Zheng Hua Li as the Poet and Chelsea Paige Johnston as the Sleepwalker in… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles Ballet returns to its roots for this, its seventh season, by devoting its two spring repertory programs to masterworks -- and slightly lesser ballets -- of George Balanchine.
At UCLA on Saturday, the first program featured two company premieres and two revivals, making for a mini-tour through the diverse hues of the choreographer’s rainbow oeuvre.
“La Sonnambula” represents his Romantic side -- that’s a capital R -- the moody Russian of the Old World. He would shortly give up overt storytelling, but in this one-act, created for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1946 to operatic excerpts, Balanchine indulged in 19th century artistic archetypes. The foolishly dreamy Poet, flirtatious Coquette, murderous Host (here called the Baron) and a ghostly Sleepwalker are the primary players for a Poe-like drama set at a masked ball.
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The story opens with roiling dramatics already churning. A well-cast slate portrayed the leading, troubled trio. Allynne Noelle illuminated the Coquette’s glamorous allure with enticing eyes and sensual body suggestiveness, while making plain a scheming spirit. The outstanding Zheng Hua Li embraced the Poet’s naïve and impetuous heedlessness. His attempts to awaken the Sleepwalker included a memorable and effortlessly executed backbend to the floor with his arms encircling her like a lasso. Chelsea Paige Johnston, blond, milky-complexioned and long-necked, is the picture of the mysterious specter. She scurried fleetly on her toes, as quickly backward as forward, with just a surfeit of bounciness.
Reviewing the premiere of “La Sonnambula,” New York Times critic John Martin dismissed it as “pseudo-surrealism.” Such harshness ignores how astutely Balanchine sketched his characters. Thoughtfully staged by Richard Tanner, with sets and costumes borrowed from the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Louisville Ballet, “La Sonnambula” is a keen fit for LAB.
So too is “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” a virtuoso showpiece from 1960, to discarded music from “Swan Lake” (all music was recorded). Noelle and partner Kenta Shimizu have just the needed strength, playfulness and pizazz. She alternated gracefully between steeliness and sprightliness; he was a masterful high-flier. Together, they sparkled with nonchalant attack.
The revivals, neo-classical masterpieces “Concerto Barocco” (1940, a Bach score) and “The Four Temperaments” (1946, a Hindemith commission), were danced with an amplitude that fully displays the works’ remarkable architecture. Glitches in timing and footwork were minor annoyances, but not for the audience.
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Rather, it’s the dancers who wear their determination like a yoke in these difficult pieces. Brusque gestures become militaristic. Angularity is pushed to distortion. They perform with a sincerity that is dredged in anxiety, a combination that keeps the viewer on edge too.
There were outstanding portrayals, nonetheless, such as Kate Highstrete, as a definitive Choleric soloist and Shimizu in the Melancholic variation. Kudos to both Julia Cinquemani (she smiled after a tumble) and Christopher Revels for pushing themselves throughout the night.
Los Angeles Ballet Balanchine Festival Gold program, repeats 7:30 p.m. March 30, Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge; 2 p.m., March 31, Alex Theatre, 216 Brand Blvd., Glendale; 7:30 p.m. April 6, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. $24-$95. (310) 998-7782 or www.losangelesballet.org.