DANCE REVIEW : California Ballet Makes Do Minus Centerpiece

California Ballet Company danced its annual winter repertory concert at the East County Performing Arts Center over the weekend--without the long-awaited masterwork by Antony Tudor as its centerpiece. "Jardin aux Lilas" was left waiting in the wings, because no one from the New York-based American Ballet Theater was available to set the classic on the local troupe.

In its place, the troupe featured a revival of its third act divertissement from "Raymonda Variations," a company standard since that 19th-Century ballet entered the repertory in 1968.

"Raymonda" was sandwiched between two other major repertory pieces--"Western Orpheus," a modern version of the Greek myth, and George Balanchine's masterwork, "Concerto Barocco," the prelude to his groundbreaking neo-classic brand of ballet.

Although the postponement of "Jardin" was disappointing, the three-piece program was one of the strongest in dance values of any in the California Ballet's history.

"Concerto Barocco," the concert's curtain-raiser, was the most exciting and kinetically satisfying offering, as danced by Friday night's cast--most of whom learned the ballet directly from Balanchine ballerina Melissa Hayden when she came to San Diego to set the piece in 1984.

This Balanchine classic is a stunning visualization of Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, and dancers seem to rise to the occasion. Choreographed in 1941 for Balanchine's own New York City Ballet dancers, this diabolically clever ensemble ballet focuses on two ballerinas and a precision corps of eight women--which suits the San Diego-based company's strengths to a T.

The ballet requires only one male, and guest artist Mark Lanham filled the bill nicely, partnering Denise Dabrowski briskly and with confidence and brio.

There were occasional lapses in unison work among the all-female corps (which stays on stage during the entire piece), but there were no serious snags in Friday's presentation of this pristine balletic work. The cast was especially impressive in the fleet-footed coda for all 10 women. They swept through the intricate motional patterns with flashing eyes and razor-sharp port de bras.

Maxine Mahon's staging of "Raymonda Variations" featured Karen Evans and Lanham at Friday night's performance, with Matthew Bean and David Crookes each pairing off with two women.

The handsomely costumed dance was visually appealing, but the opening section was marred by shaky balances and weak male support. Some of the dancers made good use of their solo spots, however.

Sylvia Poolos' sprightly moves captured the lively spirit of the dance, and Lanham was appropriately flamboyant in the airy jumps and tricky turns. In fact, "Variations" proved to be the best showcase for his dancing on opening night.

But Evans, who had the most seductive melodic strain to propel her sultry solo, was the most commanding presence. Too bad the scratchy tape took its toll on Alexander Glazounov's beautiful music.

"Western Orpheus," a dance drama, choreographed along the dissonant lines of a score by San Diego composer David Ward-Steinman, made its company premiere in 1987 as part of the Cal Ballet's California Heritage Project. The music dates back to 1964, when it formed the aural ambience for the San Diego Ballet's traditional version of the Greek myth. But Ward-Steinman made some modifications for Mahon's concept.

Over the weekend, "Orpheus" looked dynamic, although the ballet still tells the tragic tale in fits and starts. Mahon moved the myth into the Old West and made the underworld a frontier brothel, all of which works well enough with help from J. Sherwood Montgomery's scenic designs and the light shows laid on thick by Eric Keel.

Patrick Nollet played the evil Pluto with slicked-down hair and ominously serpentine moves, and was the most riveting character, although his appearance was all too brief.

Dabrowski was all innocence and vulnerability as Eurydice, but her dance opportunities were limited as well. Although Crookes (Orpheus), was an ardent swain and attentive partner to Dabrowski in the duets, he came up short on emotions in what should have been a heart-wrenching solo at the climax of the tragedy.

Lanham made another appearance in this piece, and made a fine impression as Apollo. The ensemble dancers acquitted themselves well in the first section, when they were decked out as simple plains people. Unfortunately, when the action moved into the depths of the underworld, the corps was less convincing--particularly when it was expected to reflect the coarse eroticism of a cheap bordello.

Ward-Steinman's evocative score was canned, but it was well played. In fact, the composer himself pounded out the discordant keyboard clashes.

Cal Ballet-trained Anne Dabrowski, who has performed with the Hartford Ballet for the past few years, was back in town and slated for roles in two of the three pieces. But the injury that sidelined her from the Hartford all year, recurred during rehearsals, and local aficionados missed a chance to see the accomplished dancer on home turf again.

The company still has short supply of men. However, the many experienced women on the roster and a program well chosen to show off the dancers, added up to a pleasing evening.

The troupe's May concert is already spoken for (it will feature the American premiere of a suite of dancers by a Soviet choreographer, as well as guest appearances by members of the Leningrad State Ballet). But let us hope the scheduling conflicts that put "Jardin aux Lilas" on hold will be resolved in time for an autumn debut. This ballet is one of Tudor's best.

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