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Shining a Dazzling Light on '20s Gems

Dance Review

Royal Swedish Ballet expertly revives the pioneering works of early 20th century iconoclast Jean Borlin.

June 22, 1999|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

Historical curiosities don't often become cultural milestones--but a triumphant exception graced the stage of the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

A year ago, the Royal Swedish Ballet premiered a program reconstructing four lost works of the Ballets Suedois, a Paris-based company that existed only from 1920 to 1925 and is now remembered solely for its innovative designs and scores. But if Stockholm audiences came to that program curious about the fabled sets of Fernand Leger and Gerald Murphy or the commissioned scores of Arthur Honegger and Cole Porter, they quickly discovered that a long-dead Swedish choreographer named Jean Borlin had matched the bold originality of his very celebrated collaborators time after time.

Moreover, as the Royal Swedes' weekend performances in Costa Mesa brilliantly confirmed, Borlin represented a missing link between experimental '20s ballet and the iconoclastic European modern dance taking shape in that period. As you'd expect from a student and protege of Mikhail Fokine, the Borlin choreographies each developed a unique movement language, drawing inspiration from popular entertainment ("Within the Quota"), religious ritual ("Dervishes"), urban roller-skating ("Skating Rink") and the intense style of a great painter ("El Greco").

All four, however, focused on the predicament of outsiders in search of connection. In Ivo Cramer's evocation of Borlin's "El Greco" (1920), a crisis of faith contrasted the processional weight of monks and noblemen with the anguished contortions of a nearly naked youth (Per Sacklen on Saturday, Hugo Therkelson on Sunday). Music by Desire-Emile Inghelbrecht and a set by Georges Mouveau derived from El Greco paintings supplemented the choreography and performances in trying to put the audience inside the psychology of the artist.

Another Mouveau set and preexisting music by Glazunov gave a dark splendor to "Dervishes" (1920), reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer as a rite of induction involving five dervishes and five soldiers. Turkish and North African movement merged with classical ballet turns here in engulfing circles within circles. Both performances featured the charismatic and superbly supple Goran Svalberg as the lead dervish.

The Hodson/Archer "Within the Quota" (1923) showed a Swedish immigrant (the bouncy Jens Rosen) lost in Jazz Age America, with Murphy's giant newspaper backdrop parodying American wealth and power through such headlines as "Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic." Porter's score added its own contemporary wit but Borlin trumped them both by portraying American culture as enslaved to the movie camera: In this society, the immigrant has no place until he becomes camera-worthy, a living photo op.

Borlin based the other "Quota" characters on such movie stars as Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix and Clara Bow, with the immigrant quite deliberately Chaplinesque. He also turned to Chaplin as a source for "Skating Rink" (1922) and used such cinematic techniques as slow-motion to heighten the eerie dread in the Honegger score. As in "Dervishes," he used circles within circles as a prominent motif, but here it depicted the endless, purposeless circling of the skaters against which he placed a violent love triangle involving an enigmatic dandy who might be a poet or madman.

Despite Leger's striking Cubist backdrop and his imaginatively distorted costumes (the men widened in the upper body, the women in the lower), design never overwhelmed drama. Hodson and Archer kept the love story the essential binding force of the ballet and came up with a modernist masterwork. Few ballets have ever juxtaposed mass energy and individual feeling this inventively, and few companies command the depth of talent to bring off the stylistic sweep and characterizational detail that the Royal Swedes displayed.

If Jan-Erik Wikstrom danced the top-hatted central figure with a slinky elegance all his own on Sunday, such principals as Marie Lindqvist, Anders Nordstrom, Brendan Collins, Anna Valev and Jens Rosen helped give each performance the overwhelming force that '20s critics cited when they compared "Skating Rink" to Nijinksy's "Rite of Spring" from a decade earlier. Yes, Borlin deserves to be ranked in that exalted league. The evidence is here.

Marcus Lehtinen expertly conducted the Pacific Symphony, making everything from neo-Oriental Glazunov to bluesy Cole Porter to the metallic scrapings of Honegger sound rich and idiomatic.

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