With its red carpet, videographers and autograph seekers, the event Saturday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre looked like a movie premiere. But call it a ballet ruse: an attempt to lure an audience to a mixed bill by Los Angeles' own Media City Ballet (now beginning its sixth season) by making that program a onetime-only tribute to five male stars of a bygone classical era.
Ranging in age from 78 to 93, these distinguished "Men of the Ballets Russes" (the title of the program) once danced in conditions unimaginable today -- sleeping in trains as they moved from city to city for single-night shows, performing in gymnasiums and other so-called alternative spaces, recycling a repertoire now virtually forgotten. In the process, they set artistic standards, developed a taste for ballet and trained the next generation of dancers. And the one after that as well.
Hosted by radio personality P.J. Ochlan, the three-hour Ebell event (not counting the half-hour late start or the reception afterward) provided only a brief look at the honorees: George Zoritch, Marc Platt, Victor Moreno, Paul Maure and Andrei Tremaine. But they proved omnipresent in videotaped oral-history segments of varying quality, in introductions by former dancers Zina Bethune, Glen Edgerton and Charles Maple, plus a filmed interview with Ballets Russes icon Frederic Franklin.
For better or worse, most of the choreographies and live dancing on the program dramatized the enormous gulf between the kind of ballet popularized by the honorees and what dominates the international repertory today. All these men specialized in works by Leonide Massine (now a rarity on world stages), and most of them excelled as the Golden Slave in Michel Fokine's antique, feverish sex-and-death spectacle "Scheherazade."
Performing a "Scheherazade" adagio, Kyudong Kwak and Yoomi Lee delivered just the steps, as if erotic fervor doesn't belong on the ballet stage anymore. A duet from "The Red Poppy" (choreography by Tremaine after J. Erglis Smaltzoff and Lev Lashchilin) also looked emotionally tepid, but Lukash Abrahamyan and April Mcleod managed a series of difficult lifts so smoothly that they triumphed on technique alone.
Uneven technique compromised the Soviet-style "Don Quixote" pas de deux (Kwak and Lee again), while shoddy production values kept the intensity of Jonathan Sharp and the subtlety of Kristine Gregorian from reaching maximum effectiveness in Vaslav Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun." Tyler Nelson, Yoko Ambe, Felicia Guzman, Tatiana A'Vermond, Albertossy Espinoza, Andee Tims, Moses Navarro and Sergey Kheylik were also cast in prominent assignments -- many of them in the evening's "Prince Igor" finale.