Onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a passel of international ballet stars gathered Thursday for an exchange of views on how classical style and, particularly, technique can most excite a contemporary audience.
Here was Angel Corella virtually screwing himself into the floor with multiple turns of incredible speed and heat. Here, too, was Jose Manuel Carreno flying through turns with spectacular buoyancy and floating down to a nonchalant stretched-out landing.
Gillian Murphy hopped on her pointes with toes of steel, Joaquin De Luz flicked out his legs as if they were deadly rapiers. And Julio Bocca kept reminding everyone of how much warmth, charm and a sense of humor can add to virtuoso step combinations.
But it remained for Nina Ananiashvili to reaffirm classical dance as an idealized statement of human grace, balance and nobility--the sense that something more essential than state-of-the-art athleticism was at stake.
Her contribution proved especially cherishable, for the evening ostensibly represented an American Ballet Theatre performance of Marius Petipa's antique three-act story ballet "Le Corsaire." This 19th century harem fantasy arrived at the Music Center with an incoherent narrative, a patchwork score (five composers) and extremely problematic views of women, slavery and Muslims.
A far superior production by the Kirov Ballet (available on home video) makes a persuasive case for "Le Corsaire" as a high-Romantic dream of freedom in a corrupt world. However, the familiar 1998 Anna-Maria Holmes version for ABT simply pumps in as much showpiece dancing as possible, tries to laugh off the rest and turns over the irredeemably silly result to Corella, Carreno, Murphy, De Luz, Bocca and Ananiashvili (the first cast in a five-performance engagement) for salvage.
As mentioned, these stars made the evening into a memorable demonstration of the facets of expertise, and as long as artistic director Kevin McKenzie can afford to import them, nobody will care about anything else. Certainly they won't mind the wrinkled, hand-me-down sets, the musical cliches that conductor David LaMarche can't possibly redeem, and maybe they won't even notice what a lackluster company ABT has become recently.
Does it matter when the supposedly menacing pirates strike their swords together as if they were swizzle sticks, or when a corps of dancing flowers nearly gets tangled in its garland-hoops? Not when De Luz or Bocca fronts the pirates and Murphy or Ananiashvili leads the floral display.
Who needs a world-class production of "Le Corsaire" or (to mention other ABT mediocrities) "Don Quixote," "The Nutcracker," "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty" when the paragons of the art will make artistic direction, choreography and subsidiary performances largely irrelevant?
For instance, company coaching currently imposes an exaggerated clipped attack on the "Corsaire" Odalisques (the major non-stellar soloists in the work), as if stylistic authority for Maria Riccetto, Stella Abrera and Michele Wiles simply consisted of the sharpest possible pointe-work and heads thrown back with maximum force.
That's why it's so easy to love Carreno, Ananiashvili and Bocca. They've all won their share of gold medals, but they refuse to be reduced to mere technique machines in a production that asks nothing else of them.
Above all, they're so comfortable and centered in their bodies, so resolutely undriven and unclipped in the most challenging bravura passages that their performances add up to infinitely more than the sum of their steps. And that "more" is where athleticism becomes art.
American Ballet Theatre repeats "Le Corsaire," with different principal dancers, today at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. $20 to $90. (213) 365-3500.