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Balanchine's Palm-Fringed Muse

May 17, 2013

LOS ANGELES — Unlike certain 20th-century artists who found themselves miserable in Hollywood — F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind — George Balanchine was fond of the place in the 1930s. He loved the orange groves, Romanoff’s glamorous boîte and choreographing dances for movies.

But after founding New York City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein in 1948, the man who changed America’s dancescape became synonymous with the East Coast. Now, 30 years after his death, Mr. Balanchine is having another West Coast moment, through the prism of different ballet troupes.

The Balanchine repertory is standard fare for the Los Angeles Ballet, founded in 2006 by the husband-and-wife team of Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen. Yet this year, having grown to 35 dancers from 21, with an annual operating budget to $2.5 million, the directors felt the time was right for a full-fledged Balanchine Festival.

The festival, which opened in March, is presenting seven works over four months. The remaining performances in the second and final installment, featuring “La Valse,” “Agon” and “Rubies,” will be presented at three theaters in May and June. The latter two works, set to Stravinsky, are also part of the program for July in Grand Park, in line with the Los Angeles Music Center’s yearlong Stravinsky celebration “Balanchine loved this city,” Ms. Neary said in an interview, “and it is my wish that the passion he felt in his work is given to L.A. in these programs.”

Ms. Neary, 60, first met Balanchine as an 8-year-old student at the School of American Ballet, the official school of New York City Ballet. She joined City Ballet in 1969 and was a soloist from 1975 to 1979. In 1985 the George Balanchine Trust authorized her to teach and stage his ballets. Ms. Neary says she feels a responsibility to the choreographer, who created more than 400 works.

“It’s my job to help dancers get to know him,” she said during a rehearsal break at the company’s Westside headquarters. “It’s not only teaching steps he taught us, and the intention, but also the ballets’ different styles. One thing I always say he told us is, ‘You shouldn’t save anything — you should give all your energies to what you’re doing now.’ ”

On a recent afternoon in the Los Angeles Ballet’s 12,000-square-foot studios, Ms. Neary scrutinized her dancers, who range in age from 19 to 31, as they rehearsed the fiendishly difficult steps of “La Valse,” a 1951 ballet about death set to Ravel’s work.“Don’t bounce, glide,” Ms. Neary urged Allyssa Bross, the female lead in white, while Mr. Christensen, 47, leapt onto a chair to observe the unsettling funereal circling in the finale.

Ms. Neary and Mr. Christensen’s 28-year partnership has included dancing with City Ballet, and their exchanges in the studio veer from detail-oriented simpatico to the occasionally prickly. “She’s been my boss, and I’ve been hers,” he said, “but because we know each other so well, there’s a certain aesthetic we try to pull from the dancers together.”

Renae Williams Niles, the Music Center’s vice president for programming, suggested in an interview that promoting Balanchine’s legacy is strategically smart for a young dance company seeking a bigger profile. “When I think of Balanchine here, I think of Colleen, one of our local treasures,” she said.

Preconcert talks are also part of the Balanchine Festival, and they help to shed light on the time he spent in Southern California. Audiences learn that Balanchine adored the climate, food markets and movie culture of Los Angeles, where he choreographed five films, all featuring Vera Zorina, then his wife, from 1938 to 1944.

For the first, “The Goldwyn Follies” (1938), he worked with the composer Vernon Duke, a friend who wrote music for the “Water Nymph Ballet,” a Botticelli-esque sequence in which Ms. Zorina rose from a pool. The sequence is said to have been beloved by Samuel Goldwyn, the film’s producer.

Hollywood also proved congenial for Mr. Balanchine’s collaborations with Stravinsky, with whom he worked on some 40 pieces over the years. Conversing in their native Russian over many a meal, the pair worked on masterpieces like “Orpheus,” which had its premiere in 1948 with Maria Tallchief.

Another Los Angeles troupe seeking to lay claim to part of Balanchine’s legacy is the American Contemporary Ballet, now in its second season. The 10-member company is directed by the choreographer Lincoln Jones, a native Angeleno who returned here in 2010 after spending seven years performing and teaching in New York. While laying the groundwork for forming the company, he spent hours devouring all things Balanchine at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

“Dance is fairly limited as a storytelling medium, but as a musical one that works in a visual realm, it’s unlimited,” Mr.Jones said in an interview. “It was Balanchine’s realization of this — and his development of its musical vocabulary, aside from the works themselves — that was his greatest contribution.”

Mr. Jones said he was drawn back to Los Angeles by its widening classical music scene. He took along his muse, the ballerina Theresa Farrell, who is now the company’s associate director; seeking to expand the audience for dance, they soon paired with Da Camera Society, a group that was founded four decades ago and performs chamber music at historic sites. Its top musicians accompanied American Contemporary Ballet last year when it gave its first concerts — two instrumental works interspersed with a pair of dances — in a warehouse in the city’s mid-Wilshire area. Next month four more concerts are scheduled over two nights.

“The fact that they’re so good and just getting started, I feel I owe it to the art of dance to help build whatever I can,” said Martin Chalifour, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal concertmaster, who donates his time to performing with the troupe. “Lincoln caters to the complexities of the musical score and, like Balanchine, that’s his inspiration. Music transports you, and when you augment that with beautiful dance, it becomes a unique sensory experience.”

Another troupe with Balanchine ties is the Barak Ballet, founded by Melissa Barak, a Los Angeles native who danced with New York City Ballet for nine years. For now, no Balanchine works are planned for the ballet’s inaugural concert in October, she said, “but my choreography is influenced by him, and I’d like to think he may have seen something special in me.”

While Los Angeles has metamorphosed into a sprawl-to-the-wall metropolis since Balanchine walked its palm treelined streets, his spirit lives on here for these choreographers. “When we’re teaching and talking about him, Mr. B is with us,” Ms. Neary said. “I believe that.”

New York Times

by Victoria Looseleaf

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