I have been fortunate to see all of the Los Angeles Ballet season this year. The latest installment was part two of the Balanchine Festival with La Valse, Agon, and Rubies. The Los Angeles Times reviewer found it “a thrill” but it was that only if you don’t see much ballet, and if you’re willing to put out of mind New York City Ballet (in any of its incarnations) doing the same works. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they’re here. I went on Sunday because I like the close up feeling of concert dance at the Alex Theatre, and because Balanchine repertory is always a worthwhile adventure. L.A. Ballet is doing yeoman’s work keeping the Balanchine classics coming. Nobody else is bringing them to Los Angeles which has been oversaturated by companies, both small and large, juicing up their repertories with Euro Zone dance. There is so much of it, you could forget that there is “other” dance out there.
As with the two earlier programs this year, it was the distraction of absent details that spelled the difference between something exceptional, and a good approximation of a revered classic. But there were some moments of excellent dancing on Sunday. Both Allynne Noelle and Bianca Bross looked powerful and accomplished in Rubies and Agon. In Agon they outclassed the men who looked like they weren’t enjoying the virtuosic side of a work meant to create Olympians out of them. They covered the important parts but if you were looking for the deep reach of a Peter Boal in the first pas de trois with the airy, spacious partnering in the section with linked arms, well, that was not to be found. I had seen Agon when the company first did it, and it has not grown, or gotten better, mostly because none of those dancers are still around. It’s tough work trying to keep the Balanchine repertory marching forward. It’s a way of dancing filled with complex eccentricities and details. You can’t just stuff it into whomever you have on hand.
Agon on the Balanchine Red program and The Four Temperaments from the Gold program both seemed to fare the best. Maybe the company is actually working toward an understanding of the black and white works. They seem to dance them better than the company’s other repertory pieces, and they make you believe in them while they’re doing it. I wrote about Dylan Cobb in the Melacholic solo in The Four Temperaments from the Gold program. He was wonderfully expressive in those deep back bends and falling, twisting movements that are a signature for the role. On Sunday, Zheng Hua Li and Christopher Revels, dancing the canonic section from the Bransle Simple, were flashy, even briefly heroic. Both applied an exacting musicality in their dancing. Along with those highs, were the lows of two dancers falling. Your heart despairs to see it happen, but twice in one piece was tough to take.
The weakest work on the Balanchine Red program was La Valse, which grabbed hold of little of the neo-romantic sweep of Ravel’s music. Where they were needed, sinister and macabre humors all but evaporated. Waltzes of any description are the go-to music for the classical dancer, but here the music felt like an impediment as the dancers churned out choppy, tight steps, and bouncing little runs that belonged somewhere else entirely. After the girl in white dies at the hands of the figure in black, on the other side of the stage were a few who apparently didn’t witness the tragedy. There they are, dancing with beaming smiles like refugees from Waltz of the Flowers. In the performance I saw, the men supporting the long lift with the Girl in White made it look precarious and awkward, replacing solemnity with worry.
The shift from the work’s first section (Valses Nobles et Sentimentales) to the dark sentiments of the music for La Valse never really happened. It’s a crucial requirement of the work. It’s just that none of La Valse in Part II felt very menacing, even though the music clearly is. I had been listening recently to a piano transcription of La Valse played by Glen Gould. Playing by himself in a poorly lit studio, hunched over the piano on his little toy chair, he made things seem scarier than a whole stage full of swirling dancers. The point is that LA Ballet doesn’t fare well when challenged to make the acting and the mise en scene in their story ballets count for something. Both La Sonambula, and the Nutcracker also felt devoid of believable storytelling and acting. In this La Valse, the staging and coordination of a big cast, with its complicated interactions, never really coalesced into something truly ominous or even mechanically sound. It just seemed busy and under rehearsed.
Rubies received a mostly satisfying showing. Again it was the little things that created problems. The follow spot for the soloists cast distracting shadows across the cyclorama, mostly because the dancers seemed too far upstage much of the time. The crossing lines of supporting dancers simply looked sloppy, and in a work that asks for different kinds of perfection, those flaws could seem glaring. The lighting in general looked generic, a flat wash that set off the dancers poorly. Ms Noelle, as the central soloist, looked at ease and perfect. She has been terrifically consistent all season in all her roles.
I have written often about the music for LA Ballet performances, lamenting the fact that the company depends exclusively on prerecorded music. It’s not just L.A. Ballet. Most of the big touring companies have used recorded music for performance, both here at the Music Center and at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County. Those recordings are never identified in the printed programs. It tends to add insult to injury. You can reach a point of fatigue listening to canned music, especially as accompaniment to Balanchine’s ballets, whose raison d’etre is the music itself. It’s just one of the binds you find yourself in trying to graft Balanchine’s works, with their ocean going history and expectations, onto a young company that has pressing limitations.
Music remedies exist. There is, for instance, a faithful and clever version of the music for Agon for two pianos and percussion which was transcribed by Stravinsky. Kurt Jooss’ ballet for the Green Table has survived with its score for two pianos. There is also a two piano arrangement of La Valse by the composer. It’s still real music and for me, it always speaks more loudly than surround sound at the theater. For works set to the really big music, an orchestra remains the only honest solution if you want to be taken seriously. If you don’t commit to putting the music and the dance together, safe to say, it’s probably never going to happen. Nearly eight years into the company’s history, we’re still waiting.
The Los Angeles Times has made a pretty consistent package of reviews, puff pieces and advertising promoting LA Ballet. While it’s good to have public support, it is something of a worry that the only paper of record in the city can’t seem to look at performances with a reasonably critical eye, acknowledge some basic realities, and comment on them fairly. It’s a big question, for instance, that a major company representing ballet in Los Angeles does its big, classic productions of La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Giselle and all of the Balanchine repertory with recorded music. It comes across finally as something of a quiet deception, no matter the reasons for it being so. It deserves to be noticed with more than a reportorial footnote. And no amount of end-of-the-run confidence is going to fix many things that were not right in the Balanchine Red program as the Times reviewer, Laura Bleiberg, gamely suggested. Whatever shortcomings there were, remain the result of an inexperienced company working towards the demands of what may be a goal that seems to stay just out of reach. For now, it’s Balanchine “as if”.
Los Angeles Ballet will be trying out something new when the company performs at Grand Park downtown as part of the summer outdoor series in July. I’m hoping that it will feel like those performances of New York City Ballet at the Greek Theater in the 50’s, or maybe a dose of the Saratoga Springs experience. Stravinsky under the stars, I’m looking forward to it.
(The reviewed performance took place at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California on May 26, 2013)