PALM DESERT — The McCallum Theatre, a.k.a. the Bob Hope Cultural Center, is hosting its first ballet this week, and the place is puffing with conspicuous pride.
The handsome, architecturally conservative auditorium--a 1,135-seat, $20-million mirage in what used to be an artistic as well as geographical desert--opened Jan. 2 with a high-class vaudeville show designed for TV. This was followed by further explorations of commercial pop and pap.
On Tuesday, however, the hallowed hall inaugurated its Great Performers Series. The occasion was a visit by Rudolf Nureyev and six of his "friends" from the Paris Opera Ballet. On the eve of his 50th birthday, the once noble danseur must be past his prime, but the much-vaunted glamour of his name and image live on.
The remaining great performers on the agenda, not incidentally, are Marilyn Horne, Yehudi Menuhin, Victor Borge, Mel Torme and Peter Nero. No one can accuse the Hope Center--whose management currently happens to find itself in upheaval--of throwing caution to the winds.
The McCallum Theatre is, in general, a pleasant place in which to watch dance. With no seat located farther than 80 feet from the stage, the ambiance is intimate, much like that of the good, old, human-scale opera houses of Europe.
The two balconies are agreeably shallow. Sight lines from the 12 side boxes, however, are obstructed, and one predictable problem nags those seated downstairs: There are no internal aisles. Greed, in the form of so-called continental seating, has once again triumphed over comfort.
It is difficult to gauge the sonic qualities of the house. The official credits for the structure mention no acoustical engineer or adviser, though considerable print is devoted to the elaborate amplification system.
At the Nureyev Show, an orchestra of about 40 under-rehearsed musicians sounded tinny and strident. A tuxedoed gentleman officiated ominously at a panel of buttons and knobs in one of the boxes. For Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," the sensitive baritone in the pit, Christopher Trakas, was grotesquely over-amplified. Given a theater this small, one would have thought no artificial boost would be needed, or wanted.
Although the stage, 41 feet deep and 84 feet wide, isn't exactly spacious, it proved adequate for the modest Nureyev repertory. How it will accommodate the sprawling Opera Pacific "Aida" later this month remains to be seen.
The stage floor seems to be hard on the dancers' feet, and those feet seemed oddly, unusually noisy. Perhaps the microphones in the pit were picking up the wrong sounds.
And the dancing? For anyone who saw Nureyev and friends last season at Shrine Auditorium or the Greek Theatre, it was pretty much dancing as usual.
The dressy, generally polite but unenthusiastic audience did not applaud Nureyev when he made his first appearance. However, the first-nighters had applauded Nureyev's younger colleague, the dashing Charles Jude, when he entered for the preliminary ritual of the "Sleeping Beauty" pas de deux. This may have been a case of mistaken identity--Jude looks more and more like a Nureyev clone every day--and a last-minute program shuffle probably added to the confusion.
Wisely, Nureyev avoided assigning himself anything that suggested classical bravura. He concentrated, for the most part, on modernistic perks, agonies and ecstasies. In the process, he conveyed considerable style and authority, even if his body didn't--couldn't--always do what he, and we, want it to do.
In his favored approximation of Balanchine's wondrous "Apollo," he exuded a certain desperate charm, a certain quizzical poignancy, while he distorted the essential character definition. In Bejart's "Wayfarer Songs," he seemed convincingly lithe--so long as one didn't compare him with Jude, his all-too-youthful Doppelganger . In the latest incarnation of "Two Brothers" (choreography attributed to Daniel Ezralow and David Parsons), he hid deftly behind the cliches of quirky athleticism.
He did give his all. But the strain was apparent. One would prefer to remember him as the laughing firebrand of yore.
The strongest of the Parisian disciples he brought along this time were Jude, extraordinarily sleek and elegant if a bit self-absorbed, and Florence Clerc, a ballerina of exquisite line and mercurial attack. Eric Camillo, a junior danseur, seemed uncomfortable in the flash of the inevitable "Don Quixote" duet, but his lightness and speed proved most persuasive in two Bournonville excursions.
The refined, technically proficient, somewhat bland supporting ballerinas were Carole Arbonnies, Fanny Gaida and Marie-Claude Pietragalla. Unfortunately, it was hard to tell them apart in this context, and the printed program offered few clues.
The program was, in fact, a bad joke. Although it offered 188 pages of puff and advertising, it mustered not a word about the repertory and no biographical data on any dancer other than the boss. It did announce one artist who never appeared, yet neglected to list Clerc's first name. On the other hand, it provided a lengthy curriculum vitae for Varujan Kojian, the excellent conductor, and for the incidental baritone.
The audience began to thin out drastically before Nureyev could dance the not-so-grand finale. A helpful resident insisted this did not reflect a critical judgment; it merely proved that 10:30 p.m. is well past bedtime in the Coachella Valley.