Los Angeles Ballet takes on three of Balanchine’s black and white masterpieces

By Christina Campodonico

There’s a moment in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” when everyone in that ballet’s ensemble hops on their toes in a diagonal line, rising and falling like tinkling piano keys. Although the ballerinas are bouncing to the strident strings of Bach, their jumps embody the spirit of Balanchine’s “black and white” ballets, in which the ballerinas dress in monochrome leotards and tights while their male counterparts don white tops and black bottoms. Often statuesque and sylphlike, the dancers appear like the long and pearly white or ebony keys that bring much of the music to which they move to life.

Bach-inspired “Concerto Barocco” Photo BY REED HUTChINSON

In this family of ballets, the dancers’ simple garb not only emphasizes the dances’ connection to music, but also Balanchine’s wish to show ballet stripped down to its purest form in these predominantly plotless ballets.

“He really wanted to see the body,” says Colleen Neary, Los Angeles Ballet’s co-artistic director, who danced a number of roles in Balanchine’s black and white ballets during her years at New York City Ballet, including the featured “second violin” role in “Concerto Barocco.” “He thought that if [the dance] was heavily costumed, it became something else. So his intention was to see the movement through the music and to see the physicality of it.”

In Balanchine speak, that means you can “see the music” and “hear the dance”— that the marriage between the music and the movement is so seamless that it looks completely natural or “organic” as Neary says.

Audiences can see that symbiosis in Los Angeles Ballet’s presentation of “Balanchine Black & White,” which dances into The Broad Stage on Wednesday (Feb. 26) and concludes with a star-studded gala honoring film and TV director-producer-choreographer Kenny Ortega on Friday (Feb. 28).

During the three-night run, Los Angeles Ballet (headquartered just off Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles) will perform Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” as well as the choreographer’s avant-garde classic “Agon” and “Apollo,” his eponymous take on the life of the Roman sun god (both set to the music of Stravinsky).

Each dance presents its own unique challenges, says Neary.

“Agon” Neary describes as “very hard stamina-wise” and musically challenging because of Stravinsky’s 12-tone score.

“All the pas de trois are hard and the pas de deux is very long and the finale, and to get everyone in syncopation,” she says. “It’s a challenge for the dancers musically because it’s Stravinksy at his most… avant-garde and modern and then 12-tone. So we have to count
the entire score.”

“Concerto Barocco” keeps the dance’s entire ensemble of eight women on stage for 20 minutes with nary a break in movement. (“They don’t leave!” says Neary.)

And Apollo, though slower and more languid, is a test of dancers’ grace, balance and control.

“Apollo technically is very challenging and it’s very pure. … It’s almost like [being in] a church,” says Neary, describing how the quartet of dancers playing Apollo (the male lead) and his three muses (three female dance partners) are highly visible and exposed on stage. In one part, the three muses, each must lift her leg just enough to create an almost 180-degree fan or “starburst” of appendages rising from Apollo’s torso. When executed perfectly, one of the dancer’s supporting legs magically vanishes from sight — like an artful illusion. If a toe or leg is just off, the sublimeness of the moment melts away.

But Los Angeles Ballet has never been known for turning away from a challenge. From deciding to build an entire classical ballet company from scratch in Southern California’s once parched dance scene 16 years ago (a desert no more thanks in large part to Los Angeles Ballet’s presence here) to being the first American company to tackle British choreographer Frederick Ashton’s “Romeo and Juliet” just four years ago, Los Angeles Ballet thrives on taking bold steps just like Balanchine did as one of the 20th century’s most innovative choreographers.

“These ‘black and white’ ballets are very special,” says Neary. “These are three masterpieces of Balanchine. They’re very contemporary in their way … And I think they fit really well together.”

So sit back, relax and “see the music, hear the dance.”

Los Angeles Ballet performs “Balanchine Black & White” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (Feb. 26 & 27) and at 6 p.m. Friday (Feb. 28 – sold out) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets start at $68. Visit losangelesballet.org.