Category: Debra Levine

Doing the Holland-Chicago shuffle

April 3, 2010 |  8:30 am

Jim KLM Royal Dutch Airline’s O’Hare-Schiphol direct flight has been a burning tube of dance talent in recent years. In a cultural exchange melding Dutch pragmatism with the steadfast made-in-Chicago version, two of the world’s top dance companies recently swapped artistic directors.

In 2009, Jim Vincent, artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for nine years, took up the reins of Nederlands Dance Theater (an alum, he had danced there in the 1980s), creating the Chicago opening for Glenn Edgerton. Edgerton, known in Los Angeles as a former Joffrey Ballet soloist and for his brief stint at the Colburn School’s dance program, had also danced with NDT under Jirí Kylián. Edgerton eventually ran the adventurous European company himself from 1994 to 2004. 

What matters most about the intercontinental travel is choreography. NDT, considered the great incubator for top European dance makers Nacho Duato, Jorma Elo, Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe and Kylián, occupies one end of a pipeline funneling avant-garde ballets into the U.S. This addition significantly repositions Hubbard Street, a former jazz-dance-based ensemble, onto a global platform. 

I caught up with Edgerton in advance of Hubbard Street’s Music Center performances next weekend. Read my interview in Arts & Books.

-- Debra Levine

Photo: Jim Vincent 

Dance review: Rosanna Gamson's 'Tov' at REDCAT

March 22, 2010 |  1:30 pm


“Tov,” Rosanna Gamson’s full-evening dance-theater production named for the simple Hebrew word for “good,” exuded the powerful feeling that an artist had kicked up her game. A confident choreographer deploying a full theatrical toolbox of movement, music, words and props for eight performances in REDCAT’s black box theater had arrived. Taking aim at a horse story, she got good results. 

Four years in the making, and emerging from Gamson’s apprenticeship in Polish interdisciplinary theater, “Tov,” explores themes of survival relative to German genetic experimentation to revive an extinct breed of horses as “Aryans.” Gamson’s touchstone is the knowledge that her family forebears were Polish horse traders. CHOREA theater of Lodz, Poland, lends three performers to the show, as well as composer Tomasz Krzyzanowski, who contributed the melancholy sound score.

REDCAT’s prosaic stadium-seating arrangement, reconfigured into a dark, subterranean football field with viewing at stage level, proved a world-class vessel for Gamson’s shtetl imaginings. "Tov" opened Thursday and continues through Saturday. [Correction: A previous version of this post said performances continued through Sunday.]

“Tov” began with a choir of female dancers clad in simple house frocks and bare legs singing tightly textured Bulgarian folk songs. At the far end of the 56-foot-long space, dancers twisted under a sprinkling of snowflakes evoking wintry Poland. Barnyard sounds – tweets, snorts and neighs – tickled our ears. The choreographer’s fresh movement invention included an athletic yet mysterious balance, with a fully extended body hovering close to the floor. Rachel Butler-Green gave Gamson’s leggy lunges and arrow arms clear reading.

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Dance review: 'Kings of the Dance' at the Ahmanson Theatre

February 17, 2010 |  1:00 pm


The best dog-and-pony show in town — paced by thoroughbred racehorse David Hallberg — was impresario Sergei Danilian’s ballet franchise, “Kings of the Dance,” which opened a two-night run as part of the Dance at the Music Center series Tuesday night. The all-star showcase of top male ballet dancers, now in its third permutation after an Orange County debut in 2006, demonstrated a spectrum of national styles of ballet pedagogy.

British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who contributed a quartet, “For 4,” explained in a video that “Kings” is designed to meld “Russian refinement, American attack and Spanish spontaneity.”

KingsGallery Fair (and alliterative) enough. But beyond that high-minded stuff, “Kings” also gave seven monster technicians permission — and an outlet — to leave the ladies in tutus behind and let loose their spectacular ballet chops. They did this with great gusto in an evening-ending coda, tossing off every thrilling grena de that ballet technique offers to men. The rapid-fire barrage of soaring leaps and whirring vertical air turns, some with scissoring directional changes while hanging in space, reduced the Ahmanson Theatre audience to blithering disbelief.

En route to this fabulous payoff came a mélange of works showing the sensitive side of the masculine psyche. Hallberg, the 27-year-old blond wonder from South Dakota, made a perhaps overly reverential tour of a rarely seen, somewhat thin solo created by Frederick Ashton for Anthony Dowell in 1978. Clad in ghostly white, Hallberg’s presence riveted, as did, unavoidably, his enormous long line: tapering elastic legs, high-arched feet, perfectly placed head, and splendid artful hands. He was a huge white bird.

