Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Tender Comrades

July 15, 2011

Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

The downside to American Ballet Theater’s visit to Los Angeles this weekend is that it comes amid the biggest traffic jam scare campaign this city has seen in three decades. And if all the fear about traffic congestion on the west side of the city this weekend keeps audiences away from downtown, it’s an utter shame considering they will miss out on what is likely the best dance program L.A. will see all year. ABT is a company that can be mighty stodgy as evidenced by last year’s visit with a moribund Sleeping Beauty. But that was not the company here this weekend, when ABT presented the newest addition to their repertory, The Bright Stream with choreography from Alexei Ratmansky and music by Dimitri Shostakovich. The ballet has been seen in Southern California before when the Bolshoi Ballet, whom Ratmansky choreographed the piece for, brought the show on tour to Orange County in 2005. But this is the first time that ABT has staged the work and it was a hit in its premiere outings earlier this year on the East Coast.

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

As well it should be. It’s an outright funny, attractive, and exciting production that honors the company’s classical traditions without a note of cynicism. It is neither pandering nor syrupy sweet, although it is decidedly light-hearted in its approach to material that’s a bit unusual for U.S. audiences. Premiered in Leningrad in 1935, the work didn’t amuse Stalin, and Shostakovich and his librettists paid the price. The work wasn’t seen again until 2003 when Ratmansky picked up the score and sensing the zeitgeist, which favored a warm nostalgia for Soviet Russia, replaced the lost original choreography with movement of his own design. He chose wisely and a hit was born. The story is set on a collective farm where workers are preparing to celebrate the harvest festival. A troupe of artists including a ballerina (Gillian Murphy on Thursday night) and her partner (Cory Stearns) arrive to join the festivities creating tension between the ballerina’s old school friend Zina (Paloma Herrera) and her flirtatious husband Pyotr (Marcelo Gomes). It's a riff on a comic theme popular throughout the cold war—think, or better yet see, Heisser Sommer.

Yet, despite its genteel nature and nostalgic setting, The Bright Stream feels very contemporary, especially when the entire second act revolves around the two dancer characters appearing in drag as they play off the misplaced amorous overtures of a pair of retirees. There are beautiful lyrical moments as well between the old school friends and Pyotr who is tricked into making a pass at his own wife in disguise à la Le Nozze di Figaro. Thursday’s cast was superb throughout and in addition to ABT's biggest stars mentioned above, Victor Barbee and Martine Van Hamel managed the comic roles of the retirees with masterful timing. Gomes’ Pyotr was dashing and full of bravado while Stearns’ turn as a ballerina looked effortless despite some very challenging sequences that took direct aim at the gender lines in this sort of classically-influenced performance. Or as my friend Robert noted, it was like Matthew Bourne, except with competent choreography. Herrera and Murphy made a superb pair floating about the stage in everything you could wish from a ballet performance.

Victor Barbee and Martine Van Hamel Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Shostakovich’s score for The Bright Stream is closer to his film and popular scores than his more “serious” orchestral and chamber works. But it both clearly fits into the tradition of Russian ballet music and it is unmistakably from Shostakovitch’s 20th Century with it’s maniacal marches and moments of sober reflection. There are folk touches here and there as well. Best of all, this is dance presented with an honest-to-god live orchestra conducted by Ormsby Wilkins that added to the vital energy of the evening. Granted, there aren’t many shows at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion using a curtain framed with the hammer and sickle insignia. But it is certainly less charged now than it would have been at the time of L.A.’s last traffic crisis during the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Olympic Games. And while this city may still thrive on periodic threats of congestion catastrophe, some things do change. ABTs new production of The Bright Stream and Ratmansky’s choreography reclaim a forgotten piece of Soviet-era art in the most graceful and beautiful of ways. Leave now to get downtown for this show if you must, but I wouldn’t miss it in one of the several other performances this weekend including both a Saturday and Sunday matinee.

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