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Joffrey catches a few rocky waves

The Beach Boys, Prince and Motown are interpreted with classical steps and contemporary moves.

March 26, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

The rock ballet is where high art and pop culture meet and mingle. But every choreographer negotiates the distance between the studio and the street differently, as the Joffrey Ballet's three-part rockathon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday showed.

In Twyla Tharp's newly revived (and revised) "Deuce Coupe," from 1973, the sight of Heather Aagard happily, methodically executing the ballet lexicon complemented and conditioned most of the 19 sequences -- all accompanied by Beach Boys songs and arrangements of their music. Ballet was thus acknowledged as Tharp's point of origin, her perspective on all the moves and images packed into a simultaneously nostalgic and brainy evocation of vintage California beach and car culture.

Mere fragments of some Beach Boys recordings, electronically manipulated sections of others and repeated premonitions of "Cuddle Up" kept the accompaniment and the dancing from being predictable, for Tharp used all her resources with enormous freedom. The cast sometimes adopted Aagard's classical vocabulary and sometimes ignored it for loose-limbed forays into slouching, sliding, shaking, speedups, slowdowns and other prime Tharpian eccentricities.

In "Wouldn't It Be Nice," for example, the ensemble went completely classical except for Allison Walsh, who madly gyrated in her own movement world. And when at last the full, vocal "Cuddle Up" arrived, Tharp and the Joffrey delivered a glorious fusion of classical and contemporary lyricism.

Fusion took place before the curtain went up in the section from "Billboards" (1993) by Tharp's postmodern contemporary Laura Dean. Working strictly with an ensemble (no soloists), Dean introduced a movement style capable of forming an elegant and serene gloss on Prince's mournful ballad "Sometimes It Snows in April" yet of heating up for a witty, brilliantly organized showpiece to his "Baby, I'm a Star."

Although bravura steps dominated this last section, the classical pedigree of the dancing was kept muted. No highfalutin manners dating back to Catherine de Medici, just a breezy, American take on academic ballet, a style as artfully designed and nonchalant as the sparkly transformed streetwear worn by everyone. Dean understands how to fill the stage and delight the eye with one step refracted everywhere, and her Prince suite merged rock and ballet with triumphant simplicity.

At the opposite extreme, Donald Byrd went for a pileup of effects in his 2006 "Motown Suite." Most of the time, he emphasized aggressive classical virtuosity, but he also pretended that the movements had something to do with emotional relationships and American street style. And he didn't have the sophistication to make it work.

Adagio cliches from 19th century Petipa classics, for instance, dominated a duet for Megan Quiroz and Brian McSween, with McSween assigned torso undulations between partnering tasks -- presumably to make the choreography look more contemporary. But as soon as Quiroz needed him to be a supportive cavalier again, he suddenly abandoned any illusion of funk for spine-straight, pulled-up barre manners.

If the patchy duets increasingly ricocheted between feverish playacting and gymnastic stunts, the earthy character specialties such as the "Love Machine" section, led by Derrick Agnoletti, made the best case for Byrd's use of Motown hits. What's more, the Joffrey dancers know better than any other ballet company how to sell anything with a strong beat and flashy steps -- it's in their bloodline. So even Byrd's tiresome central story gained freshness from the dancing of Julianne Kepley and her various partners.

The feisty Jennifer Goodman, the suave Thomas Nicholas and the spirited Calvin Kitten also had their innings, as did McSween, Kepley, Kitten, April Daly and a whole lot of others in "Deuce Coupe." After 50 years, the Joffrey still dances like the youngest of American ballet companies -- superbly fit, fresh, ready for whatever music, steps or style a choreographer chooses, even when the choices turn out to be unworthy of its exemplary talent, discipline and dedication.

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