Dd Response: Los Angeles Ballet's Balanchine Red

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The curtain fell on Los Angeles Ballet’s 7th season amidst the bright syncopations of Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano, and with it, the patrons surrounding me rose to their feet – giving a standing ovation richly deserved for this rapidly emerging company.

The program of this final performance included George Balanchine’s La Valse, Agon and Rubies, and it served as an exhilarating closer to a two-part series celebrating the works of the master choreographer. The program also demonstrated just what incredible strides LAB has made towards becoming a fully-realized, classical ballet company, one that soon may hold its own with its bigger western counterparts, including San Francisco Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

LAB seems to get better and better every time I see them perform. And I’ve seen them a perform a lot this season. With each performance it’s becoming abundantly clear that their impending success rests on their choice of ballets and their choice of dancers. When they allow their dancers to play to their individual strengths, rather than try to be something they aren’t – a cookie cutter classical company – the performances suddenly click.

When I first heard they would be attempting works like Agon in this series, I was skeptical of their ability to pull it off. This technically challenging work can be humbling for even the most seasoned dancers and established of companies, with it’s lightning-quick footwork and contortionist-like adagios. Yet, the LAB dancers rose to the occasion with attack and determination.

While there is still plenty of room for improvement in the general synchronicity of the (seemingly very young) corps de ballet, and some partnering work remained a bit shaky, the company has found itself with a surprisingly strong base of soloist and principal dancers. Each brings a little something different to the table which makes for a sumptuous banquet of artistry and technique.

The key to this particular performance came down to casting. For the first time, it seemed that each dancer fully embodied their roles, both in technique and character, and it made for a smoother, more enjoyable performance than many past. Allyssa Bross was perfectly suited for the naïve and fragile ingénue in La Valse. Coupled with her coy acting chops and Zheng Hua Li’s solid partnering, their pas de deux was mesmerizing. It was the moments between the movements – little glances, the image of their bent arms interwoven through each other like an intricate crucifixion – that left the audience with a chilling sense that something sinister was about to happen. In the story of La Valse, the female lead is tempted and violently seduced by a figure of death. The impending tragedy was palpable not only through Maurice Ravel’s haunting score, but in the languid movements, broken port de bras, and chilling coldness exuded by the leads.

Chelsea Paige Johnston stood out in the fifth and sixth waltzes with her effervescence and effortless control. She was light, airy and exuberant as she seamlessly turned and balanced with the help of Alexander Castillo’s tender partnering. Christopher Revels was chillingly eldritch in the role of “death.” He was genuinely scary as he man-handled Bross through forceful lifts and turns.

With Agon, there was no one better suited among the company members to take on the lead pas de deux than Allynne Noelle. She tackled this albatross work with strength and vigor. While a few extensions seemed a bit tight, overall it was near perfect. Newcomer to the company Ulrik Birkkjaer was equally adept at seeing his way through the momentous pas de deux, supporting Noelle through the challenging promenades with relative ease.

In the first pas de trois, Kenta Shimizu executed his solo with precision and passion that was a real treat to watch. The female pas de deux, danced by Bianca Bulle and Julia Cinquemani, was bright and beautiful – showing off both ladies’ musicality and ballon.

Rubies closed the show, and what a closer! Allynne Noelle was commanding in her role as the lead soloist, while Julia Cinequemani and Kenta Shimizu made for a brassy and bold partnership. These two powerhouse dancers portrayed the flirtatious rubies with such exuberance that they elicited both laughter and gasps from the audience.

What’s remarkable about Noelle and Cinequemani is that you never worry about them. They are so strong, so confident, and so in control that the audience can relax. We know they have everything taken care of and our only job is to enjoy it. It’s this quality, while elusive and subjective, that marks a truly great performance and the potential success of this burgeoning company. For LAB, that potential seems to rest on the tiny shoulders of these two dynamic dancers.

From this Balanchine festival, it’s clear to see that the company’s strength is in staging and performing Mr. B’s works. They should do more of this, if they can, and put their full-length Swan Lake’s on the back burner for now. It not only works for the dancers, but it suits the LA audience as well.

The LA Ballet is at a critical turning pointe (pun intended) and, if they can keep up this standard of professionalism, programming, and casting, they could catapult themselves to the forefront of regional companies specializing in Balanchine repertoire. What’s more, they would be offering dancers another place to dance some of the most sought after choreography in the ballet world, in a smaller scale company, amongst the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California. Not a bad deal.  Thus they have a chance to align themselves with the most desirable companies in America; there’s not much standing in their way.

Watching this classical ballet company grow, in the face of a notoriously unsupportive city, has been remarkable to say the least. LA Ballet is continuing to prove that by sheer will, determination, and passion, the most underdog of ballet companies can succeed – even with a city doubting their every step.

But I’m certainly not doubting them anymore.

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