"Gala Performance" is a one-act ballet that Antony Tudor created 49 years ago in England to satirize the monstrous on-stage behavior of some star ballerinas. Three years later, it was mounted for the new company now known as American Ballet Theatre, and, Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, it became the first Tudor ballet produced since the choreographer's death on April 19.
As staged by Sallie Wilson in whimsical, uncredited watercolor decors by Tudor's longtime companion Hugh Laing (a member of the original cast), the ballet emerges as broad parody: an outrageous cat fight in a style that has become a specialty of Les Ballets Trockadero. However, it is also exactly what Ballet Theatre needs at this crucial juncture in its custodianship of Tudor's works: a big hit, danced at the scale of the company's most flamboyant showpieces.
In a prologue (set to the opening movement of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto), Tudor uses pantomime and isolated steps to depict backstage preparations for a ballet performance. The second scene (set to the "Classical Symphony") presents the ballet itself: a brainless divertissement in which hapless corps members and cavaliers are casualties in a battle for primacy between the dancing icons of Moscow, Milan and Paris.
The Russian Ballerina (Leslie Browne in red and orange) is a virtuosam of incomparable vulgarity, mistress of the impacted tour de force and the extorted ovation.
In contrast, the Italian Ballerina (Susan Jaffe in black and blue) scarcely dances at all, but endows every glacial balance and flick of wrist with such glamorous severity that she intimidates everyone into paralyzed awe.
Finally, the French Ballerina (Alessandra Ferri in pink-pink-pink) seems to know only one step--and repeats it incessantly, while flirting with anyone who enters her line of vision.
To caricature these dinosaurs as bad artists, Tudor skews the symmetries of classical placement, introduces drastic distortions of partnering conventions and mandates spasms of bravura self-aggrandizement that come from nowhere.
The result: a dance style that remains recognizably balletic yet is deliberately graceless, out of kilter and often ugly. Paradoxically, to dance this style with authority requires genuine artists--you can't fake your way through cantilevered pirouettes or low-to-the-floor supported balances on toe. Happily, dance values are strong in the new production.
Unfortunately, musical values are not. Conducted by Charles Barker, the Pacific Symphony simply blasts the accompaniment out roughly and thus the commentary that the music should provide on the action is compromised.
Framing "Gala Performance" on Friday: two other divertissements set in the past that also demanded a level of ensemble prowess unique to the 20th Century. The program began with George Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations," featuring the proficient but oddly overcautious Cheryl Yeager and the spectacularly accomplished, yet utterly unassuming Julio Bocca.
The evening ended with Harald Lander's "Etudes," a very solemn, very long tribute to ballet tradition, led by the majestic Martine van Hamel, the effortful Ross Stretton and the promising Wes Chapman.