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Sorting out the roles of ballet

Alonzo King uses the form as a vehicle for insight at BalletFest.

August 04, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

For the past two years, the two nights of BalletFest programs at Cal State L.A. have measured the excellence of Southland companies against that of Alonzo King's Bay Area-based LINES Contemporary Ballet. More significant, a conflict between classical ballet as an art form versus classical ballet as popular entertainment has danced before the eyes of Luckman Theater audiences.

Obviously, ballet can be both -- but not automatically -- and the art proved in short supply Friday in pieces capably danced by Santa Barbara's State Street Ballet and Orange County's Ballet Pacifica. Nearly all of this four-part program tried to negotiate a temporary alliance between ballet technique and pop culture in order to squeeze one more ovation from hopelessly stale choreographic formulas.

Despite radical contrasts in mood, William Soleau's "Airwaves" and "Nuevo Tango" were the same piece, relying endlessly on off-the-rack lifts and supported turns to showcase State Street prowess. In "Airwaves," to rock ballads, Soleau threw in jogging moves and heavy-footed stomping, just as in "Nuevo Tango," to music by Astor Piazzolla, he added ballroom stances and the use of bar stools. But the opportunities for originality quickly yielded to the same old partnering ploys.

At least Stephen Mills' "The Naughty Ones" displayed a sense of humor about its own triviality, deploying Pacifica's finest in loose, playful duets tinged with the same mock-raunch as its recorded Texas song-stylings.

You could argue that swing-dancing might have been hotter here than ballet -- like the rock-dancing absent from "Airwaves" and the Argentine tango missing from "Nuevo Tango." But you'd be ignoring the point: All of these pieces strained to freshen or sustain classical conventions by wedding them to distinctive contemporary music. Their interest in or investigation of that music could never have been called deep or searching, merely exploitive.

On Friday, only Rick McCullough explored music with genuine pertinence and invention in his intriguing Pacifica sextet, "In the Ruins." Depicting a series of joyless relationships to an intense score by Arvo Part, McCullough may have introduced too many movement ideas and developed too few, but his mastery of positional and gestural expression moved the evening into a new creative dimension.

That dimension has been Alonzo King's turf for so long that it's easy to take for granted his assumption that contemporary ballet can absorb (and grow from) all sorts of influences without dumbing itself down. But Saturday, his first pas de deux in "Road" left Soleau and Mills in the dust with its high-risk experimental partnering and, in particular, the impossibly pliant and majestic supported balances of Drew Jacoby.

Using a range of music from J.S. Bach to Pharoah Sanders, this plotless, 10-part suite coupled King's characteristic technical rigor to a disarmingly loose gestural idiom. Here wavy, drifty arms ornamented torsos that could securely twist or bend into any position because the dancers' indomitably classical legs of steel would never let anyone come close to falling.

The tension between extremes generated a sense of drama throughout the piece -- Maurya Kerr's elegant placement suddenly shattering into spectacular angularities, for example, or all the radical changes in style and attack that Xavier Ferla managed to unify in his high-velocity solo.

Music by Sanders and five others accompanied the more emotional and mysterious "Ocean," in which King used isolated, simultaneous virtuosity to suggest a kind of social panorama: a world of LINES dancers watching one another but moving independently out of personal need.

In one sequence, Kerr cradled and embraced Brett Conway but tried to remain aloof from his desperate passion. In another, the full 12-member company backed away from a glaring shaft of light into a collapse and then a quiet walk into the darkness -- an action repeated until it became a life cycle.

This complex, mature vision of ballet as a vehicle for insight as well as excitement featured superb dancing along with artful stagecraft and lighting.

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