Joaquin De Luz and Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet in a 2011 performance.… (Paul Kolnik )
Offering dance styles as varied as pure classical and contemporary and jazz, the Laguna Dance Festival is presenting an array of dancers from around the country this weekend. "This is the most expansive program we have ever had," said Jodie Gates, founder and artistic director of the festival, which is in its seventh season this year.
Over four performances beginning Thursday, dancers from the New York City Ballet, the Colorado Ballet, San Francisco's Smuin Ballet and innovative companies including Philadelphia's BalletX and the River North Dance Chicago will perform in the intimate Laguna Playhouse. "I like to call this a couture festival," said Gates. "It's a chance to see the best there is in one venue and there is always something for everyone."
Gates, who is also an associate professor of dance at UC Irvine, boasts a 30-year career as a dancer and choreographer with turns as principal ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet. The Sacramento-born dancer has also choreographed works for companies around the world, including staging ballets by American choreographer William Forsythe.
"When I retired from performing, I moved back to California to be close to family. I really felt there was a lack of dance in the area. Ballet Pacifica had just folded, so it seemed the perfect time to begin a festival like this," she said.
"Laguna is a destination town like many of the great festivals I had been to around the world, so it's the ideal location," she added.
As well as curating, Gates will also be showcasing her own work "Delicate Balance," which she choreographed for BalletX. It will premiere at the festival before being staged later this year in Philadelphia and at New York's Gotham Dance Festival. "I have always been a fan of BalletX. Much of their repertory is original work, which keeps them fresh and innovative," Gates said.
"Delicate Balance," which has no traditional narrative, is an emotional and invigorating piece that will keep the company's 10 dancers on their toes, Gates said. "I really have them working for their money," she added and laughed.
The festival opens Thursday with the jazz-styled dance of the River North Dance Chicago under the artistic direction of Cuban-born dancer Frank Chaves, who has been with the company for 20 years. The company's dynamic repertoire and bold choreography has earned it international recognition.
"We've created what we call a different breed of jazz dance," Chaves said. "Jazz [dance] has historically gotten a bad rap in terms of not being a serious artistic product. But I think we have really classed it up while still making it accessible and entertaining."
Their program includes up to 10 different pieces, choreographed to music including original songs, standards like Etta James' "At Last" and "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics, to which their signature piece is set. Chaves also pays homage to his home country with a finale titled, "Habaneras — the Music of Cuba." "It's a contemporary celebratory piece with a distinct Latin flavor," he said.
Saturday night and Sunday afternoon's "Stars of Dance" program presents principal dancers from dance companies from around the country showcasing their best pieces. California-born Tiler Peck, New York City Ballet's youngest principal dancer, will be dancing with fellow principal dancer Joaquin De Luz. "The New York City Ballet keeps you pretty busy so it's a rare treat to be able to come to this festival and dance," said Peck, a bubbly 23-year-old.
Peck and De Luz have selected a program from the company's iconic Balanchine repertoire — his eight-minute technical tour de force, "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," and "Rubies" from his unique three-act ballet, "Jewels." " 'Rubies' is an amazing piece," Peck said. "It's not your typical ballerina in a tutu. It's very sultry and abstract.... It's definitely a flashy piece."
In addition to performances, many of the dancers will stage master classes and discussion groups. "The dancers and audiences love it," said Gates. "This festival is all about making dance accessible as well as a chance to educate."
Laguna Dance Festival
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: Thu.-Sun., 7.30 p.m.; Also Sun. at 2 p.m.
Cost: $50, students $35.
Info: (949) 715-5578; http://www.lagunadancefestival.org.