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Los Angeles Ballet works hard to reach the premier

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Smack in the middle of the recession, Los Angeles dance received a huge and unexpected boost from local philanthropist Glorya Kaufman, who donated $20 million to start a dance endowment that will bring world-class troupes to the Music Center on a visiting basis.

While the imports may be nice for audiences, the generous gift announced in March won't solve L.A.'s longstanding difficulty in trying to establish its own ballet company; in fact, at the time of Kaufman's gift, both the donor and Music Center officials said no local company is ready to step in as the Music Center's resident troupe.

But over on the Westside, the Los Angeles Ballet, now in its third season and operating with a "lean, mean" annual budget of $1.5 million, is trying to become a viable candidate -- and give Los Angeles a long-missing presence on the national ballet landscape.

After two well-reviewed seasons of Nutcrackers, Balanchine works and mixed programs, its directors, Danish-born Thordal Christensen and his wife, Colleen Neary, are ready to take the next step by presenting the company's first full-length Romantic classical ballet, a new production of Danish ballet master August Bournonville's 1836 version of "La Sylphide," staged by Christensen. Set in a Scottish village, "La Sylphide" details the havoc wreaked on a couple's wedding plans by a winged spirit, invisible to the bride but mesmerizing to the groom. The company's permanent guest artist, Cuban-born Eddy Tovar, also a principal dancer with Orlando Ballet, steps into the role of James, the groom, and Corina Gill, 27, is the Sylphide. Neary herself will appear as Madge the witch.

Los Angeles Ballet (which calls itself LAB) will give its first "La Sylphide" performance on Saturday at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, followed by May 23-24 performances at UCLA's Freud Playhouse and a May 30 stop at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

Given the history of its directors, you might think this company should have launched with "La Sylphide." The ballet has been preserved and performed for generations by the Royal Danish Ballet, where Christensen, 43, received his early training and eventually served as artistic director from 1999 to 2002 following an international career. "I was in it when I was a child," he reminisces. "You learn the mime scenes from the old-timers.

"Is the sylph just an expression of doubt within himself,or is she real? You can choose to see it either way."

And although she established her reputation as a soloist with Balanchine's New York City Ballet, Neary, 56, also enjoys the Danish connection: She met Christensen in 1985 when she staged Balanchine's "Rubies" for the Danish company and served as the company's First Ballet Mistress, who oversees productions and final rehearsals, during Christensen's years as director.

But the reasons it has taken Los Angeles Ballet longer to get to "La Sylphide" than other repertory speaks more to economics, and the realities, of building a troupe of young dancers, in this case ages 18 to the late 20s, than to any lack of passion for "La Sylphide." Company executive director Julie Whittaker gives a simple reason for the company's early program choices: money. Neary is a member of the Balanchine Trust, and her older sister Patricia Neary, also a former New York City Ballet dancer, is an active representative of the trust; that connection has allowed LAB to present Balanchine -- in fact, Patricia staged Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" for this season's opening program.

And Balanchine's neoclassical ballets do not require the elaborate costumes and sets required by a full-length Romantic classical ballet. "We came out of the gate doing the classics we could afford, which were the Balanchine," Whittaker says. "You have to be world-class -- if you can't do a $3.5-million 'Swan Lake,' you do Balanchine and prove that you can do it as well as any."

In fact, Whittaker says, Los Angeles Ballet would not be able to present "La Sylphide" at all if it had not been allowed to rent the sets and many costumes from Houston Ballet at a reduced rate. "It's the only way, in this economy," she says.

Whittaker adds that "La Sylphide," which is less well-known than the Romantic ballets "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty," provides a better fit for the 30-member company. "We have the right number of dancers, and it will develop them; we are not doing a 'Sleeping Beauty' with four acts now. This is a process," Whittaker says.

And, according to the ballet's co-directors, it's a process that is necessary for LAB to establish itself as the city's premier ballet company. "I think to be a great company you have to be innovative and create new things, but you also have to be able to interpret the masterpieces," Christensen says.

Whittaker says that, predictably, the company has had a harder time developing audiences for mixed programs than it has for the holiday staple "Nutcracker." She said audiences overall have been growing each season by about 15%, with 11,234 people attending in the 2007-08 season. "For this season, we're almost at that number now, so I'm confident that, with 'La Sylphide,' we'll reach around 14,000," she said. Whittaker expects that "Sylphide" will attract audience numbers somewhere between a "Nutcracker" and a mixed bill.

Developing a ballet company of international stature is a goal that has eluded L.A. for decades. Beginning in the 1960s, Eugene Loring's Western Ballet, David Wilcox's Long Beach Ballet and John Clifford's Los Angeles Ballet have all had varying numbers of false starts. A long partnership between the Music Center and New York's Joffrey Ballet -- since reborn as the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago -- ended with the Joffrey being ousted as the center's resident ballet company in 1991, never to be replaced.

And in nearby Laguna Beach, even the 2004 appointment of American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel as artistic director couldn't save Ballet Pacifica from financial disaster. The company, which had existed for almost 50 years, suspended operations in March 2007. The Los Angeles Ballet's Sylphide, Gill, is a former member of Ballet Pacifica.

"L.A. is a tough place to crack a ballet company," says Ron Cunningham, co-artistic director of Sacramento Ballet with wife Carinne Binda. That troupe also has struggled in the current economy and was forced to trim $700,000 out of its planned $2.9-million budget for this season to survive.

"It's a scattered community, and it has theaters that book and bring in the well-known international companies -- [London's] Royal Ballet or the Bolshoi," Cunningham said of the Los Angeles area. "It's difficult for a company to compete with their budgets and present ballet on a lavish scale."

Renae Williams, director of dance presentations at the Music Center, says she has had conversations with Whittaker about forming a partnership, but says that establishing a resident relationship with the L.A. troupe-- or any dance company -- remains far in the future. And she said that LAB is not quite ready to move in at the downtown center.

Williams praised LAB for building its local reputation as a regional company by touring to different Southern California communities, but says that the Music Center seeks companies of international stature. "Performing at the Music Center is not enough," she says.

When the company does begin to tour internationally, Williams adds, "they've got to make sure they have a unique offering, setting themselves apart from any other regional ballet company. At the rate they're going, it's certainly not going to take that long."

Christensen grins slyly when he says that if the Music Center is suggesting LAB isn't ready to be a resident "then they haven't seen us." But he acknowledges that the company needs to increase its budget, the number of weeks it can employ full-time dancers and its donor base, which includes the Milken Family Foundation, downtown attorney Jennifer Bellah Maguire and Linda Duttenhaver, who works for a Hollywood property management company.

Christensen shrugs at the challenges of building a dance company in such economically trying times. "The company is growing in a very healthy way," he says. "Is it hard out there? Yes, but we're used to it. In that way, maybe we're better off than many others because we haven't got a lot of fat on the bone."

diane.haithman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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