Los Angeles Times

They're livin' large

Special to The Times

Yorgos LOUKOS, the 56-year-old artistic director of Lyon Opera Ballet, sits behind a cluttered desk in his office on the 12th floor of the Lyon Opera House, juggling a schedule of rock-star proportions. Even as he oversees the end of a five-performance run by his company at this city's famed Biennale de la Danse, Loukos, clad in Polo shirt and cargo pants, is directing an annual weeklong dance festival in Cannes, as he's done since 1992.

This year, he also took the helm of the annual Athens Festival, a two-month celebration of dance, theater and music in his hometown. And he's readying his troupe for yet another sojourn to the U.S.

"We're the only European company that goes to the States every year, since 1986," says Loukos, who's become something of a dance ambassador. "Some people would say, 'He's too American,' but I love it and went so often I was thought to be some kind of America nut."

Loukos performed for nine years with Roland Petit's National Ballet of Marseille before joining Lyon Opera Ballet in 1984. He became its artistic director in 1991, and he'll be on the eight-city tour, which includes stops in Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles. No stranger to the City of Angels, the troupe returns to UCLA Live's Royce Hall on Friday and Saturday, this time bringing with them a program of three European female choreographers.

Featured are Maguy Marin's "Groosland" (she was the company's resident choreographer from 1992 to 1994) and the West Coast premiere of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's "Die Grosse Fuge" (one of Europe's hottest choreographers, she is the focus of Dance Umbrella's 2006 festival, with this work, created in 1992, having entered the Lyon repertory in February). Completing the bill is another West Coast premiere, "Fantasie" by Sasha Waltz, in a first-time collaboration with Lyon.

"All three of these women started as classical dancers, then went to modern," explains Loukos. "They are the most important in the field today, except for Pina [Bausch], who is a goddess.

"Waltz is younger and has more of an American technique like the improvisatory release methods of Steve Paxton."

In other words, it's a good fit with the 30-member troupe that, despite its name, has become one of today's most experimental and, well, modern dance outfits in Europe. That its young dancers (the average age is 25) are ballet-trained but dedicated to learning new styles allows them to move fluidly between idioms. Technique may be paramount, but repertory choices dictate a well-honed mutability that contributes to the company's success.

This weekend's program offers a sampling of its wide-ranging technical prowess. Waltz's "Fantasie," set to the Schubert piece of the same name, requires extreme physicality, the performers repeatedly hurling themselves at one another to form human clusters as an alternative to solitude, while De Keersmaker explores Beethoven's great fugue as a parallel universe, the eight male dancers' sudden plunges and leaps creating a seamless bond between choreography and musical structure. The Marin piece, in contrast, is a whimsical journey in which the 20 dancers sport "fat suits," joyously waddling to Bach.

Loukos quotes William Forsythe, another dance-maker revered by the troupe, as saying, "Modernity is a state of mind." "Besides that," he adds, "what has changed in the last 25 years is the human body, the consciousness of the body. It came from America. There was Jane Fonda and aerobics, that began making people more free. Modern dance has given another dimension, where before some people wouldn't dance with bare feet.

"This idea that there are possibilities of choosing different ways of moving has changed the company's approach to the dancing."

The best of times ... Loukos, who claims he's "watched a show every night for the last 30 years," never seems to tire of the rarefied world he came to as a youth. "It's an exciting time for dance now," he insists, "but I do see a lot of terrible stuff."

Not generally on his home turf, however.

On a recent September afternoon, eight dancers went through their paces at the Lyon Opera House, a 1756 structure redesigned by French architect Jean Nouvel in 1993 as a barrel-like steel-and-glass structure that retains only vestiges of its rococo origins.

In the 11th-floor studios, with their huge arched windows and sweeping views of the city's skyline, the 6-foot-4 Corey Scott-Gilbert soared gracefully across the floor. The 23-year-old African American began his professional career with Lyon on graduating from Juilliard in 2005. He was recommended to Loukos by Lawrence Rhodes, the head of Julliard's dance department, who travels annually to Lyon as a guest teacher.

"Yorgos came to the school asking for a tall guy," says Scott-Gilbert, who will be seen in the works by Marin and Waltz. "I came here and after three days got accepted. I started my training in classical ballet, and at first it was overwhelming. But I like that I'm in Europe, and the repertory is so diverse. Since my focus now is contemporary ballet, it's been great, especially working with Sasha. The process was more like a collaboration."

Francesca Mattavelli, 25, also in her second season with Lyon, previously danced with English National Ballet and Milan Ballet. A perk, she says, is the hands-on approach of the numerous choreographers who come to Lyon to work with the dancers.

"For 'Grosse Fuge,' Maguy came a few days before performances. It was very good," recalls Mattavelli, "because she worked with me and said very precise things. And since we do a lot of different styles of dance — Forsythe is contemporary and theatrical and on pointe — we also have to change our bodies, which is a nice challenge."

With its ever-expanding repertory of more than 80 works, including 42 world premieres, Lyon Opera Ballet has carved out a niche in the international dance arena. The troupe, consistently garnering good reviews, was described by the New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff as "a company full of surprises, not the least of which is the impressive individuality of its personable and versatile dancers."

Loukos, who is still fit but says he hasn't taught classes for five years, says he is drawn to young dancers because of their curiosity. He admits, though, that curiosity also makes it harder to keep his charges for extended periods of time.

"When I was a dancer you spent your career in one company. In the past, it was hard, when they were 35 or 40, to persuade them to do something else. Now it's the opposite.

"They spend two years here and decide to go back to Spain, for example. Many of the girls also become pregnant. This is why I give the dancers more interesting stuff to do. It's also," he adds knowingly, "why I like to take a risk more than doing something that is just pretty."

Lyon Opera Ballet

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price: $26 to $48

Contact: (310) 825-2101

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