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Review: Los Angeles Ballet dances through its growing pains

Leah McCall dances her solo in “Untouched,” one of three pieces in Los Angeles Ballet’s season-opening program.
Leah McCall dances her solo in “Untouched,” one of three pieces in Los Angeles Ballet’s season-opening program.
(Reed Hutchinson / Los Angeles Ballet )

Los Angeles Ballet ended its benchmark 10th season in June as the first American company to dance Frederick Ashton’s distinctively intimate and poetic “Romeo and Juliet.” Unfortunately, that season left the company fiscally overextended, so the 11th season, which opened Saturday, has cutbacks in the roster and the repertory.

That’s disappointing, of course, but the situation forced artistic directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary to capitalize on their bedrock artistic strengths in an invigorating program at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. From Christensen’s Danish birthright came August Bournonville’s antique Pas de Six and Tarantella from “Napoli.” From Neary’s career at New York City Ballet came an authoritative staging of George Balanchine’s  wondrous “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” The directors’ longstanding commitment to new work brought Canadian modernist Aszure Barton’s quirky, challenging “Untouched” to the program too.

Kenta Shimizu and Julia Cinquemani.
Kenta Shimizu and Julia Cinquemani. (Reed Hutchinson / Los Angeles Ballet)

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The celebratory Bournonville divertissement began with a classical abstraction of folklore and then unleashed a nonstop barrage of bouncy, heel-and-toe folk steps. Technical strain from the women and hard landings from the men marred the opening section. But those shortcomings soon yielded to spot-on contributions from the excellent Julia Cinquemani and Kenta Shimizu, as well as Javier Moya Romero and Madeline Houk (replacing the injured Allyssa Bross), plus a stellar newcomer, Tigran Sargsyan, able to project Bournonville style effortlessly at opera house scale.

Dustin True flanked by Ashley Millar, left, and Madeline Houk in the
Dustin True flanked by Ashley Millar, left, and Madeline Houk in the "Napoli" excerpt. (Reed Hutchinson / Los Angeles Balley)

The “Napoli” excerpt also confirmed the growing importance of Dustin True, a versatile soloist previously seen in subsidiary roles but given major assignments in all three works Saturday. In the Bournonville and Barton pieces, you could admire his skill and spirit without feeling he’d outclassed his colleagues. But in the “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” opposite Elizabeth Claire Walker (replacing Bross), the almost contemptuous force and sensuality of his dancing made it impossible to watch anyone else — even Shimizu and Cinquemani, efficient if subdued in their duet.

In a tribute to his friendship with the composer, Balanchine initially reshuffled soloists and small ensembles, then explored two moody, intricate duets before launching a folk-accented finale requiring extraordinary precision from the whole cast. It is one of the prime neoclassic creations of the 20th century and, discounting a few lapses in stamina, the Los Angeles Ballet performance delivered its greatness impressively.

Crammed with musical and movement eccentricity, Barton’s 2010 “Untouched” looked at the tensions between group identity and individual expression. For much of the work’s length, the title proved prophetic: Everyone danced in juxtaposition but with no contact. And even when fleeting interactions occurred, the participants remained untouched in a fundamental sense: locked in their own pain and processes. With everyone wearing Fritz Masten’s floral prints, the piece evoked an upscale party at which everyone expected relationships to form but nobody really connected.

Bianca Bulle and Laura Chachich in
Bianca Bulle and Laura Chachich in "Untouched." (Reed Hutchinson / Los Angeles Ballet)

Along the way, newcomer Leah McCall dominated the stage in a dramatic solo, and Bianca Bulle endured partnering assaults stoically, but everyone in the 12-member cast took to Barton’s twisty, wiggly, off-kilter style as if ballet dancing always incorporated such oddities. Nicole Pearce designed the claustrophobic set (borrowed from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago).

Obviously, few would rejoice at Los Angeles Ballet’s cutbacks. But the company’s value stayed resplendent Saturday with no need for more of anything — expect possibly live music. Indeed, this is why we need these dancers in Los Angeles, not for hand-me-down stagings of Russian warhorses but for sustaining the living legacy of modernism (even 19th-century modernism) that has distinguished it for the last decade.

The L.A. Ballet program will visit other Southland venues in weeks to come; no doubt, other audiences will see what the Alex audience witnessed: an invaluable community resource suffering growing pains, perhaps, but still near the top of its game.

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Los Angeles Ballet

In Redondo Beach: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd.

In Westwood: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Royce Hall, UCLA

Tickets: $29.50-$104

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

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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