marcelo Gomes, this turns out to be one bad trip. But then how could it be otherwise?

Othello — originally conceived by the 16th-century Italian author Giovanni Battista Giraldi, also known as Cinthio, and later adapted by William Shakespeare — deals in all the dark themes: Sex, race, class, religion, ambition, jealousy, anxiety and deceit. This complexity of emotions and social issues accounts for much of the sensuous depth in Lar Lubovitch’s choreography, Elliot Goldenthal’s frenetic music, and the conscious layering in ABT’s artful, multimedia-inspired production.

Digital projections, deftly provided by Wendall Harrington, allowed the dancer’s dramatic changes in mood to appear seamless with their surroundings. Meanwhile, George Tyspin’s scenery of cracked slabs of glass offered a sense of lightness mixed with foreboding. In some productions, such boldness might become a distraction to the dance. But in ABT’s, it’s so complementary that you almost don’t notice it at all. Until, well, you notice it. In fact, during the scene in which the plotting Iago (Sascha Radetsky) lies to Othello, telling him that Desdemona (Julie Kent) has made him cuckold with the innocent Cassio (Herman Cornejo), one almost expects Shakespeare’s imagery of fornicating frogs to begin leaping against the back projection.

But this isn’t Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s Cinthio’s and Lar Lubovitch’s. As such, it’s a quite original work of art and a moving and spectacular one at that. “Othello, a Dance in Three Acts” captures this classic tale in contemporary ways that vibrantly evoke the hallucinogenic madness of love, rage and the Tarantella.

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Pointe of View

pointeWhat to say and how to say it? Such is the artist’s eternal question.

How to present a coherent point of view is the challenge facing the Los Angeles Ballet, according to cofounder Thordal Christensen. “We need to bring different people to this endeavor who can help define [our point of view],” says the former dancer and Denmark native. “And what better place to do that than Los Angeles, where there is so much talent.”

And yet Christensen recognizes the need for unity among his troupe of terpsichores. “Our dancers are coming from different places,” he says, “and you have to make it look like we’re all coming from the same point of view.” This contradiction is clear, and results from the company’s fledgling status. Christensen knows he needs a point of view, he just doesn’t know what it is yet.

And for now his concerns are more pressing: “Producing great shows and building an audience — those are the two most important things.”

Los Angeles Ballet’s summer season commenced this weekend with three works by Balanchine. There were plenty of vacant seats at the Alex Theater show, and the program included a donation envelope, but the LA Times review was favorable and the performance splendid.

FineArtsLA recently spoke with Christensen, who founded the company with wife Colleen Neary, about their ambition to establish a ballet company in a city where others have failed.

FALA: Who is the audience for ballet in Los Angeles?

TC: A lot of women and families. But when women make their men go, the men enjoy it. And why shouldn’t they? — beautiful women and great pieces of art.

FALA: And the reason it’s mostly women is because they took ballet classes when they were younger?

TC: Yes, traditionally little girls take ballet and develop an interest that way. But whenever I talk to guys who come, they say they love it.

FALA: Your partner is also your wife.

TC: We’ve been married for 20 years and always worked together. She was an instructor and I was a dancer, then I was a director and she did various things. She’s been my boss and I’ve been hers. When you do what we do for so long, you find out what each other is good at and you support each other’s different strengths. We have a lot of staging and organizational experience, and I hope a point of view.

FALA: What is that point of view?

TC: Colleen grew up with Balanchine, while my background was more rooted in classics. That’s our history, and that’s what we’re bringing to Los Angeles Ballet. We want very much here in the beginning to show some real masterworks and show these dancers off, because they’re very good. And there are no better ballets than Balanchine ballets.

Long term we’d like to be more creative with new works and choreographers, plus other artists, whether lighting, costume or music. We need to bring different people to this endeavor who can help define it. And what better place to do that than Los Angeles, where there is so much talent.

But we need to establish a company first. Our dancers are coming from different places, and you have to make it look like we’re all coming from the same point of view. That’s something that takes time. thordal-photo-3.jpg

FALA: What do you mean by everyone having the same point of view?

TC: We did auditions in Los Angeles and New York, and of course you get different dancers with different backgrounds. When you’ve had a company for a long time you only bring in a few dancers a year. We brought in 20 dancers to create this company. There has to be a uniformity, a point of view, and that comes back to classes in the morning, what you do and how you execute steps — it’s back to basics.

FALA: And what are those basics?

TC: The most important things are musicality and ability. And then the question is how do you execute your dancing. Both Colleen and I are very colored from where we come from, which means we are very bold in the legwork and very soft, lyrical and expressive in movements.

FALA: Did the spring season meet your expectations?

TC: Yes. If you have great ballets and great dancers, something great will come out of it. In terms of attendance, we were exactly where we thought. But of course we’re going to have to build.

FALA: And how do you do that?

TC: Awareness, word of mouth. People have to hear about us, read about us, see us, and then you make a believer.

FALA: When will you get an orchestra?

TC: That’s a good question. We want live music, but at the same time we’re a young organization. You want everything, but you can’t have everything at once.

FALA: What’s the order of importance of the things you want? A live orchestra may be number five or 10.

TC: Yes, I’d say so. At the top of my list is that we’re able to produce great shows. And build an audience. Those are the two most important things. We also need to build our board and infrastructure, and just grow and grow.

FALA: What about a home venue?

TC: Our idea is very much to go out into the community. That’s what’s great about LA: different venues all spread out.

FALA: Does ballet suffer from a highbrow image, even more so than opera?

TC: I think it does, because what is more classic than “Swan Lake.” But dance is more than just high art. There’s such a stepping over into more modern expressions, but with a strong historical background, and I think that’s what works. We can afford to be a lot more creative than, say, the opera. The dance world has always been very innovative.

Pointe image by Rick Lord at Art.com

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