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DANCE : Meet the Other ABT : American Ballet Theatre has bounced back from the harsh economics of the early '90s. But you wouldn't know it by the programs coming here.

February 18, 1996|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance writer

Two years ago, for its annual gala at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, American Ballet Theatre mounted an all-Tchaikovsky program--a compendium of classic, neoclassic and contemporary choreography crowned by guest stars Nina Ananiashvili and Julio Bocca in what New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff called "their pull-out-the-stops rendering of the Black Swan pas de deux."

In 1995, the Met gala celebrated Twyla Tharp's return to Ballet Theatre after a five-year absence. The event not only offered three Tharp premieres, but Wynton Marsalis and his jazz ensemble accompanying one of them. "The entire evening," Kisselgoff wrote, "had an extravagantly creative air."

Unfortunately, in Southern California during the 1990s, it's been difficult to consider Ballet Theatre an "extravagantly creative" institution--or one boasting "pull-out-the-stops" virtuosity.

When the company returns to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday for its first local visit in a year and a half, the engagement will offer just six performances of Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet," a Royal Ballet chestnut that Ballet Theatre has danced in season after season since 1985.

In addition, the company will appear June 26-30 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in four performances of its fourth revision of "Don Quixote" (a company staple since 1978) and two of largely familiar repertory: "Theme and Variations," "A Brahms Symphony," a "Leaves Are Fading" pas de deux and a Tharp work yet to have its premiere.

That's two full-evening ballets and four one-acts on view locally since 1994, compared to six full-length works and 21 or so shorter pieces and excerpts presented in New York during the same period.

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But if scarcely comparable to the company's eight-week Met engagements, these two local 1996 visits can be seen as steps in rebuilding Ballet Theatre's identity outside New York.

Consider the casting: To New York dance writer Robert Greskovic, the excitement about Ballet Theatre at the Met "is essentially about dancers. Just as in [company co-founder] Lucia Chase's day, any dancer who seems to be of interest on the international ballet scene and has the time and inclination to dance with Ballet Theatre is brought in."

Certainly, the Orange County roster looks unusually promising, with company newcomers Jose Manuel Carreno (last seen here with the Royal Ballet) and Vladimir Malakhov (the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and other companies) both scheduled to dance Romeo. Among the Juliets: Paloma Herrera, the first star developed within the company during Kevin McKenzie's tenure as artistic director. (No casting has yet been announced for the Pavilion performances.)

It takes money to import stars even on a short term basis. So the 1996 OCPAC roster suggests we're in a different era than three years ago, the first time the company was presented there under McKenzie's direction. Reviewing opening night, Times music/dance critic Martin Bernheimer described "a company in trouble. Big trouble."

Bernheimer's list of the company's woes included "a hand-me-down repertory, a curtailed season, a reduced touring schedule, a slightly shrunken corps, an ensemble that has the right to feel worried if not demoralized and aesthetic priorities predicated on the need for cost containment."

"This is a company that almost didn't make it," acknowledges Elizabeth Kaye, a New York-based arts writer and author of the recent book "Mid-Life: Notes From the Halfway Mark." "Its survival was really in doubt. And now it's not only back but one of the really exciting parts of living in New York, period.

"It's as versatile as a great company has to be these days," she continues, naming its stars but also praising "its range of choreography from the Petipa classics--slightly redone or even greatly redone--to Tharp and, beyond that, [Ulysses] Dove, [James] Kudelka and those throbbing, modernist things in which one wrong move and the ballerina never dances again.

"Ballet Theatre does all those things with real brilliance."

The question that remains, however, is why aren't we seeing those things here?

The answer is economics. In the tight '90s, most companies seek local presenters, rather than taking the financially riskier route of bearing all the costs through self-presentation. And that means accepting the programming choices of whomever offers to guarantee the company its basic fees.

OCPAC President Tom Tomlinson says "Romeo and Juliet" was chosen for 1995-96 based on questions of balance (full-length works versus mixed bills, weeklong engagements versus split weeks) across his entire season.

Tomlinson has found that full-length works outsell mixed bills by as much as 50%--and in this one respect Costa Mesa and New York City are the same. Therefore he's helping the company build that repertory.

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