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L.A. Ballet’s Balanchine Festival follows in master’s steps

A co-founder of Los Angeles Ballet, Colleen Neary is the guiding light behind the company’s tribute festival to influential choreographer George Balanchine.
(Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles Times)

This story has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

Colleen Neary will never forget the day when George Balanchine articulated the blueprint for her life’s work. She was in her early 20s, then a respected New York City Ballet dancer.

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“He put me in to teach company class,” she says. “He said to me, ‘This is what you will do in the future.’ I said I wanted to dance, but he said, ‘You won’t dance forever. You will teach dancers my ballets.”

Fast forward to 2013, to a rehearsal of Balanchine’s 1941 “Concerto Barocco” at the Westside headquarters of Los Angeles Ballet.

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Neary, now 60 and the company’s co-founder, surveys her dancers with microscopic scrutiny as they attempt to master the rigorously precise footwork, high-energy unison phrases and tricky group formations of the 18-minute dance.

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Both critical and encouraging, she invokes the words of her mentor during the section where three female dancers must weave around the sole male dancer in the work, interlocking hands and arms to create sculptural yet quickly dissolving tableaux.

“Balanchine always used to say, ‘You should be walking around like Grecian goddesses,’ ” she tells the female dancers. “You’re missing this thing. In all his ballets, there’s this thing that’s more than the steps. It’s about feeling beautiful within yourself, and I can’t teach you that.”

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Neary, however, can remember how the famous choreographer known as Mr. B made his dancers feel beautiful, and it’s this firsthand experience that serves as the guiding force behind her company’s Balanchine Festival 2013.

“Colleen has this great gift for challenging dancers to embody the Balanchine aesthetic,” says Ellen Sorrin, director of the George Balanchine Trust, which authorizes the staging of Balanchine’s ballets worldwide. “It’s an enormous responsibility to do what she’s doing, to disseminate Balanchine’s works as fully and wonderfully as possible.”

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Neary is among three dozen repetiteurs that the Balanchine Trust has approved to teach the choreographer’s works, and she’s applying this expertise to one of Los Angeles Ballet’s most significant ventures since its debut in 2006 with its inaugural “Nutcracker” production.

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Starting this week and spread over a four-month period in five venues across Los Angeles, the company’s Balanchine Festival features performances of seven ballets, including classics such as “Concerto Barocco,” “The Four Temperaments” and “Agon.” With Balanchine in the company’s DNA, it’s not surprising that L.A. Ballet has performed some of these in earlier seasons, including “Concerto Barocco.”

The festival will include a pre-performance series of panel discussions led by Neary and other Balanchine experts that pay tribute to the choreographer’s life and legacy 30 years after his death.

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“When you look at Balanchine’s works today, they are still so modern, advanced and edgy in a way that many choreographers today can’t replicate,” says Los Angeles Ballet co-founder (and Neary’s husband) Thordal Christensen. “He tore apart and twisted the classical ballet and made it something extreme. And if his ballets are taught well, then they speak for themselves.”

After the rehearsal, Christensen and Neary settle into their shared, spacious office to talk about the company. The festival, they agree, has a purpose beyond attempting to shed fresh light on the man who’s still widely regarded as the foremost innovator of 20th century ballet’s vocabulary and subject matter. It also allows them to show the public that their company has definitively evolved from a fledgling start-up into a vibrant regional institution that can attract and retain top-notch dancers.

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In previous years, Los Angeles Ballet has faced criticism for its high turnover of dancers, which has included Melissa Barak, a former New York City Ballet dancer turned independent choreographer, and Corina Gill, now an acclaimed dancer with Boston Ballet. Currently, many of the company’s dancers hail fresh out of conservatories, but all of its principal dancers, including former Miami City Ballet soloist Allynne Noelle, have been with the company at least three seasons.

“There’s no other program we can put on that displays our company this way because Balanchine’s ballets show off each dancer to their fullest capabilities,” says Neary. “The hope is that audiences will not only understand who Balanchine was but that they’ll see the growth and direction this company has taken.”

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Officially founded in 2004, the company launched two years later with 21 dancers, about $900,000 raised from private funders and foundations, and the belief that success could be achieved through incremental yet steady growth.

Today, Los Angeles Ballet has achieved a modest yet undeniable expansion of its scope and ambitions with some 35 dancers, a $2.5-million operating budget and a commitment to eclectic programming that, in addition to Balanchine repertory, includes classical story ballets and new works by local choreographers.

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This July the company will perform at downtown’s Grand Park in a production of Balanchine’s “Agon” and “Rubies,” with music by Igor Stravinsky, sponsored by the Music Center. Those performances will mark a first-time partnership with the Music Center as part of that institution’s yearlong commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

“I’ve been watching this company since its beginnings, and I think that Colleen and Thordal have been growing it strategically and smartly,” says Renae Williams Niles, the Music Center’s director of programming. “There’s also nothing more essential for a company than having a distinct voice, and I believe they achieve that.”

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Part of that voice lies with Neary and her relationship with Balanchine, both as one of his dancers and as someone whom he personally groomed to perpetuate his legacy. Today she can talk for hours about what she learned from the choreographer, whom she says first and foremost imbued his dancers with a sense of their own beauty. “He always put a lot of knowledge into your head as you were dancing,” she adds. “He would teach you the musicality of his pieces, not only by counting but by what kind of intonation a certain step needed to have. And he never wanted a dancer to save her energy. You could not save yourself for the performance. He would say, ‘You have to dance for now.’ ”

Though she tries to avoid “preaching” to her dancers, Neary makes a regular practice of sharing personal anecdotes about Balanchine during company rehearsals. “It’s very cool to hear firsthand the things that Balanchine would comment on,” says Julia Cinquemani, a 21-year-old dancer in her third season with L.A. Ballet. “You start to understand the way he wanted certain things in his ballets and what the feelings are behind them.”

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For Neary, who retired from New York City Ballet in 1979, preserving the integrity of Balanchine’s dances has become an increasingly urgent calling. “We’re the last living link,” she says of her generation of NYCB dancers and ballet mistresses now working with the Balanchine Trust. “Dancers today don’t know who Balanchine was, so it becomes even more important that I do this work.”

Even when she’s not staging his repertory, Neary says she feels Balanchine’s presence almost daily.

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“We’re here trying to make our company work in the same way that Balanchine did,” she says of his co-founding New York City Ballet. “He used to say, ‘I have to show the dancers that I am as committed as they are.’ We could never be tired because he was never tired, and in this way, he’s a huge part of who we are.”

calendar@latimes.com

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[For the record, 10:54 p.m. March 8: A previous version of this story had L.A. opera in the headline instead of L.A. Ballet.]

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Balanchine Festival 2013

Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, Royce Hall, UCLA, Valley Performing Arts Center, Alex Theatre and Carpenter Performing Arts Center

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When: Through April 6 and May 11 through June 9

Tickets: $24 to $95

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Information: (310) 998-7782 or https://www.losangelesballet.org

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