A familiar program gets a fresh lift

Times Staff Writer

Seven must be somebody's lucky number in Germany's Stuttgart Ballet, for the company gambled on the U.S. premieres of Christian Spuck's "the seventh blue," Uwe Scholz's "Seventh Symphony" and Douglas Lee's seven-dancer "Cindys Gift" as its opening program at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

Created between 1991 and 2002, these home-grown Stuttgart sevens neatly recapped but did not extend or deepen familiar end-of-the century classical game plans. By now, music visualizations, abstract dance dramas and playoffs between academic ballet and quirky modern dance are nothing new on ballet stages. So if the program unexpectedly seemed fresh and heartfelt, credit dancers so distinctively attractive and accomplished that they consistently put the audience in seventh heaven.

At home, live music reportedly accompanies "the seventh blue" and "Seventh Symphony," and its absence in Costa Mesa imposed major problems. Beethoven's mighty Seventh has inspired major choreographers from Isadora Duncan in 1908 to Leonide Massine 30 years later, but blasting it from loudspeakers helped make some of the Stuttgart's finest dancers look under scale and insufficient. There were moments, for example, when a single soloist's extension launched deafening orchestral thunder, as if an arabesque had somehow suddenly become a kind of explosive.

More seriously, Scholz's adroit, entertaining choreography always skimmed the surface of the score, knitting everything together with sorties by a romantic central couple: the warm, supple Roberta Fernandes and her devoted partner, Ivan Gil Ortega. For spice, it added a pair of jester-jumpers (Thomas Lempertz and Eric Gauthier), and for spectacle, the stage-filling prowess of 12 couples.

But Beethoven called music "a higher revelation than wisdom and philosophy," and Scholz's disposable, by-the-numbers company showpiece got no closer to that kind of experience than a couple of glimpses of dancers staring solemnly into a pool of light -- not nearly enough.

With its stark, overhead William Forsythe-style lighting and its Jiri Kylian-style lineups with the dancers' backs to the audience, "the seventh blue" wore its European identity proudly. Using music by Franz Schubert, Gyorgy Kurtag and Dieter Fenchel, the plotless choreography kept adding wiggles, twitches and sudden spasms of flexed feet to the classroom ballet steps and positions that dominated the work.

However, Spuck is not a genuine maverick a la Mats Ek: His eccentricities never seemed integral but rather a kind of afterthought, as if dancers who nonchalantly stroll or energetically jog into classical positions somehow become iconoclastic. But the company delivered fabulous proficiency here -- the kind of loving projection of every detail that would make any choreographer look his or her best.

Partnered by seven men, one by one, Katja Wunsche danced the only major role in the piece with perfect control and impressive stamina. Moreover, such paragons as Elena Tentschikowa, Jason Reilly, Fernandes (again) and Douglas Lee managed to shine in Spuck's demanding high-speed ensemble passages. Taped accompaniment replaced not only the company orchestra, but also the small group of instrumentalists that normally plays in a corner of the stage.

Lee didn't dance in "Cindys Gift," but his choreography, costumes and lighting kept him front and center in this downbeat study of an initially isolated young woman who gains no satisfaction from involvement with a six-member group.

The early sections contrasted contorted solos for Bridget Breiner with more formal and placid group dances. Enhancing the contrasts: the juxtaposition of an anecdotal spoken text with music by Roderick Vanderstraeten. But when Ortega and then the other men partnered Breiner, the accompaniment shifted to cold, spare John Cage sonorities. In the finale, the choreography resumed its deliberately split personality and Breiner ended up literally going around in circles on a revolving platform.

The old Stuttgart Ballet -- the company that delighted Americans starting in the late 1960s with its mastery of psychologically complex character dancing -- might have asked Breiner to act her conflicts.

Lee, however, revealed them through her body sculpture, and the tense, twisted power of her performance made a compelling case for his approach.


Stuttgart Ballet

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: Tonight at 8 (mixed bill). Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. ("Romeo and Juliet").

Price: $20 to $75.

Contact: (714) 556-ARTS.

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