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Youngsters Find Ballet a Mixed Bag but Still 'Better Than School'

September 24, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

Which one was the culprit? Which one--of about 2,350 elementary school children at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Wednesday for the lecture/demonstration by the Joffrey II--started the rhythmic clapping? Teachers scowled, but it was too late: Their authority had been bypassed, subverted by the power of delight as dancers leaped to the Gypsy rhythms up on stage. The teachers pointed at offenders and held their fingers to their own lips, and the dance of discipline held sway.

The children settled down for the rest of an hourlong program that included excerpts from five ballets, a lighting demonstration, and narrations by managers of the Joffrey II, which prepares dancers ages 16 through 22 for positions in the company. The Joffrey is performing at the Center through Sunday.

"It happens like that a lot of the time," said Joffrey II director Richard Englund. "The children become enthusiastic and clap on their own, and later the discipline comes. Of course, we're anxious for the response."

The children, fourth-grade and special-education pupils, were bused from school districts around the county for the event, sponsored by a grant from the Los Angeles Times and its parent firm, Times Mirror Co. The program was given twice, for about 5,700 pupils in all.

They saw a sampling that spanned a variety of choreographic styles, from classic ballet to contemporary dances based on abstract works by Swiss artist Paul Klee.

"The (Klee) pieces are a little like a joke," Englund told the children. "The joke is that as long as people make designs, they really can't be abstract." A Klee-inspired piece called "The Twittering Machine," in which one dancer infects others with a twitch, got the children laughing freely as if they were in a schoolyard. There were excerpts from the romantic ballet "Napoli," in which the youngsters were exposed to the demanding 19th-Century dance technique of August Bournonville. The clapping filled the 3,000-seat hall during a tarantella from "Napoli."

The room was quiet for a pas de deux from "Spring Waters," with music by Serge Rachmaninoff and choreography by Asaf Messerer. Englund explained that the dancers represented two lovers. "You can look beneath the surface to see what is happening," he said, describing the dance before it began.

The lighting demonstration by Janet Moody, the Joffrey Ballet's production manager, drew the loudest "oohs" and "ahs," as off-stage technicians showed how a choreography of shadow and light brings dancers' movements to life. The stage went dark, a spotlight lit it, and another ("oooooh"), then one more ("aaaaah") and finally a pattern imitating sunlight shining through forest leaves played across the floor ("oooooh").

"I liked the light the best," said Robert Castillo, a fourth-grader from Placentia who admitted that dance would not displace his preference for football. "I don't like dance," agreed his schoolmate, Ryan Furnish. But, "it's better than school!" they shouted in unison.

But 8-year-old Kelli Warren, who sat motionlessly, concentrating on the dancers from their first movement to the last, said she hopes to be a dancer someday.

"I never saw it on stage before," said Warren, a pupil at Los Alamitos Elementary School. "I've been to a rock concert at Irvine Meadows (Amphitheatre), but that isn't like this."

The demonstrations also benefit the dancers, Englund said. "It's a wonderful experience for them because it gets them before an audience that is demanding."

He paused a moment. "And very responsive."

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