YOU'LL need a library card to get the most from the ballets coming to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in the next few months. Maybe a subscription to Netflix as well. So many ambitious adaptations from world lit, all teeming with complex character conflicts and depictions of societies in various stages of decay.
First out of the stacks: John Neumeier's deeply thoughtful and inventive "The Lady of the Camellias," choreographed for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1978 and danced Tuesday in Costa Mesa by Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet, a company rich in powerful dancing actors, if a mite under-rehearsed on this occasion.
Using music by Chopin (on tape, save for a few onstage piano solos by Richard Hoynes), the ballet retells the events in the novel by Alexandre Dumas Jr. for an audience fast on the uptake.
Neumeier is a master of balletic montage, so the relationship between the ill-fated courtesan Marguerite (or Camille, if you like) and her intense, inexperienced lover, Armand, flashes by in the theatrical equivalent of linked dissolves from a film. Subsidiary characters dance while major characters mime -- and we take it all in because split focus is another of this choreographer's accomplishments.
It doesn't hurt that the handsome scenery by Jurgen Rose keeps melting away to show us private moments, hidden relationships, or that the flashback structure of the work (actually a double flashback) keeps major narrative moments and a series of brilliant lovers' duets coming at us in feverish profusion.
Some of those duets belong to a ballet within the ballet: the tragic story of Manon Lescaut and her lover Des Grieux, characters from the 18th century who invade the consciousness of Marguerite and Armand to show them their destinies. But beyond offering a narrative parallel that makes Marguerite's death scene especially imaginative, the Manon sequences represent a testament to the power of ballet as an art form.
As in Neumeier's more recent "Nijinsky" (which OCPAC audiences saw in 2004), we watch a dance performance take over the hearts and minds of the protagonists, bringing them face to face with their deepest needs. It is Neumeier's tribute to the core of his life, and reportedly his "Death in Venice" (to be performed this weekend) includes another statement about dance as a transformative obsession.
There are lapses in the nearly three-hour work: divertissement-padding in Act 2, for example, that barely passes as social portraiture. Armand falls (or flings himself) to the floor far too often, even for a high-Romantic firebrand. And there are things that Neumeier fails to do, most notably explain why Armand's father demands that Marguerite abandon his son. Neumeier is extraordinarily resourceful in portraying her feelings during their confrontation, but the hollowness of the scene can't be pasted over.
The ballet was created for the great dramatic ballerina Marcia Haydee and is dedicated to her. And because Marguerite is a star in her Parisian orbit, star casting or presence is an essential component of the role. Joelle Boulogne brings phenomenal stamina to the duets and a winsome vulnerability to the dramatic episodes, but it's easy to overlook her in ensemble scenes -- and that's a problem.
As Armand, Alexandre Riabko develops impressively from a callow, passionate suitor to a deeply wounded and even cruel sensualist, dancing the role's bravura passages thrillingly. Eduardo Bertini partners strongly as Armand's father and does what he can to justify the character's arc from disdain to sympathy. As Manon, Heather Jurgensen artfully evolves from a ballerina giving a stage performance to a projection of Marguerite's all-consuming fears. Otto Bubenicek looks initially effortful in the exposed classical partnering required of Des Grieux but soon settles into a versatile, charismatic performance. Cast as Marguerite's friends, Catherine Dumont (Prudence) and Helene Bouchet (Olympia) make the most of their opportunities. Carsten Jung (Gaston), Susanne Menck (Nanina), Yaroslav Ivanenko (the Duke) and Yohan Stegli (Count N.) are also prominent.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: "The Lady of the Camellias," 7:30 tonight; "Death in Venice," 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Price: $25 to $85
Info: (714) 556-2787 or