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Review: L.A. Ballet’s ambitious all-Balanchine program leads to missteps, but also one big triumph

Dancers who were new to every role gave the challenging three-part program by Los Angeles Ballet on Saturday the thrills of a high-wire act without a net. Would anyone fall? (Yes, once.) Would anyone succeed brilliantly? (Yes, more than once.)

Emergency casting added another edge to the experience at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. An injury to principal dancer Allyssa Bross caused the company to fly in Lia Cirio to take on major roles in two ballets. A principal with Boston Ballet, Cirio not only displayed refined technique but an ability to give herself to the music that took you deeply into the choreography. Since all of the choreography was created by George Balanchine, the stakes were high indeed.

It was a shrewd programming ploy to include on the same bill Balanchine’s 1956 “Divertimento No. 15” and his 1970 “Who Cares?” Though radically different in style, these plotless showpieces share structural similarities and, especially, a string of complex, effervescent women’s solos. “Divertimento” is danced to Mozart and seems to belong in an 18th-century royal court; “Who Cares?” is danced to Gershwin and seems to belong on a 20th-century Broadway stage. Cirio appeared perfectly at home in both environments — as did the regal Bianca Bulle and the lyrical Julia Cinquemani.

Tigran Sargsyan, left, and Lia Cirio, who substituted for an injured Los Angeles Ballet dancer, perform "Divertimento No. 15" at the Alex Theatre on Saturday.
Tigran Sargsyan, left, and Lia Cirio, who substituted for an injured Los Angeles Ballet dancer, perform "Divertimento No. 15" at the Alex Theatre on Saturday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A company premiere, “Divertimento” will need more performances to erase the sense of strain periodically evident on Saturday. But Madison McDonough brought ease and refinement to some exceptionally difficult steps in her variation. What’s more, the staging by company co-director Colleen Neary kept the fabled musicality of the ballet firmly in focus.

Although the company has programmed “Who Cares?” before, the new cast and Neary’s staging enforced elegance as well as pizzazz. As the resident dreamboat wooing all the principal women, Tigran Sargsyan was clearly working through some of the intricate partnering issues, but eventually his remarkable generosity as a dancer came into view. He had a tough night: Along with Kenta Shimizu and Dustin True, he also danced strongly in “Divertimento” and “Prodigal Son.”

Dustin True with Laura Chachich in "Divertimento No. 15."
Dustin True with Laura Chachich in "Divertimento No. 15." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

True’s stellar breakthrough came earlier this season in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” and on Saturday his cautious diligence occasionally yielded to moments where he again really inhabited the choreography and made it personal. As for Shimizu, he remained faultless as a cavalier in “Divertimento” (no surprise there) but displayed unexpected dramatic powers in the title role of “Prodigal Son.”

Impeccably staged by Patricia Neary (Colleen Neary’s sister), this 1929 story ballet set to music by Prokofiev had a cohesion and surety on Saturday that made you relax and fall under its spell. Debut performances? Who could guess, when Shimizu claimed the role at full intensity?

There’s a dimension of ironic comedy here that remains to be discovered — and perhaps Shimizu externalized the character’s pain too overtly in the final scene. But his interaction with the impossibly glamorous Elizabeth Claire Walker as the Siren overcame a minefield of technical hazards with no loss to his character’s helpless confusion or her over-the-top hauteur. The seductive, greedy Siren was always as much a living cliché as the stern but forgiving Father (Zheng Hua Li). But Balanchine used these stereotypes to define in the shortest possible time the prodigal’s all-too-human arc from rebellion to contrition. And the dancers exploited their opportunities skillfully.

Kenta Shimizu, center, and the dancers of Los Angeles Ballet in "Prodigal Son."
Kenta Shimizu, center, and the dancers of Los Angeles Ballet in "Prodigal Son." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In the 1920s, the Russian ballet world considered Balanchine a radical, and “Prodigal Son” has plenty of evidence: experimental gymnastics, realistic pantomime, bizarre character dancing and plenty of sex. The academic classical vocabulary for which he’s celebrated can be found if you look for it, but a couple years shy of its 90th birthday, the work still looks newly minted — and now one of the great Los Angeles Ballet triumphs.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Los Angeles Ballet’s ‘Balanchine — Master of the Dance’

When: 7:30 p.m. March 18 at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Also 2 p.m. March 26 at Royce Hall, UCLA, 340 Royce Drive

Tickets: $31-$99

Information: (310) 998-7782, www.losangelesballet.org

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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