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Dance review: Compania Nacional de Danza at the Orange County Performing Arts Center

May 7, 2010 |  4:00 pm

Spainballet For the past 20 years, the ballets of artistic director Nacho Duato have defined Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza. So much so that it’s surprising to recall the troupe existed in very different form before Duato came on board. 

Come July, however, Duato will move on, after a disagreement over artistic policy, and the troupe will have to reinvent itself. Duato’s impending departure lent poignancy to the company’s first full program at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Thursday night.

Poignant too was the small turnout; patrons with tickets in the balconies were reseated in the orchestra section. Despite the influx downstairs, empty chairs still gaped in Segerstrom Hall.

The program of three ballets was a mini-profile of the best and worst of the choreographer’s instincts and skill: the soaring joy he is capable of creating and the misfire of emptiness on the other, when steps become pro forma repetitions.

That’s a wide continuum. Within this divide, Duato’s ballets are slick and often visually striking. The geometric groupings of handsome taut men and women scurrying in unison deliver a visceral punch. Symmetrical poses and a pulsating flow to Duato’s pieces push a viewer’s buttons, in the same way that John Williams’ movie scores raise anticipation through their brassy fanfares. Duato knows how to manipulate emotions.

Other times, emotional response flows naturally. In “Arenal,” the evening’s final piece, Duato wrung spare and powerful beauty from his genuine kinship with the songs of Majorcan María del Mar Bonet (all the music was recorded). Created in 1988 while Duato was a dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater, “Arenal” was his second piece inspired by and created to Bonet’s crystalline vocals. Like the first, “Jardí Tancat,” “Arenal” is about the people living next to the Mediterranean Sea, and Duato’s connection to it and them is an essential component of his soul.

In a dark brown dress, Yolanda Martin performed grounded, fraught solos to a cappella lyrics of realistic life. Alternating with her somber sections, Duato created buoyant leaps and partnering displays of great warmth for a duet, trio and quartet of dancers. The trio of Marina Jiménez, Francisco Lorenzo and Gentian Doda created an effervescent sparkle with their uplifting portrayals.

In 2005, Duato attempted another geographic-cultural portrait in “Gnawa,” but the piece only vaguely conjured the spirit of Morocco and the Gnawans, descendants of black slaves. Using a patchwork score of Spanish and North African musicians, “Gnawa” juxtaposed passages of fast-paced unity for six couples, with sensuous duets for Isaac Montllor and Macarena González.

Wearing nude-colored tights and leotard, González was part spirit, part muse. Montllor, dressed in white pants and shirt  like the other men, partnered her gently, without amorous intentions. In a final pose, González reached skyward, her arm imitating a flickering flame.

It was hard to find anything worthwhile in Duato’s all-male “Castrati,” from 2002. This questionable work, set to Vivaldi choral pieces (sung by contraltos) and Karl Jenkins' “Palladio,” dealt clumsily with the centuries-old practice of castrating boys to create a high-pitched male chorus.

Duato opted for a literal interpretation – men covered their crotches – that left no doubt where it would all end. Sure enough, innocent Stein Fluijt was encircled by the black-cloaked fraternity and exited with a red stain on his hands, his body twisted and broken center stage.

Take me back to the Mediterranean, please.

--Laura Bleiberg

Compañia Nacional de Danza, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa,  7:30 p.m Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, $14 to $94.  (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org

Photo: Members of Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza perform "Gnawa" with choreography by Nacho Duato at Orange County Performing Arts Center Thursday. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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