Los Angeles Ballet Needs More Than a Bland Swan Lake
Photocomposition by Reed Hutchinson & Catherine Kanner Allynne Noelle as that trickster, the black swan
First, a recap. Or as they say on television (in voiceover), previously, on Los Angeles Ballet...
The drama of six months ago, recorded in an L.A. Weekly story, centered on dancer complaints and signs of trouble at Los Angeles Ballet, the ambitious fledgling company started in 2006 by husband-and-wife artistic directors Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen. The company has been a revolving door of dancers, with an unusually high turnover rate. Neary denied there was anything amiss, saying that because Los Angeles Ballet is a startup company, fluctuations were "natural," and not evidence of a problem.
Flash-forward to this past weekend. Los Angeles Ballet kicked off its sixth repertory season at Royce Hall with a big gamble -- a traditional four-act production of Peter Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
This production is not the avian nest of sexual repression a la Black Swan.
Neary and Christensen opted for a straightforward, basic reading of the iconic, 1895 ballet. This work is an enormous risk for a young troupe with limited experience as an ensemble. The co-directors trimmed crucial mime sequences (leaving the story opaque). Step sequences were simplified. Acting was muted. The ending was a head scratcher, with the evil sorcerer defeated but the swans still enchanted, Odette alive and the Prince alone center stage. With 32 dancers, L.A. Ballet doesn't have enough bodies for a full cast of peasants, noblemen, character dancers and swans (they fielded a respectable 16). Everyone was doing double and triple duty.
That meant changing costumes during each of the three intervals. So we waited. And waited. Intermissions lasted 30 minutes or more. The ballet ran an overly long three and a half hours.
Patience was at least partially rewarded, thanks primarily to Allynne Noelle, who made her debut Saturday night as the enchanted Swan Queen Odette and her evil look-alike, Odile. (An alternate cast features Allyssa Bross and Christopher Revels.) Noelle was both poignant and authoritative, and particularly effective as the white swan. She cast a lovely glow as the sorrowful enchanted female, with her tilted head and wavering arms. Her strong legs and powerful back helped her triumph through rigorous solos.
The swans of the corps de ballet struggled with uneven lines and their toe shoes, clomping loudly. They will certainly improve with more stage time and practice as the run continues throughout March. Their gestures already have the beginnings of a feathery lightness, suggesting a breeze under their wings. The pas de quatre of four linked swans was a well-timed success.
Other individual artists also excelled. As the Jester, guest artist Akimitsu Yahata delivered requisite virtuosity with grace and cheery enthusiasm. Kenta Shimizu, as the Prince, was a subdued but always accurate soloist and a steadfast partner for Noelle. Neapolitan soloists Isabel Vondermuhll and Christopher McDaniel brought a surfeit of spunkiness to their leaps and beats. Finally, the group waltz for the six princesses nicely matched the score's lyricism.
It's hard to see, however, how rushing into a bland Swan Lake helps Los Angeles Ballet's cause. Neary and Christensen began the company dedicated to masterpieces they know expertly and intimately -- the ballets of George Balanchine and August Bournonville. They seem to have changed course. Last season, there was a serviceable but uninspired Giselle and now Swan Lake.
Audiences do come out for ballets they know, and Royce Hall was certainly well-filled. One wonders, however, if the dance audience -- and L.A. does have one -- was there, and if it will return again for lesser versions of the classics. After all, audiences can buy tickets (at comparable prices) later this season to opulent productions of Swan Lake by those Russian behemoths, the Bolshoi and Maryinsky. That's the never-ending challenge of these roiling waters.
Swam Lake is at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach, 7:30 p.m. March 10; Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, 7:30 p.m. March 17; Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, 7:30 p.m. March 24; Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, 7:30 p.m., March 31. (310) 998-7782, www.losangelesballet.org