EL CAJON — Although Charles Bennett has been an absentee associate director of the California Ballet Company since he was appointed in 1983, he has been an active force in the company.
"Chuck has been working as our associate director, contributing to the repertory, and working with the dancers to improve the quality of the ballet company," artistic director Maxine Mahon said in a recent interview. "He was responsible for getting the Jose Limon masterpiece, 'The Moor's Pavane,' which we had been trying to get hold of for quite a while.
"The Moor's Pavane," the crowning achievement of international choreographer Jose Limon, will receive its local debut during two performances of the California Ballet (2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.) Saturday at the East County Performing Arts Center here.
Although firmly rooted in the modern dance tradition, this dramatic distillation of Shakespeare's "Othello" is highly coveted by ballet companies and has been danced by ballet greats such as Rudolf Nureyev and Eric Bruhn. In addition to the plastic beauty of its movements (based on the Humphrey-Weidman tradition), Limon's telling of Shakespeare's tale of treachery and jealousy provides artistically mature dancers with a stunning vehicle for expressing human passion. But few ballet or modern dance troupes have access to Limon's most important legacy.
Bennett, who maintained a dance troupe of his own for 20 years, developed close personal and professional ties to Limon during his touring days. Gaining access to the master's works for use by his First Chamber Dance Company was one of the byproducts of that association.
"Jose (Limon) gave Chuck (Bennett) the rights to the work, and now that he's part of our company, he can share it with our dancers," Mahon said at the studio.
Looking robust and sun-tanned from his "semi-retirement" in Puerto Vallarta, Bennett reminisced about his experience with "The Moor's Pavane" during a break from rehearsals.
"We (the First Chamber Dance Company) were the last company that Jose personally staged it for," Bennett said. "That was in about 1972, even before the Joffrey and Ballet Theatre (acquired the piece). Jose came every day for seven consecutive days and was very pleased with our performance."
"That's what's so special about having Chuck (Bennett) stage this for us," said Mahon. "He worked on it directly with Limon. The same thing was true with Melissa (Hayden) who came here to set Balanchine's 'Concerto Barocco' last year. It's an advantage having someone who learned it directly from the choreographer--not one person removed, as is often the case with major dance works."
In staging "The Moor's Pavane" for the predominantly ballet-trained California Ballet dancers, it was not necessary to teach a new technique. "It was merely a matter of style," Bennett said.
"Technically, the movements are very natural--a continuous flow of body movement. Any well-trained dancer can get the dynamics of the movement. But it's a character study. That's the key, and we really work on characterization. It's not just learning steps."
This danced version of "Othello" comes directly on the heels of the San Diego Opera's staging of Verdi's "Otello."
"It's an 'Othello' outburst," Bennett joked, "but they're really not at all alike. 'The Moor's Pavane' is a very concentrated four-character (enactment). It's more impressionistic, not so literal, and it's highly condensed and succinct compared to the opera. It focuses on the dark themes of jealousy and revenge, dealing with the basic elements in dance terms."
Although Mahon concedes that last year's investment in "Concerto Barocco" (a masterwork by Balanchine, the leading choreographic voice in modern ballet) provided a poor payoff at the box office, she is determined to continue to add world-class choreography to the company's repertory. And she considers "The Moor's Pavane," an ideal choice.
"It only requires four dancers, which means we can use it to show off our strongest dancers," Mahon said. "That's what we're trying to do (in acquiring masterworks), provide showcases for our best dancers. They need that kind of stimulation to ensure their artistic growth."
In Saturday's performances, Patrick Nollet will portray the devious Iago, Denise Dabrowski is Desdemona, William George plays the jealous Moor and Kathy Auten is Emilia.
"The Moor's Pavane" will share the stage with Balanchine's lightning-quick neoclassic "Concerto Barocco." "Romanian Rhapsodies," an ensemble work by Marius Zirra (former ballet master of the California Ballet), and the "Sleeping Beauty" pas de deux by Petipa are also slated for this concert.
Guest artist Joe Wyatt, formerly of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, has been added to the ranks to partner Dabrowski and Karen Evans in "Concerto Barocco." Wyatt will be featured again with Evans in "Sleeping Beauty."
"With the added attractions of big ballet companies like the American Ballet Theatre (due to perform in San Diego in March), it's easy for the community to overlook what we're doing," Mahon said. "But the small treasures we are able to produce are a magnificent complement to the dance scene here in San Diego. It doesn't have to be them (imported dance) or us."