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WEEKEND REVIEW : Dance : City Ballet's Damian Woetzel: A Homecoming for Another 'Apollo'

April 17, 1995|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE WRITER

Southland balletomanes first saw Damian Woetzel back in 1983, when he was a 15-year-old Hollywood High senior and the big news in Los Angeles Ballet's 10th anniversary season at the Pantages and John Anson Ford theaters.

Woetzel danced Balanchine's "Tarantella," Bournonville's "Flower Festival" pas de deux and other works before he left the company at the end of 1984--the last full year of Los Angeles Ballet's existence.

But the image of Woetzel as a coltish prodigy remained the strongest in "The Young Apollo," a neo-neoclassical showpiece created for him by company artistic director John Clifford.

Flash forward nearly 11 years to last weekend, when two "Damian Woetzel and Friends" programs at Cal State L.A. featured the standard abridgment of Balanchine's original "Apollo," danced with the boyish vigor that Woetzel has never lost in his career as a virtuoso principal at New York City Ballet.

From "The Young Apollo" to the real "Apollo": Call it a special homecoming for a balletic local hero.

However, Balanchine's "Apollo" has never been in Woetzel's City Ballet repertory and, these days, the ballet itself languishes as a kind of freeze-dried cultural monument everywhere except Miami. Woetzel's promising interpretation seemed headed in the direction of Villella-style muscularity: an all-American athlete-deity definitely in need of the Muses' influence.

Unfortunately, Amanda McKerrow, Julie Kent and Melinda Roy proved bloodless as his Muses and the feeble taped music coming out of the Luckman Theatre loudspeakers also kept this "Apollo" from ever reaching Olympus.

More impressive: Petipa's "Corsaire" pas de deux on Friday and Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" on Saturday, in which the disarming lightness of McKerrow's bravura dancing complemented the playful quality that Woetzel brought to amazingly intricate turning combinations. But it was in Balanchine's mock-military "Stars and Stripes" pas de deux both nights that dancer and role meshed perfectly.

*

Woetzel is probably the world's reigning tongue-in-cheek virtuoso: Certainly nobody matches his knack for making drop-dead technique look like a happy accident in this kind of assignment. A technically strained, expressively blank Wendy Whelan may not have been his ideal partner, but she had a chance to display her spectacular pliancy elsewhere on the programs.

The engagement marked the final performances in the distinguished career of New York City Ballet principal Heather Watts, and one could have wished for a more appropriate farewell than the vulgar gymnastic duet from Peter Martins' "Ecstatic Orange."

With Watts mostly serving as a decorative carcass to be hauled about by her fine longtime partner, Jock Soto, the sole reminder of Balanchine-era artistry came from Kyra Nichols--in top form both nights but unforgettable on Friday hovering weightlessly in a cloud of white chiffon through Balanchine's "Pavane."

Apart from its four Balanchine choreographies, "Damian Woetzel and Friends" duplicated the programming of a ballet-vaudeville event danced by mostly the same principals last October at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

Kent once more offered wan feathered lyricism in both "The Dying Swan" and (partnered by Soto) the White Swan pas de deux. Nichols and Soto again brought class and conviction to the shotgun wedding of febrile classicism and gnarled modernism in a duet from Martins' "Barber Violin Concerto." Best of all, Whelan joined Albert Evans in a brilliantly nonchalant romp through the complex technical eccentricities of William Forsythe's "Herman Schmerman" pas de deux.

In Cerritos, Woetzel's "Glazunov Pas de Deux" enlisted him and Nichols in a hectic scavenger hunt for 19th-Century coda-combinations. The duet seemed equally unmusical on Friday and Saturday, but Nichols exulted in its high-velocity daintiness and former Kirov firebrand Igor Zelensky brought a soulful nobility to his duties--even if some of his turns weren't reliably steady or even vertical.

*

Undead Again: Three ad pages in the Luckman house program announced the upcoming comeback season of Los Angeles Ballet, complete with "international tour." Aptly enough for an institution rising from the grave, "Dracula" is the subject and title of Clifford's "new three-act ballet/multimedia extravaganza," scheduled for spring, 1996.

The Balanchine "Nutcracker" is also slated--for "holiday season, 1995 at (unspecified) Southern California theaters in Los Angeles and Orange County," plus engagements in Denver and Las Vegas. Warning: Los Angeles Ballet should not be confused with Los Angeles Chamber Ballet or Los Angeles Classical Ballet, both active in the Southland during the Clifford company's 10-year hiatus.

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