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Joffrey takes an unfortunate sidestep

March 24, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

The Joffrey Ballet originally planned to celebrate its 50th anniversary Thursday in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a three-part program of 20th century classics that the company had rescued from oblivion -- all choreographed within 13 months in the early 1930s, all dealing with the ominous European Zeitgeist of the period, all relevant to our own current national consciousness.

George Balanchine's "Cotillon" would have shown the desperate gaiety of a privileged class trying to ignore signs of impending danger; Leonide Massine's "Les Presages" the rise of fascist energies and the resistance to their threat; Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table" corrupt diplomacy and destructive war.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite happen. By dropping "Cotillon" and substituting the Balanchine/Stravinsky "Apollo," the company blunted the program's focus and effectiveness, for not only is this 1928 neoclassic hallmark not a Joffrey specialty, it belongs to a different creative era: the last gasp of optimistic '20s formalism.

Worse, Mark Goldweber's staging ignored the work's nobility of style in favor of an aggressive, ruinously cute vivacity. You could argue that the usually exemplary Calvin Kitten was miscast in the title role -- initially overeager, sometimes taxed by the partnering and curiously ineffectual in his solo. Muses who flirted with Apollo as if the ballet were an episode from some reality show titled "Bachelor: Parnassus" didn't help.

The dancers playing those muses looked far better in the major roles they assumed elsewhere on the program: Emily Patterson (Terpsichore) in the love duet from "Les Presages," Julianne Kepley (Polyhymnia) and Maia Wilkins (Calliope) as, respectively, the partisan and the mother in "The Green Table."

Happily, these Massine and Jooss creations upheld Robert Joffrey's vision of challenging his dancers with repertory outside their comfort zone: revivals or reconstructions of groundbreaking works in unfamiliar styles. As staged by Anna Markard, the combination of character dancing and neo-Expressionism in "The Green Table" had dramatic force as well as choreographic detail, with pianists Paul Lewis and Mungunchimeg Buriad coaxing wit, irony and fearsome power from F.A. Cohen's score.

Fabrice Calmels brought chilling menace to the role of Death but also subtlety in the different ways he claimed his victims. Among them, Suzanne Lopez proved especially poignant as the abandoned, prostituted young girl. John Gluckman danced the bowler-hatted profiteer capably, but something in the man's spirit or personal style eluded him; he made a better villain in "Les Presages," though there the character (named Fate) expired for reasons none too clear or credible.

Set to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and ornamented by designer Andre Masson with energetic slashes of color and emblems of all sorts on the costumes and backdrop, Massine's ballet suffers from a formulaic finale with a patched-on happy ending. But the early movements are still astounding for the sophistication of the corps patterning and the way that corps becomes the context for nearly all the individual actions in the ballet -- a society on the move.

Anyone who's seen the feature documentary "Ballets Russes" has seen a generation of dancers trained to execute Massine's complex gestural vocabulary as easily as his classical steps -- it all came from the same impetus. However, gestures are often a lost art in contemporary American ballet, and Thursday they often looked grafted onto the steps, an afterthought, in Cameron Basden's staging. But the steps themselves had eloquence and precision as performed by Valerie Robin (Action), Allison Walsh (Frivolity), Thomas Nicholas (the Hero) and others.

Leslie B. Dunner led the Joffrey Orchestra in fine performances of the imposing music for "Apollo" and "Les Presages."

Although the Joffrey will dance at the Pavilion twice more today, the program is different: ballets set to rock recordings. That's another facet of Joffrey's artistic vision, but one not so dominant in his lifetime as it is now -- at least on tour.


Joffrey Ballet

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.

When: 2 and 7:30 today (pop program)

Price: $25 to $115

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or

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