'Mr. B' visits the Alex

What's a Los Angeles Ballet for, if not to stage a Balanchine festival?

After all, that seemingly undisputed king of 20th-century pointe-dancing at New York City Ballet — George Balanchine — whose choreography graces the stages of companies throughout the land and others worldwide, has been enthroned by his emissaries. And one of them, Colleen Neary, co-directs LAB, along with Thordal Christensen.

So we did expect to see Balanchine gems in the current show, on view this afternoon at the Alex Theatre. But Neary and her sister Patricia — both of them former soloists with NYCB and hand-picked by their Russian-born master to be custodians of his ballets — had something even more special than their expert stagings of his works on this bill: revelations about life in the studio with this man who likened himself to "only a baker," but who turned out hundreds of treasured ballets, many of them magical, over a long career.

And those stories, as told in a pre-performance talk, are legion. Together with moderator Lewis Segal — a critic of scrupulous scholarship and encyclopedic memory — they shared, yes, revelations. And it's time, at this 30th anniversary of Balanchine's death, time enough for those tales of up-close encounters with Mr. B. to have taken on a patina.

The sisters Neary, who are direct opposites of each other — Pat, flamboyant in a low-cut, short dress, gregarious and wittily self-mocking in her talk of double hip replacements; Colleen, more demure and less showy but just as unreserved in describing Mr. B's foibles — did, in fact, tell of vibrant memories of the man they served, a man who also seemed to delight in raising the competitive temperature between them.

"A lot of my stories need to be censored," Pat admitted, teasing the audience with what she would not reveal. But unabashedly she quoted him. "'You look like Frankenstein,' he said, as he walked stiffly and sternly towards me, after the performance of my first big part, Choleric, from 'Four Temperaments.'

"I guessed it was the dramatic faces he didn't like. But 20 years later he remembered making me cry then. 'I'm sorry I called you Frankenstein' he confessed."

Neither did Colleen escape Mr. B.'s scrutiny. In a lively Hungarian number she danced, one that "deserved a smile," she recalls, he chased her backstage to say "'But you smiled! What? Was your mother out front?'" So aghast was the balletmaster at any kind of flirtation with the audience.

The lesson was learned. And the work goes on as these guardians of his ballets travel around the world mounting them cleanly, stripping away all such unwanted growth to achieve the Balanchine aesthetic: the dancer as a blank slate except for the telegraphing of movement performed with musicality, exhilaration, speed and clarity.

But that was just one aspect of life in Balanchine's NYCB. Asking for a role, back then, or for more performing assignments, proved another invitation to disaster.

Colleen recounts how a boy begged to dance more and the company chief answered by telling him that the theater doors opened at seven o'clock: "'Well, there's no audience at seven,' the boy stammered. 'Then I'll get you one,' Mr. B said."

And there were many other complexities to the Balanchine personality — one showed up with the presence of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who briefly joined NYCB to learn from the master the purity of his ingenious ballets.

"My theory," said Pat, "is that Balanchine was jealous of Misha and his stardom." In fact, he drew so much attention in the world that audiences came [to NYCB] just to see him."

"That's why Balanchine didn't use him often," added Colleen. "He even cut the number of his turns. Misha was brilliant. He could do anything."

But "anything" was what Balanchine reserved for himself to create — such as some of the famous details of his abstract classic, "Serenade."

The girl who goes down on the floor, for instance, became part of the choreography when, during a rehearsal, a dancer fell. Colleen recalls: "'I like that,' Balanchine said, watching what happened. Leave it in.' And at another point a dancer's pinned-up hair fell loose to her shoulders. 'Keep it,' he said. 'It looks like a Clairol ad!'"

But nothing looked like a Clairol ad at UCLA's Royce Hall when L.A. Ballet danced "Balanchine Gold," the first program in its current festival season (repeating at the Alex).

In the rarity department there was "La Sonnambula," which looks outwardly like a narrative work but barely conceals Balanchine's parody on courtly 19th century ballet. Here the men wear glittery smiles and flash effeminate fingers exaggeratedly. The plot also gets characterized as a send-up. And Vittorio Rieti's score, after Bellini, furthers the point with its lush, Hollywoodized effects.

The main interest, though, for Balanchine appears to be his focus once again on another iteration of Giselle/Odette through the title character, danced evocatively by Chelsea Page Johnston. Holding her candle, she bourrées hauntedly across the stage, backward, forward, always unseeing of the Poet, an ardent Zheng Hua Li. And although the lighting for their segment is too bright, the whole company brought the work off engagingly.

For sparkling bravura that harkens back to Imperial roots, there was the "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," a grateful vehicle for the dazzling Alynne Noelle and elegant Kenta Shimizu.

And for the bill's neo-classical half there was "The Four Temperaments" (or in Pat Neary's NYCB lingo, "The Four T's"), danced with the same gusto and sense of geometry in motion that Balanchine felt responding to Hindemith's commissioned score — a marvelous coming together of minds. And special kudos to Kate Highstrete dancing Choleric with lean angularity.

But "Concerto Barocco," so exposing of any slight hesitancy or technical effortfulness, is always hard to pull off. I can't forget the galumphing ensemble at the company's first performance of it years ago. And although this outing was an improvement, all was not rhinestone sparkle.

What: Los Angeles Ballet — Balanchine Festival

Where: Alex Theatre, 216 Brand Blvd, Glendale

When: 2 p.m., Sunday, March 31

Tickets: $24-$95

More info: (818) 846-5323, www.losangelesballet.org


DONNA PERLMUTTER is an ASCAP-Award winning music/dance critic and journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and many other publications. She is also the author of "Shadowplay: The Life of Antony Tudor." Email her at donna.perlmutter@gmail.com.

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