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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.

The freshly inventive dancewear by Gwen Sydel and the fulsome performances by City Ballet’s handsome troupe went far in outweighing the pageant’s weakest element, its choreography. It leaned toward messy and muddled right when it needed  wit and razor sharpness. Why not mirror Prokofiev’s disciplined character motifs only in dance language? Also disappointing was the recorded jazz score’s sound projection, which rendered jazz giant Jimmy Smith’s ripping organ riffs murky.

Gardenhire generously allotted program time to her troupe’s burgeoning young choreographers. Heather Lipson Bell’s 1940s mélange of dances set to six popular ballads sung by Anita Ellis was marked by the dance maker’s pleasingly unhurried touch. Next up was “Bach in Blue,” a credible if derivative balletic exercise for five, the bare-legged girls tidy in purple-blue leotards and pointe shoes. Choreographer Ellen Rosa’s hand with the classical vernacular could have been even cooler had she not starred in her own piece. And finally, Donte Phillips, so appealing as Gardenhire’s Peter, turned the wholesome City Ballet ensemble into an edgy posse partying to cool music by Black Violin. 

The evening provided a good reminder that both sides of the Cahuenga Pass rock in the summer, and that the Ford is one of the nicest spots in L.A. to quaff Chardonnay and decompress. The charming outdoor amphitheater’s summer 2009 dance series has on its roster Brazilian, flamenco, Hawaiian and Chinese community dance groups, as well as several hip-hop ventures and a timely program titled "Si Se Puede" (Yes We Can).

-- Debra Levine

Photo from City Ballet of Los Angeles