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Review: Los Angeles Ballet thrills with second Balanchine program

This review has been updated. See below for details.

Los Angeles Ballet’s Balanchine Festival continues with three stirring modern masterworks, two of which highlight the brilliant outputs of double giants of the last century.

That duo would be George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet, and composer Igor Stravinsky, who forged a friendship and working relationship based on mutual admiration. Their rare collaborations of new dance to new score netted breakthrough ballets, an organic meeting of genius.

Los Angeles Ballet has performed both "Rubies" (1967) and "Agon" (1957) in previous seasons, but their return to the repertory, performed Saturday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, is a welcome thrill.

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One of those breakthrough pieces, “Agon” is a stark and mathematical embrace, which, on the surface, seems all about fast reflexes and raw technique. The dancing, though, is bright and whimsical, a full expression of  Stravinsky’s take on 17th century French court dances. Twelve dances organized precisely into an all-male quartet, two different threesomes and one duet, for 12 dancers -- the equations are exacting, and the mood is of devilish daring.

In this first performance, the dancers were still focused on the athletic challenges, attacking them with admirable resolve, but short-changing their chance to make a personal mark. Staged by Patricia Neary (sister of the company's co-artistic director, Colleen Neary), this “Agon” should loosen up and bloom further as performances continue. The male quartet of Ulrik Birkkjær, Zheng Hua Li, Christopher Revels and Kenta Shimizu already shows a lustrous promise.

Allynne Noelle, who gives every role her personal stamp, was paired with Birkkjær, and it was a rather laborious central pas de deux.

"Rubies" is one slice from the full-evening ballet "Jewels." Here, Balanchine mined an existing Stravinsky work (Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra) and unearthed a lustrous playfulness from its insistent flow and rhythmic edginess.

The company dances it happily, comfortably, with sweep and surging energy. The solo girl’s part is a perfect fit for Noelle, who charmingly showed off her sassy side. In the lead ballerina part, the beautiful Julia Cinquemani is alternately playful and overly insistent. Birkkjær, her partner, unleashes himself in his solo duties with grand jumps and an ingratiating manner.

The program opened with L.A. Ballet’s first crack at “La Valse,” a two-part ballet from 1951 in which Balanchine channeled Maurice Ravel’s sinister exaggeration of the waltz form, inviting death to the dance.

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As the doomed ballerina in white, Allyssa Bross carved out a well-calibrated, self-involved glamour. Her come-hither looks to the audience, so inappropriate in Balanchine’s neoclassical abstract pieces, were here directed at her bewitched partner, Zheng Hua Li. The two are well-matched opposites, and they create a bubbling tension.

Revels is a commanding and unavoidable death figure, scary in his insistence.

In the finely wrought variations in the ballet’s first half, Chelsea Paige Johnston and Alexander Castillo make a sparkling, carefree duo.

This "Red" program continues into June, at which point everyone, one hopes, will have moved beyond mere steps into a more personal territory. And Los Angeles Ballet performs "Rubies" and “Agon” yet again in Grand Park on July 6.

[For the record May 13, 2:40 p.m.: An earlier version of this review included the wrote year for the ballet "Agon." It was first performed in 1957.]

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Los Angeles Ballet Balanchine Festival Red Program, 7:30 p.m., May 18, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach; 7:30 p.m., May 25, Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge; 2 p.m., May 26, Alex Theatre, 216 Brand Blvd., Glendale; 2 p.m., June 9, Royce Hall, 340 Royce Dr., UCLA. $24-$95. 310-998-7782, www.losangelesballet.org

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