Reviewer: David Rankin
Review of the Los Angeles Ballet
June 14, 2014
Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, California.
For its last set of performances this season, the Los Angeles Ballet treated audiences to an evening of pure classicism. Artistic directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary asked their dancers to execute the brisk precision of the Russian form in “Serenade” and the delicate precision of the Danish form in “La Sylphide.” This disciplined troupe answered the call with the professional polish that Los Angeles audiences have come to expect.
George Balanchine presented “Serenade” for the first time in June, 1934; it was performed outside by dancers from his school. A dispute centers on whether it was the “first” ballet he choreographed in America or just one of several that were performed on a large estate in New York and soon afterwards in Hartford, Connecticut. “Serenade” was not singled out for special praise by commentators at the time. On the affirmative side of the dispute about “first” is a witness whose word carries some weight: Balanchine himself. Work on it probably began in 1933; it was not tossed together spontaneously, as is sometimes averred, though he did work into it accidents like a dancer’s lateness to rehearsal and another’s fall. It has been revised several times Most of the hallmarks of the Balanchine style were introduced to an audience in 1934 that in all likelihood had never seen anything remotely like them, certainly not organized into a whole that lacked a traditional narrative but had themes suggestive of story lines. Balanchine balked at the term “abstract” to designate his neo-classical emphasis on purity and clarity that allowed room for audiences to imagine their own stories. Where there is music and dance, he said, there is a story.
The ballet is set to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” Its moods vary from the spritely to the elegiac, its melodies lush but not grandiose, its pace varied but fluent. The music, in short, is beautiful. In accord with this superlative, Balanchine made a beautiful ballet.
He immediately puts the audience on notice that his corps will not have its accustomed function. At the curtain, in blue tulle against a blue backdrop, seventeen women appear in an asymmetrical formation, awaiting the music. Their right arms are pointed upwards, wrists bent. Then they move quickly into a series of intricate patterns unfolding into new patterns that never quite dissolve, in a Balanchine trademark maneuver that was seen earlier this year in “Rubies.” From this opening moment until the end, the Los Angeles corps executed with power and precision. They dashed and skipped and twirled and pirouetted, and worked off balance. They signified linkages by holding hands and by intertwining bodies into sympathetic clutches. The acceleration of steps might not have been as dazzling when attempted by students in 1934 as by the Los Angeles corps, but from the start it was a Balanchine signature.
The ballet illustrates classical positions that might seem academic were they not woven into the ongoing flow. Intermittent tableaux pick up the initial extension of arms as motif. Over the head, they are arched but not joined, or waved or pointed straight upwards, wrists bent. Though these movements are not explicitly supplicatory, they do suggest ritual with religious or mythic overtones. The corps did nothing to advertise these actions as portent. There was no metaphorical winking at the audience. In context, the action seemed as natural as walking or breathing.
The featured dancers in this ballet are tasked even more than the corps with bringing off that singular blend of the lyrical and the athletic that is another hallmark of the Balanchine style. The athleticism must be kept under artistic control. ( Balanchine did not have hurdlers in mind when he said, “Ballet is Woman.” )
The lyricism must not be allowed to become droopy. ( His idea of femininity included a strong spine, literally and figuratively. ) There is an unusual amount of interaction amongst the corps and the featured dancers. The entire company is conceived as an organism. Any star turns or clash of styles would destroy the effect of unity. As within any culture, there are rivalries and tensions and contrasts that may stretch the modal boundaries but are not allowed to sunder them.
The three girls, danced by Allynne Noelle, Bianca Bulle, and Julia Cinquemani. are somewhat individualized and enjoy some prominence; but none enjoys the centerpiece of a divertissement, as do bluebirds and Hungarians and Chinese in more traditional ballets. Nor does the look of a divertissement suddenly break in when men appear. There are dances for two or three or four, the last with three women stacked in a lean against man. The corps is not banished but actively participates so that what might have been isolated in order to showcase the featured dancers is insinuated into the melding motif. There is no sitting around miming conversation like the girls of the village. Zheng Hua Li and Alexander Castillo, like the girls named above, abided by the holistic atmosphere that pervades this ballet, even when they were having their moments up front. All five acquitted themselves well.
The ballet ends on a note of muted tragic overstones. A girl collapses ( the accidental fall in an early rehearsal ) and is lifted high and carried off the stage by a group, a final sign of ensemble. The three featured women have often been designated the Waltz Girl, the Russian Girl, and the Dark Angel. The labels do not appear on the program for this performance. The omission underscores the primacy of gestaldt.
Balanchine once said, “My ballets are like butterflies – beautiful today, and one day they will be gone.” At least once, he was wrong.
Only in ballet can be found a femme fatale that comes equipped with a pair of gossamer wings.
