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Not just men in tights; they're stars

Five veteran Ballets Russes dancers are honored by the Media City Ballet.

June 09, 2007|Susan Josephs | Special to The Times

Marc Platt was a redheaded "rowdy" guy who wanted to work with pretty girls. Paul Maure was a skin-and-bones opera singer who discovered he'd rather take ballet class three times a day. Andrei Tremaine's mother brought him to his first class against his will, while Victor Moreno took his doctor's advice to "get more exercise."

As for George Zoritch, teenage heartthrob extraordinaire, discovering ballet proved both humbling and intoxicating. "I was never going to be a Nureyev, but I was the essence of whatever role I played. And in the end, that's what counted," he says.

Platt, Maure, Tremaine, Moreno and Zoritch share the same claim to fame: All performed with the storied dance companies collectively known as the Ballets Russes, which from the 1930s until the early '60s continued the traditions of the original company, founded by Serge Diaghilev in 1909.

Veterans of Ballets Russes

These men danced with some of the most celebrated ballerinas of the 20th century and went on to successful careers as performers, choreographers and teachers. Now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, they will gather tonight at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre to watch dancing, drink Champagne and remember the era captured so adroitly in the 2005 documentary "Ballets Russes."

"We have respect, both for each other and the older gentlemen," says Tremaine, speaking for the "kids" -- himself, the 78-year-old Moreno and the 81-year-old Maure -- about Zoritch, 90, and Platt, 93. "I think it's great that those of us who still remember can get together."

Presented by the Burbank-based Media City Ballet, "The Men of the Ballet Russe" will include selections from ballets the five honorees appeared in in their heydays interspersed with archival and recent film clips that will include a photo montage narrated by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo star Frederic Franklin, alive and well at 93. Such local dance dignitaries as Glenn Edgerton, formerly of the Joffrey Ballet, and Charles Maple, who danced with American Ballet Theatre, will give speeches, and the program is to culminate with a black-tie reception that will double as a 90th birthday party for Zoritch.

"I wanted to bring these men back in the limelight. They still have stories to tell, and I want to show the younger generations that this is where ballet comes from," says Natasha Middleton, artistic director of Media City Ballet.

The daughter of Tremaine and granddaughter of Ballet Russe soloist Elena Wortova, Middleton grew up "a Ballet Russe baby," fascinated by the old costumes in her family's garage and the stories of what it was like to work for the pioneering choreographer Leonide Massine. "I had so many unanswered questions ... the glamour of that life, the long tours they did ... it always sent chills down my spine," she says.

Since she established her own company in 2001, Middleton has tried to impart the Ballet Russe aesthetic -- which valued theatricality and star quality over technique -- to her dancers. "The hardest thing for me to teach is the acting," she says. "Dancers today are so technical.... If they could only hear my father talk about the soul of Massine."

Sitting with impeccable posture on a stool in Middleton's dance studio, Tremaine remembers the first time he saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform in Los Angeles. "The moment the curtain ascended, there was a spark that I had never felt from watching other ballet companies," he says.

Tremaine, who received a Lester Horton Lifetime Achievement Award in May from the local Dance Resource Center, danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for three seasons. His biggest break with the company occurred when he understudied Franklin's role in Michel Fokine's "Scheherazade" and "Freddy got hurt. I got to perform his part five times," he says, his voice still full of pride.

Tremaine attributes "the spark" he initially felt for the Ballet Russe to the fact that "everyone in the company was an actor, not just a dancer. You were always something, even if you were just [playing] a toad. You couldn't just move across the floor."

Zoritch couldn't agree more. "Technique doesn't sell," he says. "It's what you offer from the heart, and what made the Ballet Russe so successful was that it was composed of half-starved, ballet-craving dancers who gave everything from their inner souls."

What they're doing now

Speaking by phone from his home in Tucson, Zoritch reminisces with the charm and sharp tongue of a born raconteur. He published a memoir in 2000, "which was like removing a big boulder off my shoulders. I'm much more mild and tolerant than before. I used to be quite unbearable," he says, laughing.

Startlingly handsome in his youth, Zoritch became famous for his role in Vaslav Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun," which Middleton has restaged for tonight's program. "Not everyone is meant to be a faun. You have to make your movements compact yet sensuous. If this is not within you, you'll end up looking fake," he says.

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