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BALLET REVIEW : Stierle’s Dance of Death

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TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

It isn’t easy to be objective about Edward Stierle’s “Lacrymosa,” which the Joffrey Ballet performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday.

This, after all, is a dance of mourning, the first of only two major ballets created by an extraordinarily promising choreographer who died last March a week after his 23rd birthday. A virtuosic dancer and a victim of AIDS, Stierle had dedicated the work to his late mentor, Robert Joffrey, “in memory of his everlasting vision.”

Stierle began to devise “Lacrymosa,” which finds its musical inspiration in the Mozart Requiem, in 1986 when he needed a complex solo for the Jackson Competition. He was only 17 at the time. He expanded the piece for the Joffrey II ensemble in 1988, and polished the final version for the parent company a year before his death.

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“Lacrymosa” should have been the prelude to a vast number of better ballets. It should have been a footnote to a long, fascinating career. It should have served as an eclectic starting point for a creative spirit that could have developed in any number of valid directions.

Instead, it stands as Stierle’s own requiem.

Under the painful circumstances, one would like to hail “Lacrymosa” as a masterpiece. For all its earnest invention, it is, alas, too redundant, too simplistic, too superficial to deserve any such label. The story behind the ballet is far more poignant than the ballet itself.

Figuratively and literally, Stierle harbored no fear of the grandiose gesture. He enjoyed the wondrous, optimistic, innocent arrogance of youth.

He chose a lofty musical source, chopped it into incoherent pieces and unwittingly trivialized its impact. He fused basic elements of classical ballet with conventional modernism and manipulated both idioms as if he had invented them. He recycled familiar images and obvious symbols with a theatrical flair that didn’t even seem to acknowledge the possibility of cliche.

Essentially, “Lacrymosa” is a frenetically embellished pas de trois involving a sacrificial hero (bare chested above spangly white tights), a grieving woman (wearing a pretty, spangly party dress) and an ominous death figure (clad, of course, in black).

The super-agitated hero spends a lot of time upside-down in shoulder stands--a pose echoed by the men of the corps. The strenuously lyrical heroine recoils from fate in movements that telegraph weeping and wailing. The sleek death figure stalks the boards.

The mass rituals often seem busy for the sake of busyness. Climaxes are piled upon climaxes. The dynamics of the choreography frequently contradict the contrapuntal impulses of the score.

The pervasive air of hyperagitation probably affirms the influence of Gerald Arpino. References to classroom exercises on pointe mingle with emblematic citations of such disparate icons as Paul Taylor and Jiri Kylian. Stierle was, if nothing else, an inspired assimilator.

Grotesque overamplification of the Mozart score on tape crippled the performance Wednesday. The musical distortions were counterbalanced to a degree, however, by the intense compassion of the dancing.

Tom Mossbrucker, who has inherited Stierle’s role, moved through the maze of bravura hurdles with feverish conviction. Jodie Gates found the perfect tone of anguished poise as the survivor. Daniel Baudendistel exulted in the sinister serenity of the figure in black.

The remainder of the familiar program represented a glitzy little Arpino festival.

The overworked Mossbrucker bravely partnered the sleekly insinuating Valerie Madonia in the sweet aquatic kitsch of “Sea Shadow,” while pianist Stanley Babin and conductor John Miner served Ravel nobly in the pit. The exquisite Tina LeBlanc joined Tyler Walters in a much improved repetition of the mock-classical “L'Air d'Esprit.”

Finally and climactically, Gates and Mossbrucker led the company through the ever-trendy ersatz-exotic thumps, bends quivers and twitches of “Light Rain.”

The small audience mustered big applause.


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