Stylized swings from head to toe

Times Staff Writer

POINTED toes versus flexed feet: On Tuesday, American Ballet Theatre opened a seven-performance engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center with three works contrasting these classical and anticlassical movement impulses.

Looking strong and often stylish, the company delivered choreographies created from 1928 to 2001 with relish for the interplay of tradition and innovation that gives each piece its distinction, whatever its subject.

George Balanchine's "Apollo," the earliest of these works, portrays the birth and preparation for greatness of a Greek god -- and in its time it also heralded the emergence of a whole new way of dancing that came to be called neoclassicism. Based on the academic ballet vocabulary but conceived at new levels of speed and technical complexity, this link between the past and future pioneered radical ideas about partnering and introduced plenty of contorted deviations from conventional balletic placement.

Soggy playing of Stravinsky's score by members of the Pacific Symphony and some ill-matched ensembles by the three resident Muses marginally blunted Tuesday's performance. But Maria Riccetto (Calliope) danced quite beautifully, and, as usual, Gillian Murphy (Polyhymnia) exuded prowess.

Julie Kent (Terpsichore) looked a mite brittle, but David Hallberg's debut performance in the title role showed inexperience only in some of the gymnastics of the pas de deux and in the passage that evokes Apollo driving the horses of the sun. Otherwise he brought a welcome edge of wildness to the young god, as well as great nobility of line and clarity of execution.

The company premiere of John Cranko's "Jeu de Cartes" (1965) served Stravinsky better and found Irina Dvorovenko offering a delicious parody of ballerina mannerisms (including some of her own) in the first "deal" of this comic poker-ballet.

As always, the irrepressible red-haired Joker dominated all the shifting, shuffling card-dancers, and Herman Cornejo displayed great flair and technical bravado in this assignment. As the unwanted Two of Diamonds in the final section, Erica Cornejo took rejection sweetly and sorrowfully. However, on this evening of deliberately clashing styles, the five men depicting a straight flush in hearts ("Second Deal") proved especially exciting because this was where Cranko leavened poker metaphor and ballet parody with exciting, modernistic movement experiment.

When each of these cards soloed, Cranko embellished the steps with head-nodding and shoulder-wiggling, gave classical step-combinations unexpected caractere terminations or simply suspended symmetry in favor of angularity.

Some of these strategies also turn up in Mark Morris' recent "Gong," an entertaining ensemble piece that has nothing to do with card games but, like Cranko's ballet, divides the cast into sets of five and spends a lot of energy shuffling and reshuffling everyone into new alignments.

Set to Colin McPhee's propulsive "Tabuh-Tabuhan," the choreography ignores both the exoticism in the score and the dark mood of its final section. Instead, it exploits alternating forays of women in tutus, women in skirtlets and men in sleeveless body wear -- all designed with maximum variety of color by Isaac Mizrahi.

Charles Barker conducted authoritatively, with Barbara Bilach and David LaMarche attending to the crucial piano solos. But the most intense and technically adventuresome dancing arguably took place in silence between sections: a duet for Maria Riccetto and Carlos Lopez early on, and one for Misty Copeland and Marcelo Gomes before the finale.

As in his full-length "Sylvia" for San Francisco Ballet, Morris stayed awfully conservative in "Gong," continually playing at modernism but making sure to deliver plenty of standard-issue virtuosity.

His most daring invention may have been the lift in which each man brings his partner's pointed foot down to the floor over and over, bam-bam-bam, as if her toe shoe were a jackhammer intended to crack concrete.

Pointe work used to break our hearts. Now it tries to pierce the pavement. So much for progress.

*

American Ballet Theatre

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

When: 8 p.m. today (mixed bill); 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday ("Sylvia")

Price: $25 to $85

Contact: (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org

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