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Dance review: 'The Butterfly Lovers' at the Ahmanson Theatre

February 13, 2010 |  2:36 pm

Sunday’s collision of St. Valentine’s Day with Chinese New Year spawns a dilemma: whether to exchange a valentine or hongbao (both are red, but the Chinese traditional “lucky envelopes” contain cash). Beijing Dance Academy’s new version of “The Butterfly Lovers,” running through Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, provides a solution. Ushering in the Year of the Tiger also portends romance! 

The 32-member troupe, comprised of graduates of China’s premier dance training ground, is testing the world stage in an environment in which diminishing state support requires revenue generation to fund the Academy’s existence.

Opening its plucky, colorful program Friday night were six short dances, several costumed in long silk gowns with extended sleeves that rippled in the breathy phrasing of Chinese traditional dance. With few exceptions, the rigorously trained and highly presentable dancers were under-challenged by choreography that settled in a primitive comfort zone of ever-evolving geometric shapes.

In “Lotus Flower in June,” fleet-footed ladies, dressed in pink silken trousers, their hair knotted in tight high buns, pitter-pattered through soft-edged formations. Their lovely smiles and gently tilting heads indicated a world of harmonious symmetry, a pleasant enough falsehood. Scurrying around the stage with green fans like Busby Berkeley lasses on quaaludes, their effortless technique shimmered, especially in swift backward moonwalks.

The best dances were for men. “Infinite,” a male solo set to acclaimed composer Tan Dun’s score, juxtaposed space-carving qi gong martial arts movement with the quirky, jerky arms of a Chinese Petrushka puppet. Gao Chengming’s dance excelled for its use of syncopation and for its polished performance by Wang Shengfeng.

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'Avatar's' choreographer, and then some

January 30, 2010 | 10:00 am

Lula "Avatar" employed innovative technology to set the Na’vi tribe in motion. The 3-D camera used in filming allowed the director to view the dancers within a computer-generated virtual environment, even though they were working on a “performance-capture” set.

The packs visible on the dancers' legs help capture the motion. The entire uniform — a unitard with computer-reading nodules dispersed throughout — also includes head gear to catch facial expression. But, while on break, the dancers shed the hot, encompassing shells.

Lula Washington’s “Avatar” credit is a felicitous gig as she celebrates her 30th anniversary as a dance maker. Her company, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, launches a strong year-long performance calendar at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday.

 In my article in the Sunday’s Arts & Books section, I describe the Lula Washington juggernaut.

-- Debra Levine

Photo: Lula Washington, second from left, with director James Cameron on the set of the movie "Avatar"

Credit: Mark Fellman/Twentieth Century Fox

The Joffrey's new maestro, Ashley Wheater

January 25, 2010 |  5:30 am


The handsome, long-legged Ashley Wheater seemed typecast for leading male roles in 19th century romantic story-ballets when he danced with the Royal Ballet, London Festival Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Australian Ballet.

“I grew up in a company [the Royal] with so much narrative work. I love it. So much new work is abstract and highly physical. But it’s not the same challenge as carrying a story over a whole evening. It demands a different discipline. The ballets that really stick out [in my career] are 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Swan Lake,' ” he told The Times in a recent conversation.

After suffering a serious neck injury, Wheater moved behind the curtain in 1996, reinventing  himself as ballet master for San Francisco Ballet. In 2007, he was named artistic director of the Joffrey, where he had danced in the ‘80s under the first generation of leaders, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, now both deceased.   

Under Wheater’s lead, the company presents Frederick Ashton’s masterwork from 1948, “Cinderella.” The ballet comes to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this week, with performances Thursday-Sunday.

In my article in Sunday's Arts & Books section, Wheater gives his take on Ashton's fairy tale ballet for grown-ups and shares memories of dancing for the esteemed British choreographer starting at age 14.

— Debra Levine

Photo: Victoria Jaiani as Cinderella in the Joffrey Ballet production.

Credit: Herbert Migdoll / The Joffrey Ballet

'The Snow Queen': It's not 'The Nutcracker'

December 18, 2009 |  9:38 am

Snow Poor Tchaikovsky.

It’s not the great Russian composer’s fault that his miraculous, sparkling and tuneful ballet score dating from 1892 percolates incessantly from shopping mall PA systems to lubricate December spending.

