Authority issues

Times Staff Writer

In just 20 years, Miami City Ballet has become a great success story in American dance, establishing in a community almost as multicultural as our own a much-loved company of homegrown stars showcased in world-class repertory.

There was much for L.A. to enjoy and envy in the company's scrupulous execution of major works by Robbins, Balanchine and Tharp on Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But on a stage that has held some of the world's finest classical ensembles, it was easy to spot the task that lies ahead for founding director Edward Villella: a dimension of absolute technical and expressive certainty, of ownership, that was missing from all three performances. Few of the Miami principals danced as if they had the right to put an individual stamp on their roles -- and that's what keeps the company a regional ballet in sensibility as well as geography.

Anybody remember the sensational Dance Theatre of Harlem's "Fancy Free"? More unified in style than American Ballet Theatre and more full-blooded in attack than New York City Ballet in the same work, it was a benchmark staging -- and the Miami version looked small-scale in comparison.

Jerome Robbins' familiar 1944 depiction of sailors on shore leave asks ballet dancers to master colloquial gesture, pop dance steps and a Broadway manner -- all there Friday in Judith Fugate's staging but nearly as faded as the Oliver Smith set borrowed from ABT. Nothing wrong, but also nothing definitively right except the vibrant playing of Leonard Bernstein's jazzy score conducted by Akira Endo.

Luis Serrano delivered the watch-me solo expertly. Jeremy Cox broke the I'm-so-cute solo into too many components for maximum impact. Carlos Guerra needed more firepower for the Latin-bombshell solo, and where the music took off into high-intensity lyricism during the duet with Katia Carranza, his dancing stayed correct, dutiful, subdued.

Tall, handsome and a fine partner, Guerra danced leading roles in all three works, and you were always grateful to see him without believing that he had the instincts to make the rep the personal tour de force that would have raised the temperature of the evening. In George Balanchine's neoclassic abstraction "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" (1972), he and Jennifer Kronenberg neatly attended to the second and more emotionally involving of two fiendishly intricate duets that broke all the rules of the classical supported adagio.

Deanna Seay and Kenta Shimizu brought a nice sharpness of attack to the first duet, but it was the company as a whole that made the production (staged by Bart Cook and Maria Calegari) deeply persuasive. Except for the duets, Balanchine organized the work in units of five: four guys and a girl, four girls and a guy, etc., and, eventually, double-fives -- plus, in the finale, double that. The Miami corps made every choreographic switcheroo into an event, coming on strong and staying there.

Endo and violinist Raymond Kobler delivered authoritative musicianship, so a difficult challenge brought honor to all involved.

Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs" (1982) used an assortment of recorded ballads for a partnering lab: an exploration of how Tharp's multifaceted modern-dance vocabulary might enrich exhibition ballroom style. Elaine Kudo's staging kept each of the seven duets distinctive, but were the original dancers' torsos always this desensitized and block-like? Weren't there more weight and expressive choices in play?

With Seay superbly partnered by Mikhail Nikitine, "All the Way" proved the most satisfying love duet of the night, and the rough stuff in "That's Life" brought out the best -- and beast -- in Carranza and Renato Penteado.

Kronenberg and Guerra gamely tackled the impossibly contorted lifts of "One for My Baby" and, opposite Cox in "Softly as I Leave You," Haiyan Wu showed everyone exactly how to move in an Oscar de la Renta evening gown.

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