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Swans to Dervishes: A Year Troupes Out

Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Big ballet in the Southland took a beating in 1997 with the death of impresario James A. Doolittle and the abandonment of plans for his Southern California Theatre Assn. to be the long-term dance presenter at the Los Angeles Music Center. However, the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State L.A. offered an encouraging view of contemporary classicism by showcasing creative smaller-scale companies from Mexico, Canada--plus our own L.A. Chamber Ballet. And, once again, the Orange County Performing Arts Center defied the odds with its uncompromisingly top-of-the-line international season.

Other signs of hope: Occidental College launched its first summer dance series, “Feet Speak”; California Plaza began testing the waters as a full-scale presenter; Dance Kaleidoscope continued to expand; and Center Theatre Group substituted a dance event for a play on its Ahmanson subscription season and came out a winner.

Below: highlights from one dance-collector’s diary:

1. Adventures in Motion Pictures: Matthew Bourne’s re-sexed update of “Swan Lake,” with its emblematic all-male swan-corps, the Ahmanson Theatre, late April to mid-June. Heralding the triumphant return to dance of storytelling and emotion following an era dominated by formalism, Bourne’s version reconnected Tchaikovsky’s score to powerful narrative impulses, juxtaposing satire of the dysfunctional House of Windsor with contemporary equivalents of the original ballet’s characters and conflicts. The length of the run made news by itself, for once allowing a dance event to reach its full potential audience.

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2. Nederlands Dans Theatre II: the Alex Theatre and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, April. Call them the future of European modernism: 14 dancing apprentices, ages 17 to 22, starting their careers in this Jiri Kylian farm team and already boasting enough training and experience to give definitive performances of hand-me-down NDT masterworks. But they glory in work created especially for them, especially “Mellantid,” an alternately sweet and sad farewell to adolescence, choreographed by NDT dancer Johann Inger.

3. Nederlands Dans Theatre III: the Alex Theatre and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, April. So you’re tired of looking at gorgeous kids, so you want a lifetime of artistry distilled in every movement? Seek no further: NDT III exists to find major vehicles for distinguished dancers over 40. And though it’s still impossible to think of 48-year-old Gary Chryst in terms of diminished physical capacity, the rep’s emphasis on expressive detail and nuance does prove salutary whenever 61-year-old Gerard Lemaitre performs. Make no mistake: He’s not named Lemaitre for nothing.

4. DV8 Physical Theatre: Lloyd Newson’s “Enter Achilles,” the Freud Playhouse, UCLA, October. No angry feminist ever dissected masculine pathology with the unique precision and fury that Newson brought to this full-evening study of male bonding and brutality at a London pub. Like Bourne, Newson raised important questions about manhood by depicting extremes of men’s behavior--with plenty of outrageous humor and shock value along the way, particularly in scenes involving an inflatable sex-doll and episodes dominated by an ambiguous outsider wearing Superman drag.

5. Dance Theatre of the Stadtische Buhnen Munster: Daniel Goldin’s “Paper Children” (Papirene Kinder), Bovard Auditorium, USC, May. German Tanztheater at its most intimate, this one-act “choreographic novel” evoked the Jewish diaspora through the journey of a five-member family, suggesting with the utmost economy and insight the experience of cultural displacement, estrangement and nostalgia for a lost life. The imaginative interaction of the dancers and a marionette set the seal on perhaps the most perfect new work of the year in the Southland.

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6. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project: Wiltern Theatre, March. Founded in 1990 as a superbly cast and rehearsed showcase for an ambitious, aging ballet superstar, it took White Oak six years to fully seize its potential as an evolutionary force. The Merce Cunningham/Erick Hawkins/Meg Stuart program of 1997 may not have been as startling in its conceptual rigor as the Dana Reitz-dominated evening of mostly unaccompanied solos the previous year, but it confirmed Baryshnikov’s willingness to explore genuinely new choreographic territory--and take star-struck dance audiences along with him.

7. The Whirling Dervishes: the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, January. For most of this century the antique, mystical Sema ritual has been forbidden by law in Turkey or allowed strictly as a tourist event rather than an act of worship. Thus the touring performances by the Mevlana Culture and Art Foundation have been crucial in preserving the full sanctity and significance of something in danger of becoming a mere annual photo-op in its native land. With the great vocalist Kani Karaca reciting the Koran, the company conveyed to local audiences the profound sadness of a ceremony that originated as an act of mourning and continues to express a yearning for union with the divine.

8. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the Luckman Complex, Cal State L.A., April. Performing works by Nacho Duato, Edouard Lock and James Kudelka, this 40-year-old Montreal institution reminded all of us of the nonstop creative adventure that used to distinguish contemporary programs by the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre--before the compromises evident in those companies’ 1997 Music Center engagements made them look either stale or desperate. Beauty, passion, technique, a hunger for new challenges and a rep that freed them to soar: The French Canadians had everything that matters.

9. Merce Cunningham Dance Company: the Orange County Performing Arts Center (repertory) and the Alex Theater (one of its seamless, compendium “event” evenings), January. At 78, Cunningham still performs, still experiments with new technologies (most recently computer animation as a choreographic aid) and still fields a company of selfless virtuosi secure enough to happily ricochet from potent formal repertory to free form, evening-length collages of excerpts and on to the visionary experiments and collaborations that always seem to bypass L.A. for other cities. Will UC Berkeley scoop UCLA again in 1998? Stay tuned. . . .

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10. Ten unforgettable performances: For depth of soul--Domingo Rubio in every assignment during two overloaded but revelatory programs by Gloria Contreras’ contemporary Mexican ballet company, Taller Choreografico de la UNAM, at the Luckman in October. For sheer flash--Michael Flatley in the bravura title role of his quasi-Celtic sci-fi spectacle, “Lord of the Dance,” at the Universal Amphitheatre in March.

For classical suavity--Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope (not together, alas) in a problematic Royal Ballet “Sleeping Beauty,” and Sarah Wildor in the same company’s uneven “Ravel Evening,” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in May. For modernistic wit and spunk--Trisha Brown, inimitable even when facing away from the audience throughout her 10-minute solo, “If you couldn’t see me,” at the Wadsworth in May.

For unstinting intensity--Oguri in just about anything, but most notably, perhaps, when drenched by the fountains of California Plaza early in his site-specific butoh aquacade, “A Flame in the Distance,” in September. For off-the-wall virtuosity--the Osseus Labyrint team of Hannah Sim and Mark Steger in their amazing insectile showpiece “Flit” on a Dance Kaleidoscope program at the Luckman in July. For ensemble power and stamina--the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre all through the rep at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and the Wiltern in February.

Performance of the year? Adam Cooper in Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” of course: equally brilliant at making the bare-chested White Swan into the ultimate dream-lover and the deliriously promiscuous Black Swan into a devastating parody of public sexiness in general and black-leather fantasies in particular.*

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