Nor can we blame dear departed Pyotr Ilyich for the myriad “Nutcracker” ballet productions that procreate with alarming fecundity each passing year. This season, The Times counts 21.

Holiday alternatives do exist for the imaginative ballet master. Why not stage ballet versions of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” “A Christmas Carol” or “Miracle on 34th Street”? One smart coach, Erin Holt of California Contemporary Ballet, who grew up dancing “The Nutcracker,” decided she had had enough. Holt developed a vehicle that provides all-things-Nutty: an innocuous family outing, exposure to classical ballet for kids and a big-tent approach to casting. Only, it’s not the “Nutcracker.” It’s “The Snow Queen.” And she’s been doing it for 12 years.

Adios Sugar Plum Fairy. Bienvenidos, er … Queeny. 

In sticking with an original and proprietary ballet, Holt and her Snow Queen Strategy scores high marks with local area arts funders and consultants. Click here to read my story about the community ballet production that opens tonight at Glendale Community College.  And click here for a photo gallery from Times photographer Francine Orr.

-- Debra Levine

Photo: Ryan Morrison in rehearsal. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Dancer Yvonne Mounsey honored by L.A. County Board of Supervisors

November 18, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' ballet lover Zev Yaroslavsky conferred a scroll of recognition Tuesday to former Balanchine dancer and venerable ballet instructor Yvonne Mounsey.  The scroll honors Mounsey’s lifelong contribution to ballet and marks the longtime Los Angeles resident’s 90th birthday.

Mounsey The strawberry-blond ballerina, looking slim, elegant and happy, accepted Yaroslavsky’s tribute in her lilting accent: “I enjoy my work and look forward to continuing,” she said. “We have a strong outreach program that brings in children to see our annual 'Nutcracker.' Giving children exposure to ballet is what we’re all about.” 

The South Africa-born Mounsey got her start in pre-World War II Europe when Leonide Massine hired the English-trained dancer for a stint with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, rehearing in Paris and performing on the Côte d’Azur. During the war, Mounsey danced in ballet exile in South America, and, hooking up with Colonel W. de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe, performed in Australia under the stage name Irina Zarova. Mounsey then participated in the post-war artistic blooming of New York City, dancing for George Balanchine.  

She met Balanchine in 1941 (he was then a struggling freelance choreographer) and was invited to join his new troupe in 1948. Her name appeared on New York City Ballet’s first roster, alongside legends Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, Tanaquil LeClercq and Patricia Wilde.

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The man behind Marilyn Monroe's moves

August 8, 2009 | 11:00 am

In a Sunday Arts & Books article, Debra Levine tells the tale of choreographer Jack Cole and how he helped turn Marilyn Monroe, actress, into Marilyn Monroe, icon. It happened with their first collaboration, the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" sequence in "Gentleman Prefer Blondes."

Watch the scene and then read the article here.

-- Sherry Stern

Dance review: 'Peter and the Wolf Jump Cool' at Ford Amphitheatre

June 7, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Peter&wolf "Tough luck, duck!” the narrator drawled amid the cheerful hullabaloo of choreographer Robyn Gardenhire’s family-friendly 1960s-retro ballet, “Peter and the Wolf Jump Cool,” which opened the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre’s 17th summer season on Saturday night. Seated on a high perch smartly clad in emerald-green, actress Sloan Robinson read her own scripted version of the children’s fable, her witty words interwoven with jazz composer/arranger Oliver Nelson’s 1966 adaptation of Prokofiev’s beloved score.

The Duck in question -- and she’s no swan as played by City Ballet of Los Angeles dancer Perris McCracken -- paraded her long legs on pointe shoes that accentuated the pouf of feathers saucily cushioning her derriere. The plucky duck has fallen for the considerable charms of a big, bad London swinger named Wolfie (Gary Franco), accessorized with peace-sign neck medallion and Austin Powers spectacles. But in Gardenhire’s winsome view of Peter and his feathery friends, ballet birds flap happily ever after. They’re empowered; it’s the '60s embellished by a “you go, girl!”

The ballet’s boisterously fun disco-party scene had go-go girls doing the monkey and the jerk in groovy jumpsuits and rainbow-colored Afro wigs. In fluttered Bird (Ellen Rosa), dressed adorably in a Catholic schoolgirl miniskirt (also poufed by feathers) and knee-high socks, a scrumptious costume finished by a single tapered feather topping her bird-hunter’s chapeau.

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