In a show of mettle, Los Angeles Ballet mounted a challenging, thrilling and mostly rewarding program titled "Quartet" on Saturday night at UCLA's Royce Hall.
Credit husband-and-wife artistic directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, whose Royal Danish Ballet and New York City Ballet pedigrees have served the 37-member troupe well during its eighth season, which continues with new programming in May and June.
Demonstrating versatility — and grit galore — Los Angeles Ballet tackled four works: Ji¿í Kylián's 1975 masterpiece, "Return to a Strange Land" (lovingly set on a sextet by Nederlands Dans Theater alum Glen Eddy and Fiona Lummis), and George Balanchine's crowd-pleaser, "Stars and Stripes," both new to the company; and commissions by Sonya Tayeh and Christopher Stowell, both world premieres.
Kylián's work, set to Czech composer Leoš Janá¿ek's piano music, makes huge demands on dancers. Merging the sinewy, idiomatic freedom of modern dance with the meticulousness of classical ballet, Kylián is about sudden turns, change of direction and all manners of lifting, falling and spinning, with pretzel-like poses added to the mix.
An elegiac meditation on death, "Return to a Strange Land" featured two trios (Allynne Noelle, Alexander Castillo and Christopher Revels and Allyssa Bross, Zheng Hua Li and Dustin True) and two duets (Bross with Li, and Noelle with Castillo). These fearless performers displayed heart, their sculptural groupings heroic and gracefully articulated. If this is death, we want more.
Stowell, a former San Francisco Ballet principal turned choreographer, understands the art form. His 16-minute "Cipher" was set to Noah Agruss' commissioned score, whose shades of John Adams and Danny Elfman included strings, piano, celesta and sampled harp that occasionally gave the music a kitchen-sink feeling.
Seven dancers in various groupings divided into three sections dubbed "Modules." From playful and carefree hip-sashaying to unison backbends and leaps, "Cipher" seemed to have no code other than dancers joyously expressing themselves. An ebullient Noelle was well partnered by a gallant True, and the other five, including a stalwart Christopher McDaniel, were delightful to watch under Nathan Scheuer's evocative lighting.
Tayeh's misguided, 18-minute opus, "Beneath One's Dignity," lived down to its name, with 10 dancers in "Walking Dead" mode, including five gals tossing their hair as if touting L'Oréal. Tayeh, a TV favorite ("So You Think You Can Dance"), recently choreographed "Kung Fu," the life of Bruce Lee now running off-Broadway. She set this work, her fourth Los Angeles Ballet commission, to Valgeir Sigurðsson's popping sounds and eerie vocals. The piece also had stomping, crawling and a vampiresque conga line (where's the garlic?), with Marianne Parker's black, see-through garb, including man-skirts, contributing to the work's painful doom-and-tomb milieu.
On a happier note, Balanchine's ingenious 1958 "Stars and Stripes," set to Sousa marches, filled the stage with the entire troupe, plus apprentices. Teeming with geometric patterns and dazzling line formations, the work offered standout performances from Julia Cinquemani as a balletic drum majorette, and Noelle and Kenta Shimizu, who sparkled in their duet and variations. The men's corps was also particularly appealing.
This is March Madness of a terpsichorean order, with Los Angeles Ballet continuing to surprise and satisfy.