New Zealand Ballet vs. UK's modern McGregor and Jacaranda's 'old' new music


If only "Giselle" had just one act, the second act. Because in that case the Royal New Zealand Ballet's calling card -- here at the Music Center in its U.S. debut -- would leave an extravagantly moving impression.

There it was, this moonlit scene with the Wilis: jilted be-veiled brides in their white nether world, sweet sorrow in the air, gossamer skirts floating as they stepped in hushed, nun-like unison. And there was the queen of their spiritual kingdom, Myrtha, danced with magical definition by Abigail Boyle, imperiously resolute in her condemnation of all the past faltering swains.

Not only that, but Gillian Murphy staked her most credible effort as Giselle here in Wilidom, where her famously steely technique took the doomed innocent beyond human, but also showed the character as a powerful supplicant, begging Myrtha for the life of her lover Albrecht, danced by the high-skilled though self-conscious Qi Huan.

And here, bringing equal impact to the performance, was the extraordinarily artful conducting of Nigel Gaynor, who charged his sizeable orchestra with hitting the dramatic heights in Adolphe Adam's beloved score.

But it's the first act, in the land of the living, where class breakdown between peasants and royalty must pass the bright-lit test of characterization. For all her carefully grafted-on vulnerabilities, though, Murphy remains a pragmatist in her body's manner, not the charmingly fey, terminally naïve thing that is Giselle. Her mad scene lacked the delusional fever pitch of such a creature. And the Kobborg/Stiefel choreographic changes did not help here or elsewhere.

Surely no one could blame Murphy for wanting to inhabit this role, which stands as the Hamlet of the ballet. Also, the well-known ABT dancer now doubles as principal guest artist with the New Zealanders, since her husband Ethan Stiefel took on the post of company director.

Overall this a perfectly decent regional troupe made of well-trained Pacific Rimmers. But not quite at the level of the Los Angeles Ballet.

From another mentality altogether, a contemporary British one, came Wayne McGregor Random Dance to UCLA's Royce Hall. His work, "FAR," is the very model of high-tech and extended boundaries, its idea taken from Ray Porter's "Flesh in the Age of Reason," a treatise on the mechanisms of thought and emotion.

Now you can forget all this and just know that the eminent choreographer has created a feast full of explicated mystery, spoken in an unknowable language. What materializes onstage is a mapping out of the myriad ways bodies can twist and undulate and juxtapose their limbs, torsos, necks and shoulders.

So at first we're watching not humans in their usual expressive modes, but other forms of animated life sparked by dancers who are superb specimens. They move in non-continuous spasms dictated by an electronic score (fade-ins-fade-outs, amplified piano with vocals, mingled sounds) and set against a backboard of blinking lights.The totality is entirely engrossing, a spectacular piece of theater.

Also contemporary: Jacaranda. And not for the first time at this outpost of modernism, was there a packed house (or should I say church?) at Santa Monica's First Presbyterian -- even though no vestige of mainstream music showed up on the program, only what could be identified as outlier soundscapes.

No matter. It was the big names from the past -- composers Stockhausen and Xenakis, those original avant-gardists of the '60s -- who drew the hordes: oldsters with backpacks, elegant arty types, college students and even some unlikely middlebrow greyheads.

Call it a gathering of the enlightened, an enclave of enthusiasts -- all of them game for whatever challenges that artistic director Patrick Scott might dream up in his passion for new music.

To start off the "old" new music there was Timothy Loo, who showed us the extreme difficulty Xenakis imposed on any cellist attempting his solo "Nomos Alpha" -- an arduous series of alternating mystical whispers, purrings, agitatos, tappings and slurs. His brow glistened with sweat. His string-fingering hand wore a white glove to protect it. He also imbued these various sounds with an immediate, human presence-- along with beyond-the-call virtuosity.

And then there was Stockhausen's "Stimmung," which brought VOXNOVA, the amplified vocal sextet from its native Italy for a U.S. debut. Sitting in a darkened circle, with only the green reflection of their music stands for light, the singers induced the audience's familiar head-bobbing during especially hypnotic passages, their voices blending like elastic bands and issuing an occasional auctioneer yell, along with recited lines of poetry.

No such experimental diversions materialized, though, when the St. Lawrence String Quartet dropped by at Beverly Hills' Wallis Theater for an evening of Haydn, Beethoven and multi-faceted Korngold -- the latter well-known in Hollywood for his many film scores, as first violinist Geoff Nuttall entertainingly pointed out, but a composer unfairly consigned to movie music.

It was good to hear chamber music in this acoustically attractive hall, especially given the St. Lawrence's invigorated, alert readings. But violist Lesley Robertson looked like a somewhat inert exile on the wide stage, positioned at what seemed like a far distance from the others. And somehow the push-pull, close interactions we hear in other quartets were hard to find here, one factor being that Nuttall's physical playing -- with his knee bouncing in the air along with a whole range of energetically expressive body movements, contrasted strongly with the other three musicians.

So too did the Ballets Jazz Montréal showcase wide contrasts a few nights earlier at the Wallis. This versatile company featured a lovely, if adynamic, duet choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (remember him, late of New York City Ballet and the film "Black Swan"? He just took the chief post at Paris Ballet after the big to-do of heading the brand new L.A. Dance Project downtown). In total contrast was Barak Marshall's "Harry," narrative musings on war, death and love -- all those pictorial things he illustrates so passionately with his dancers.

More by Donna Perlmutter:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed