Team within a team

Special to The Times

THE lush sounds of Tchaikovsky, replete with soaring harp arpeggios and plaintive strings, fill the airy rehearsal studio with requisite romance, a tutu-clad ballerina and her noble prince moving to the music with style and grace. Surging forward, she leaps onto his shoulder, nailing the move like an Olympian, the beaming pair a tableau of sublime confidence.

Watching the grand pas de deux from "The Nutcracker," one would think the performers -- Corina Gill and Oleg Gorboulev -- have been partnered for years. In fact, the coupling is as new -- two months and counting -- as the company presenting this holiday classic.

The fledgling Los Angeles Ballet, under the artistic direction of husband-and-wife team Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, made an auspicious debut earlier this month at the Wilshire Theatre. Times dance critic Lewis Segal said the production showed "plenty of promise," singling out Gill and Gorboulev's performance of the undulating Arabian duet as being danced "with so much authority that anyone could see they're stars in the making."

Those nascent stars were also cast as Marie and her Prince for one performance during the Beverly Hills run. They'll reunite in the lead roles for the next two Saturday matinees at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center and Glendale's Alex Theatre. Guest artists are slated for the other performances as the company aspires to bring ballet to several parts of the area.

And, as is the case with most ballet dancers rising through the ranks, Gorboulev and Gill move easily between roles. In tackling the leads, though, they decidedly are ready for their close-ups.

Gorboulev's Russian-style dancing -- which the Uzbekistan native learned in part during a five-year stint with Moscow Classical Ballet -- is evident in both his passion and solid, step-perfect technique. "There was quite a pressure because of the debut of the company," he says, "and I was probably nervous. But I was pleased with our performance and think Corina and I have a good chemistry -- on stage and off the stage."

The 36-year-old danced in Indianapolis for four years and with Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet for six seasons before moving to Los Angeles in October. Although their partnership is young, Gorboulev, whose classical dancing was praised as "flawless" by Dance Magazine, says he immediately felt comfortable with Gill.

"I can make suggestions and also listen to what she has to say," he says. "And she definitely has a good sense of humor, which always helps."

Gill, 25, agrees. "I didn't know Oleg before, but we've been able to connect easily. He's strong and really looks out for you. He's one of those partners that doesn't blame everything on the girl. He's also very experienced and can help me if I haven't done something before."

Gill, who grew up in San Diego and earned a bachelor's degree in dance from UC Irvine, says she has been wanting to be part of a homegrown dance company since she was 13. Petite, with sparkling brown eyes and a porcelain complexion, she danced with Santa Barbara's State Street Ballet before winning the Los Angeles Ballet position.

"I always wanted a company to happen here," Gill says, "and I'm excited to see what comes in the future."

Plucked from auditions held in L.A. and New York, the pair beat out more than 150 hopefuls to join the troupe, which numbers 21 dancers.

"They were the most experienced dancers and were both lovely," Neary says. "We had a feeling they would fit well together."

Los Angeles Ballet also seems a good fit with the city. A needed addition to the local dance scene, the youthful group (the average age is in the mid-20s), promises to go where others before have failed. Beginning in the 1960s, Eugene Loring's Western Ballet, David Wilcox's Long Beach Ballet and John Clifford's Los Angeles Ballet have all left a wake of bourrees in their ultimately unsuccessful paths.

Even the Joffrey Ballet's 1990s bicoastal plan failed to launch, while, most recently, American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel took the reins of Ballet Pacifica, only to run up against financial problems before bowing out as the troupe's director last April. Undaunted, Christensen and Neary began planning their company shortly after moving to L.A. four years ago. Christensen, who danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet before becoming artistic director of Royal Danish Ballet, and Neary, a former New York City Ballet dancer who has staged a number of Balanchine works for major companies, offered the dancers 22-week contracts.

This new "Nutcracker," which Christensen and Neary choreographed, features a live orchestra, sets created by L.A. designer Catherine Kanner, costumes from the Royal Danish Ballet and guest stars from ABT and NYCB.

The troupe, with a projected annual budget of $1.7 million, has spring and summer seasons on tap of six concerts each, which will include works by Balanchine, among others.

"Our task," Christensen says, "is to produce world-class dance with a Los Angeles flavor, and to ignite and create an audience that can support and sustain the company. The challenge, in addition to producing great works, is to understand the L.A. landscape and create an organization that's flexible enough to make the adjustments we need in order to sustain ourselves."

Christensen and Neary, who've been married for 20 years and have two children (both in the "Nutcracker"), are passionate about the troupe as well as their adopted hometown.

"There is a lot of talent in Los Angeles," Neary says, "and that's part of our vision -- to incorporate the talent so that we are truly a Los Angeles Ballet -- with designers, composers and choreographers all working with our dancers."

For Gorboulev, who lives in Redondo Beach, navigating the city seems as challenging as executing one-armed lifts. The dancer of big jumps and buttery landings says he spends a lot of time on Pacific Coast Highway with classes and rehearsals taking place at the troupe's home base, the Malibu Performing Arts Center, and at Westside Academy of Dance, the local school affiliated with the company.

"The ballet world is very small," Gorboulev points out, "and Corina and I already have some guest engagements in San Diego and Santa Barbara this month. I also knew Colleen and Thordal a little bit from Seattle, so working with them here is very good too."

Gill, who commutes from Garden Grove with fellow dancer Tiffany Schwanz, agrees: "I think they're going about things in just the right way and they're a pleasure to work with. I hope it's the beginning of a great partnership," she says, "with Oleg, and with me and the company."

Christensen, also pondering the future, says their long-term strategy is to make works that reflect Los Angeles "and the people involved in this melting pot. I like to think that California has the [country's] oldest company -- San Francisco Ballet -- and now the youngest, Los Angeles Ballet."


'The Nutcracker'

Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach

When: 2 and 7 p.m. today, 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 30, 1 p.m. Dec. 31

Price: $28-$95

Contact: (310) 998-7782

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday December 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction 'The Nutcracker': The information box that accompanied an article about two Los Angeles Ballet "Nutcracker" dancers in Friday's Calendar section said there would be performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Those performances are today. There is also a performance at 1 p.m. Sunday.
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