Contemporary ballet

The Archeology of Dance: American Contemporary Ballet dates back to 1890 with revealing findings

High above downtown Los Angeles, in a cavernous room with almost as many mirrors as windows, the dancers of the American Contemporary Ballet and seven valiant musicians used short pieces to explore one of the most depths of human culture: the influence of the past on the gift.

Almost all companies that dance 19th century ballets use edited, revised, and hand-delivered editions – what literary scholars would call corrupted texts. In contrast, ACB’s “Tchaikovsky in Ballet” began with authentic choreography by Marius Petipa: six prologue solos from “Sleeping Beauty” (1890) reconstructed from antique dance notation by Doug Fullington. The freshness, intelligence and stylistic unity of this suite immediately ensured the credibility of the program and the dexterity of the dancers, Anabel Alpert perhaps occupying the place of honor in the acrobatic variation “Canary”. (“Tchaikovsky,” which opened Thursday, will run through Sunday.)

The heart of the opening night came from two sets of “Nutcracker” performances – one reconstructed by Fullington from Lev Ivanov’s original 1892 choreography, the other reconstructed by Zippora Karz from the brilliant remake of George Balanchine from 1954. It’s true: two Sugar Plum Fairies, two Cavaliers, two approaches to the same music. Balanchine was not always the winner: at close range, his adagio sometimes seemed overloaded compared to the purity and fluidity of the Ivanov. But his debt to Ivanov remained consistently evident in the dance that made the historic shift from classical to neoclassical an exciting juxtaposition of styles.

Shelby Whallon and David Morse emphasized elegance and musicality in the Ivanov, and Cara Hansvick and Mate Szentes opted for bold attacks and scintillating technique in the Balanchine. And because the genius really is in the details, it was enlightening to hear the dancers talk about intricacies like bent knees and curled arms in a Q&A afterwards.

The performances of “The Nutcracker” also included Fullington’s startling discovery in the notation’s archives: a charming dance for eight women performed to the music that normally accompanies the ballet’s one and only male solo, Act 2 Tarantella. It would have been intended as a sequel to the sugar plum fairy, but hadn’t been danced anywhere for over a century until Thursday. A real find – and a mystery.

American Contemporary Ballet also presented traditional ballet pantomime with an intense performance by Morse and Emily Smith of Siegfried and Odette’s first lakeside encounter in “Swan Lake” (1895). Finally, Hansvick, Szentes and Whallon returned to demonstrate their versatility by showing us how Balanchine transformed and abstracted the treatment of women in romantic ballet into statements of almost unearthly serenity.

Indeed, Karz’s staging of excerpts from “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” (1970) and “Mozartiana” (1981) revealed that the company’s artistic director, Lincoln Jones, does more than educate Southern California ballet audiences, to pay homage to Tchaikovsky and to restore much-abused old masterpieces. He wants to send us all home dreaming of meeting our secret imaginary partners for life by the lake or deep in the woods.

It may seem unlikely, but romance is clearly in bloom on Flower Street.

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