To the graceful lilt of a Brahms waltz, the prima ballerina Jillana glides effortlessly across the floor of a rehearsal room, pauses expectantly and--as a flood of memories begins for her--finds a partner magically at her side.

In this way, South Coast Ballet artistic director James Jones opens his version of Brahms' "Liebeslieder Walzer," which he choreographed for Jillana on the occasion of the former New York City Ballet principal dancer's retirement from the stage.

"Liebeslieder Walzer" will be danced by Jones' eight-member company, along with his "Divertimento in D" (music by Mozart) and "Olympic Fanfare" (music by John Williams), John Clifford's "Three Preludes" (preludes by Gershwin) and a revival of Anthony Tudor's "Sunflowers" (set to Janacek's First String Quartet), tonight at 8 in the Fine Arts Village Theater at UC Irvine.

To fill out the program, Donn Laurence Mills will conduct the Capistrano Valley Symphony in Grieg's "From Holberg's Time" and Maurice Allard will lead members of the Master Chorale of Orange County in selections from Handel's "Messiah."

"The dance brings back memories of my Balanchine days," the still strikingly lithe Jillana said after a recent rehearsal. Jillana had appeared in the first cast of a ballet that Balanchine set to the same piece by Brahms.

"I don't have to think about being emotional or about acting in such dancing. The feeling just comes very easily to me."

Jillana, who declined to give her age, joined New York City Ballet in 1947 ("I was the youngest girl they ever took," she said) and left the company 20 years later. In addition to Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer" (premiered in 1960), she also danced in that seminal choreographer's "Jeu de Cartes," "La Sonnambula," "Symphony in C" and "Serenade," as well as in Jerome Robbins' "Pied Piper."

Her major roles included Helena in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the Siren in his "Prodigal Son" with Edward Villela.

"I wanted to stop on the way up and not have someone remembering me and thinking, 'Why didn't she quit last season?' Besides, I wanted to have time for my children," she said. Jillana, who is divorced, has a son, 20, who is studying engineering at UC San Diego, and a daughter, 16, who has Down's syndrome.

Since moving to San Diego in 1966 (she commuted to New York for her last year with Balanchine's company), she has been a guest artist with local companies such as the San Diego Ballet and for the past seven years has taught repertory, ballet, pointe work and choreography at UCI.

"I used to hate teaching," she said. "I dreaded it. But I really try to get across what I learned from Mr. B (Balanchine) and Robbins and the students seem to understand.

"They, in turn, will go out and teach others and that's important."

Her UCI performances mark her first appearance with South Coast Ballet--and her "final performances," she said.

Jones said that he was inspired to create this work for her because "I remembered that she was in Balanchine's original 'Liebeslieder Walzer.'

"My first instinct was to call New York City Ballet and get Mr. B's choreography. But they wouldn't let us have it.

"So then I decided to choreograph one on my own, specifically for Jillana at this time of her life.

"She's obviously very special, a very lyrical dancer with a commanding presence on the stage."

For her part, Jillana considers Jones to be a "very technically brilliant choreographer" whose "classical and neoclassical-inspired love of movement comes close to Mr. B's style, without trying to copy it."

Does she experience any confusion between his choreography and Balanchine's?

She laughed: "Jim hasn't given me any of the music I danced to (in Balanchine's version), except in the big numbers. But it is funny to see other dancers doing other steps to it."

Jones elaborated: "I did try to pick up some things from (Balanchine's) 'Liebeslieder,' of course, because someone having a dream--and the dance is a dream of Jillana remembering her life in New York City Ballet--would remember the highlights. But I'm not copying the work, just picking up the same feeling.

"I knew I would be inviting comparisons. Balanchine choreographed a masterpiece and it's hard to come up against that. But they're completely different pieces."

"But art should grow. I don't think that Mr. B would want it to be any other way. . . . Balanchine's 'Liebeslieder' was real special, and I want to make this real special, too."

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