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Los Angeles Ballet takes a grown-up step

Taking on 'Giselle' is a turning point for the 5-year-old company's maturity, according to artistic directors Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen.

May 13, 2011|By Kevin Berger, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Artistic Director Thordal Christensen, middle, works with dancers Allyssa Bross, as Giselle, and Christopher Revels, as Albrecht.
Artistic Director Thordal Christensen, middle, works with dancers Allyssa… (Christina House / For the…)

In March, when the Los Angeles Ballet last took the stage, it was in the gothic throes of adolescence. Dancing to a work called "My Greatest Fear" by pop-punk choreographer Sonya Tayeh, a sepulchral tableau of pained contortions and lugubrious pliés, the young company, bristling in black, made its most powerful statement to date that it was forging its own bold personality.

On the verge of maturity, and culminating its fifth anniversary, the company is now taking on "Giselle," the great Romantic ballet about doomed love in the Middle Ages. Performances begin Saturday in Redondo Beach and continue throughout the month in Glendale and Santa Monica.

"It's a milestone for us to present a production like this," said a proud Colleen Neary, L.A. Ballet's co-artistic director, with her husband Thordal Christensen, on a recent morning in the company's Westside office. "When you finally realize your company is ready to do a full-length ballet such as 'Giselle,' which is so dramatic and so tragic and classically beautiful, you realize how far you have come."

In the 1970s, George Balanchine wrote that "Giselle," first produced in 1841 in Paris, was, yes, a classic. But like "Hamlet," continued the patriarch of modern ballet, "the work is such a good one that we always discover something in it we hadn't seen before."

Drawing out something new in "Giselle," Christensen said, signaled the company's next leap forward. "The most important thing is you can't perform it like a museum piece, you have to tell it like it's today," he said. "If you tell the story well, you're not thinking this is old, you're thinking this is a fantastic story."

And it is fantastic. The delightful Giselle, a Rhineland farm girl with a sickly heart who lives to dance, falls in love with Albrecht, a duke slumming as a peasant to win her affection. When Giselle learns from her spurned swain, Hilarion, that Albrecht is strictly upper class and engaged to boot, she spirals into mad, enrapturing, disembodied dance and dies.

It is also fantastique. Today's supernatural pop hits such as "The Twilight Saga" and "True Blood" are bagatelles compared to "Giselle," in which the Wilis, spirits of female virgins who died before their weddings, glide across the stage like sirens, enchant the stray man who wanders into their lair, then dance him to his death. When a repentant Albrecht falls under their sinister spell, a spectral, compassionate Giselle rescues him.

"Giselle" showcases ballet's most timeless moves — the technically challenging and emotionally indelible — and has been performed by the art form's legends: Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

But the key to L.A. Ballet's production, Neary said, is its expression of youth and vulnerability. She encouraged the company's Allyssa Bross and Chelsea Paige Johnston, who will each dance Giselle on separate nights, and Christopher Revels and Zheng Hua Li, who will share the role of Albrecht, to look only to themselves.

"We didn't want them to have any preconceived ideas of the role," Neary said. "We didn't tell them, 'Go watch Makarova or the experienced ballerinas do it.' We started very fresh and very open with them, so they could develop the character in their own way. We just let them evolve themselves in it. And it's taken an incredible turn because they've brought the role into their own being."

Still, Neary said, she and Christensen worked long days to instill in the dancers, raised on short, modernist works, to find the rhythm and cohesive flow of "Giselle." "It's always a challenge to get the dancers to do something that is more classical from the way they're trained these days," Neary said. "It's a challenge to bring them back to the basics, where dance started, and to classic form."

Ultimately, Christensen interjected, the goal was to make the dancers, and the audience, forget the footwork and sink into the story. "We all want to fall in love, right?" he said. "We all want to find that one person that creates that special feeling inside. That's what Giselle has. That's what Albrecht has. Which is why the story is so tragic when he loses her."

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