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YEAR IN REVIEW / 1996

Year of Extremes in Dance Circles

1996 brought the best and worst of Twyla Tharp, blockbuster shows and budgetary retrenchment.

December 29, 1996|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Who'd imagine that the Bolshoi Ballet could go broke dancing 19th century classics in Shrine Auditorium while German modernist Pina Bausch could pack the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by presenting a nonlinear ensemble epic lasting nearly four hours?

It happened in 1996, a year of extremes in which Twyla Tharp created some of the best new choreography (for American Ballet Theatre) and also some of the worst (for her own modern dance company), in which pop dance shows such as "Tap Dogs" and "Riverdance" attracted big audiences and the local community retrenched to face a future with less government money than ever to go around.

Below: 10 memorable performances from one fan's date-book--in no particular order:

1. The singing, dancing POKROVSKY ENSEMBLE OF MOSCOW, which presented a groundbreaking program exploring Russian wedding traditions at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in February: an exhaustively researched, carefully organized alternative to the grandiose, balleticized potpourris that most touring folkloric companies have inflicted on America for the past 30 years.

2. Yuri Grigorovich's 125th anniversary restaging of "DON QUIXOTE" for the Bolshoi, presented at Shrine Auditorium in October--an unexpectedly elegant three-hour survey of the overlapping Moscow and St. Petersburg traditions that shape this patchwork-masterpiece. It also proved a spectacular showcase for an embattled company that still remains among the world's greatest.

3. Jiri Kylian's alternately intricate and sensual "BELLA FIGURA," the crowning glory of the Nederlands Dans Theater season at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in July and August. Amazing for its stagecraft alone, it featured scenery that zoomed in on the dancers, followed them across the stage, swept them up in blackness and became a genuine partner in the choreography.

4. 70-year-old Korean soloist SUN YOUNG KANG, who danced with so much soul and refinement at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in February that even newcomers to Korean classical dance could understand why she'd received an official government designation as "Intangible Cultural Asset No. 92."

5. Tharp's "THE ELEMENTS," a large-scale music visualization lovingly realized by Ballet Theatre at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in June. It began with a startling Big Bang and went on to suggest the evolution of order from chaos and civilization from barbarism--all without neglecting the humor, complexity and sheer technical bravado Tharp is famed for.

6. "HEART OF WOMAN," a selection of feminist modern dance solos choreographed by the pioneers of the art and renewed by the locally based American Repertory Dance Company at Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, in March. Led by Bonnie Oda Homsey and Janet Eilber (and formerly named Los Angeles Dance Theatre), the company sustained such deep reverence for nearly the full historical sweep of modern dance artistry, it deserves pride of place in a year also graced with adventuresome achievements by Southland choreographers including Loretta Livingston, Mark Mendonca, Pat Taylor, Oguri and Dulce Capadocia.

7. Bausch's alternately whimsical and compassionate "NUR DU" (Only You), which brought her magnificent Tanztheater Wuppertal to the Pavilion in October. The first Bausch dance-theater project created outside Europe, it was commissioned by six Western arts presenters and set in a California redwood grove, but spent far less time on local color than depicting the universal need for love and acceptance.

8. ELIOT FELD, who showcased one of the very few multiracial ballet companies in America at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the Alex Theatre in April, displaying an originality that made just about everybody else in American ballet seem shackled to hand-me-down formulas and styles.

9. MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV (still a technical wonder at 48) and dancer-choreographer DANA REITZ, who performed stark, postmodern 20-minute solos-in-silence on a White Oak Dance Project program in April at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. Dance that needs no music may be common in tiny studio venues, but who besides Baryshnikov can fill ritzy community culture-palaces with unaccompanied, intuitive, experimental abstraction?

10. Alan Johnson's superb touring revival of "WEST SIDE STORY," which reached Pasadena Civic Auditorium in January, with Jerome Robbins' choreography looking fresher, hotter and more dangerous than it ever did in the overrated movie or "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." As thrilling an experience as any that 1996 would offer.

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