When your television screen is the stage

Times Staff Writer

Four recent DVD releases range from engaging summaries of dance history to performance tapes of ballet companies that American audiences seldom see.

"Swan Lake" is not exactly a novelty on home video, but TDK gives us a 2004 performance by the ballet of La Scala, Milan, featuring Svetlana Zakharova, a star dancer who appeared with the Bolshoi Ballet (currently her home company) on a 2005 U.S. tour -- but not, alas, in Southern California.

Moreover, the DVD (available from www.naxosusa.com) offers a better version of "Swan Lake" than Zakharova dances at the Bolshoi: an inventive, exciting edition created a half-century ago by Vladimir Bourmeister for the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet.

Thanks to Bourmeister, Act 3 is no longer merely a parade of national dances but a hallucinatory cavalcade in which Prince Siegfried keeps seeing the black swan, Odile, materializing and vanishing. Bourmeister's revision also preserves the original sequencing of Tchaikovsky's score more than most "Swan Lake" stagings.

Act 2 here is credited to Lev Ivanov but lacks the hunters, the character of Benno and the storytelling pantomime from the Ivanov original. It does, however, boast the finest dancing, with Zakharova demonstrating extraordinary purity, partnered with great suavity by La Scala's noble Roberto Bolle. Directed by Tina Protasoni, the DVD features first-rate image and sound quality.

"Sacred Stage: The Mariinsky Theater" provides an hour of interviews and performance excerpts tracing the turbulent history of the multidisciplinary St. Petersburg institution best known as the Kirov.

Many of the greatest Russian artists began here (including Zakharova), though director-editor Joshua Waletzky chooses to reflect Kirov primacy through footage of two masterpieces: the Mussorgsky opera "Boris Godunov" and the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet "The Sleeping Beauty."

Local balletomanes should note that the DVD shows not the problematic Kirov "Sleeping Beauty" seen last year at the Music Center but the company's historic reconstruction of the authentic, complete 1890 original, using the set and costume designs for that version. The accomplished Zhanna Ayupova dances Aurora.

Bonus features on the DVD (available from www.firstrunfeatures.com) include a nearly complete performance of the ballet's lyrical Vision Scene.

Enlisting massive choral and orchestral forces, along with vocal soloists and more than 40 dancers from the Leipzig Ballet, "The Great Mass" is a two-hour tribute to German choreographer Uwe Scholz, taped in June, seven months after his death.

Director Hans Hulscher sometimes breaks the flow of the dancing with shots of the singers and chorus members, but otherwise this EuroArts DVD (again available from www.naxosusa.com) represents an admirably fluid and effective transcription of a complex live performance.

The ballet begins as a large-scale reflection of Mozart's mighty Mass in C Minor, with Scholz especially gifted in his use of corps geometry as well as expressive movement for the arms and upper torso. Soon music by contemporary composers and spoken poetry turn the work into a meditation on faith in the modern world.

Evocations of random terrorism and questions about our lives amounting to nothing -- the "bloom" of nothing -- end with the dancers in street clothes sitting on a bare stage listening to Mozart's "Agnus Dei," searching for affirmation.

The same search fuels "Countdown: Reflections on a Life in Dance," an impressive hourlong documentary about postmodern pioneer Rudy Perez, a Los Angeles-based choreographer since 1978.

In 2004, Perez taught his 40-year-old solo, "Countdown," to Victor Quijada, a professional dancer and former student of his. Through footage taken of the rehearsals, we learn of the detailed emotional values that Perez prizes, how his aesthetic evolved and the innovations that "Countdown" reflected.

Writer-director-editor Severo Perez (no relation) uses archival clips of varying image quality to supplement the newer material, though everything except "Countdown" has been so abbreviated that we gain little sense of how Rudy Perez's choreography develops over time -- a key element in his artistry.

Available from spfilms @aol.com, the film will be shown on a number of PBS stations in the spring. Truth-in-reporting disclosure: This writer makes three brief appearances as one of about 20 unpaid interviewees.

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