In the role of the Sylph, Christensen cast Allyssa Bross. The contrast in mood between “Serenade” and “La Sylphide” is established at once. Bross’s first dance of the evening, while Ulrik Birkkjaer as James sleeps in a chair near the fireplace, put on display the essential elements of the Bournonville style: the pretty light feet; the clean articulation, the gentle inclination of the back, forwards and backwards; the outward leg kicks; the turns crisp but measured; the forward extension and expressiveness of the arms; and the restrained jumps . Christensen was trained in that style in the school of the Royal Danish Ballet, and performed in it as a principal dancer with the company that he also directed. His choreography in this ballet is listed as “after Bournonville.”
Bross, a principle dancer, is built like a sylph and has a lovely face. She used her arms and hands and head tilts to convey an ethereality that is at bottom less angelic than seductive. James is awakened by her kiss. He pursues this alluring vision around the room. Then – poof – she disappears up the fireplace.
She is still in his head when Effy, his beloved, is brought in. Betrothal rings are placed on their fingers to the joy of the villagers, save for Gurn, who is in love with Effy. He pulls back a blanket from a chair, expecting the sylph to be underneath as a way of exposing what James has been up to. The chair is empty.
James, still distracted, dances with Effy as portrayed by Bianca Bulle, a dancer from Queensland, Australia. Effy is sometimes drawn as a petal in the wind.
Not in Bulle’s interpretation. She delivered a mixture of sauce and innocence without a dollop of the sweetie-pie bathos that lurks in this role. Inattention from James elicits confusion and fret but not pout. Bulle is a strong dancer who, expounded the Bournonville style with earth-bound gaiety. Her initial solo, though short, was enough to disclose a brewing confidence, if not an uninhibited extroversion, that also lurks in the role. She is a pretty blonde who in this role does not invite dumb jokes about dumb blondes.
The lively Scottish dance by Effy and James and the corps encourages the party to quicken but not rush the pace of the style. Birkkjaer and Bulle led the proceedings with quickness and collaboration with the music. The corps worked largely in step with the principals. Birkkjaer, though somewhat distracted as James, attended to his duties as a partner and was fully responsive to Bulle’s strength.
I am here reminded of watching Anthony Dowell rehearse two dancers of the Royal Ballet in a pas de deux. Dowell had been a principal dancer and director of the company, and was acclaimed for his courtliness as a partner. The male was having trouble with a detail. Dowell said, “Don’t worry. No one will be watching you. They will be watching her.”
Onto the scene comes a witch named Madge swigging brandy near the fireplace, both for warmth. The role that is sometimes danced by a man was played by Neary herself. She used her long fingers and quirky body language to convey at the same time malevolence and comedy. In stage art, actors have been known to puff personality into caricature. Neary performed the reverse operation on Madge. She refined caricature into personality. This was not just any old hag literally stirring the pot. (In Act Two. ) Her index finger was used variously as a lance, a hooked command to report, and an ominous identifier.
Villains often steal the show, especially in melodrama. ( Also in high art. Think of Iago’s ingenious evil in Othello. ) In “La Sylphide,” Neary’s acting probably inspired her charges to raise their own a notch or two. Rehearsals must have been fun.
Madge predicts that Gurn not James will marry Effy . The two men have a brief confrontation. The room is cleared after villagers chase Madge out the door and Effy is taken upstairs to prepare for her wedding to James later that day.
The Sylph appears in a window.
In an extended pas de deux, James struggles to resist her enticements and professions of love. Bross and Birkkjaer made the most of this opportunity to display their dancing and acting abilities. She can be coy, crushed, or importunate, girlish or insistent, nimble or prostrate. Even in this romantic fantasy, Birkkjaer did not exaggerate his inner conflict either by mime, facial expression, or movement. He finally capitulates to her entreaties and airy charms. Gurn is a witness.
The two dancers were well tutored by Christensen and Neary, who danced the roles with Pacific Northwest Ballet.
In Act Two, James pursues the Sylph into the forest. They dance amongst the sisterhood of sprites ( The scene might have been a precursor to the netherworld in “Giselle, “ where abide the Wilis, ghosts of betrayed virgins; and to the Kingdom of the Shades in “La Bayadere.” ) Once again, Bross and Birkkjaer managed with ease the smooth, gliding lifts, the tiny quick steps, and a gentle buoyancy. It seems as if James has captured his ideal women.
But his betrayal of Effy is exposed. Effy, as prophesied by Madge, accepts Gurn’s proposal. Kenta Shemizu was understated in a role that begins the evening as a bumpkin with romantic aspirations above his status and ends it as the vindicated winner. As in many romantic fantasy ballets, this sudden change in fate and desire is a convention. Dancers follow the libretto and are not expected to act out the transformation. Things move fast as the denouement approaches.
Madge offers James a scarf pulled from the cauldron and instructs him to wrap the Sylph in it. He exults as the moment of possession nears. But the embrace breaks off the Sylph’s wings and she dies. Disconsolate, James falls to the four and lies motionless as the ballet ends.
This performance should have been a revelation for people who wonder what Los Angeles Ballet can do. The versatile skill level of its dancers captures and holds the eye. Its instructors have molded those skills into a company that is making headway in a town not known for its hospitality to ballet. This company deserves the support of the community. What remains to be seen is whether the community deserves a company like this.
Image: LA Ballet (Bianca Bulle)