Ballet makes itself at home in LA

Los Angeles and Chicago have something in common after all -- both cities seem to have difficulty sustaining local ballet companies. But while Chicago's ballet companies die and are a-borning with almost every season, Los Angeles at least has a company which is determined to stay around -- whether the audiences (or critics) support it or not.

Begun in 1973 by former Balanchine wonderboy (and former Angelino) John Clifford, the Los Angeles Ballet (LAB) has recently completed its first subscription season. In addition to mixed-rep earlier this year for the total of 32 performances at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, the LAB has now completed five full-length Cinderellas at the Huntington Hartford Theater.

This last is significant. Artistic director Clifford maintains that what the company needs most right now is the viability of a permanent theater. So far, they find themselves performing in a different place for each season, which makes it hard to attract a consistent audience. In May, the company returned to the Wilshire Ebell to premiere Balanchine's "Four Temperaments," the 12th ballet he has given the company.

In August, Alexandra Danilova will mount "Copelia" on the company at the John Anson Ford Theater in Hollywood. Although approximately 1,600 subscriptions were sold, Clifford feels that getting a good theater is 75 percent of his company's problem: "LA is very fragmented and it's had no resident company before. In our six years, we've never performed regularly in one place; we need to congregate an audience."

There's no doubt that playing to a full house boosts the morale of any performer. What ism in doubt is why a large city like Los Angeles can't attract some of the best performers in the country. While Clifford started the company primarily to prevent the typical siphoning off of professional dancers to the Big Apple (New York), what's happened instead is that he has to go there to get his dancers. Both Balanchine and Melissa Hayden (another former Balanchine dancer) have given Clifford carte blanche to scout dancers from their schools. While Clifford feels LA training is excellent, he also contends that "teachers are opposed to dancing here, so the New York market gets overburdened with good dancers."

Just this season, two more defectors from the New York City Ballet joined the ranks of the well-disciplined troupe. In addition to Bryan Pitts and Laura Flagg, Nancy Davis (a California native), Dana Lynn Shwarts (also an LA native, formerly with Harkness and the National Ballet), Clifford and Johnna Kirkland (ever a pleasure to watch) hold the fort.

The company is technically strong -- their choreographic renderings, especially of the extremely demanding Balanchine which makes up most of the part of the repertory which aren't Clifford creations, are accurate. What continues to be missing, however, is dancing. They are doing only the steps, as yet. But the potential is obvious and there are moments when it all comes together.

One such is the performance of the Clifford ballet "Fantasies," originally choreographed (on Kirkland, too, by the way) for the NYC Ballet before Clifford semi-retired in order to give his hometown a ballet troupe. To the surgingly passionate refrains of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," "Fantasies" weaves the demi-tale of two couples, making some poignant comments upon the reality vs. fantasy of love relationships.

Moments (and ballets) like this indicate what one has to look forward to as the company matures -- one only hopes LA will give it the chance it deserves to make its statement in some permanent way. It could be a bit of a case of the prophet in his own land syndrome (Clifford continually complains of hostile local press), but those with an eye for artistic quality must admit that the company is not yet a performance standard which ought to be expected of the resident professional ballet troupe in a major city. One also wonders if six years shouldn't be long enough.

But Clifford, while continuing to teach company class and hoping to add more dancers next year for a total of 34, looks outside the ranks for solutions. "We need to build an audience who wants to see usm -- whether we're performing full-length classics to tchaikovsky or contemporary works to Debussy and Stravkinsky."

During Christmas week this past December, Clifford's troupe premiered his own production of the "Nutcracker" (unique because his choreography was based upon recently translated Petipa notes from which Tchaikovsky composed his score) in seven performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA's downtown Music Center. Ninety-two percent capacity houses for this elaborate production ($300, 000) helped bring the company out of its budget-necessitated low profile.

Yet artistic director Clifford still complains that too much of his time is spent fund-raising, and he'd be the first to admit that his dancing shows it. With a budget of $1 million currently, the company is seeking foundation and corporation support. And while the just-completed performances of "Cinderella" prove LAB is no slouch when it comes to the lavish, Clifford rounds out his company's repertoire of 70 ballets with pieces to music by Joplin and Gershwin which he insists bring in loyal supporters.

With energy and charisma on his side, Clifford has taken risks to choreograph works appealing to popular tastes in what he feels is a necessary effort to attract larger audiences: "As director of the company, as choreographer, you have to . . . make ballets to Charleston music, that the audiences is going to come and see. Whether they're works of art or not is not even the point. . . . I have a lot of good dancers. I'm not going to . . . let them rehearse five ballets all year. They'd go crazy with boredom, they'd leave. So, I make new dances for Nancy, for Dana, for Johnna." In all, he has choreographed 50 ballets for the company; the remaining ballets include those donated by the generous Balanchine. "Mr. B says that the two companies [NYCB and LAB] together are Union/Pacific, like the components of the famous railroad company . . . he knows I'm not going to have bad dancers on stage -- that's why we have his ballets . . . .," as well as classics by Petipa, Ivanov, Bournonville, and Dolin's reconstruction of "Le Pas de Quartre," and modern ballets by Deborah Zall, Nancy Robinson, Kevin Haigen, and Pieter Lems.

So far the company has made three national tours and a tour of Mexico. In November 1980 they will appear at the Brooklyn Academy in New York.

"I'm a realist, not an optimist," says Clifford. "The only thing which keeps me sane is Mr. B who helps me keep on overview during the bad times. . . . But most of my dancers have stuck it out since the beginning. And we see them progressing as performers."

If the audience sees that as well they may continue to be the "enthusiastic houses" as Clifford calls them. And it is in that meeting of the artists and the public that the future of the LAB rests.

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