Eifman and the LA Ballet, plus LA Phil closes the Disney season

elfman-ballet.jpgScene from Eifman's ballet.

Who can bring you story-book ballets that are not about fairytale creatures or kingdoms and their royalty, but real people drowning in human tragedies?

Boris Eifman.

And this time was no different when the Russian choreographer brought his St. Petersburg company's two-act "Rodin" to the Music Center Pavilion.

But if you can't remember much about the eponymous sculptor -- he created those iconic statues, "The Kiss" and "The Thinker" -- Eifman's ballet lays out the tempestuous Frenchman's whole biography.

Not unlike Picasso, Auguste Rodin was big with the ladies. And on his way to high acclaim, he became notoriously involved with an aspiring student/sculptor, Camille Claudel, while his long-suffering, common-law wife Rose, endured it all.

Seizing once again on visuals, as he did with "Anna Karenina" and "Eugene Onegin," the dance-maker goes for imagery -- this time with body pile-ups, dramatically lit and evoking Rodin's massive carvings themselves.

But besides the Expressionist dancing that is an Eifman signature, his leitmotif here came in the many asylum scenes that showed poor Camille's various states of madness -- insanity, by the way, seems to be a current obsession with choreographers (remember the Australian Ballet's "Swan Lake" and its vignette of a demented Odette getting hydrotherapy in a bathtub, shades of "Snakepit?")

True, the task of depicting Rodin's story was harder than with Tolstoy's great "Karenina" -- the novel's evocative words inspired Eifman to cinematic heights I've seldom seen on a ballet stage.

There, his unique gift revealed itself in the feeling states he could depict and in his instinct for letting the movement grow out of those states. What we see is non-stop drama-in-motion.

And arguably no one knows how to capitalize on his dancers' physical look -- slender, willowy, agile -- the way Eifman does. Their leg extensions soar sky-high and their bodies are so supple as to seem jointless. But I wouldn't really call them anything but dancing actors because their performances are suffused with dramatic intent. Not so much in "Rodin" as in "Karenina," where we saw those limbs thrust upwards only to plunge into a grounded Grahamesque plié in deep second position -- thus giving us lyric passion versus menace so fluid that the eye could barely grasp it.

Not surprisingly, audiences gobble up his stagings for their overall spectacle. There's nothing staid or classroom-like in what he conjures. But you can easily see how he deliberately feeds (panders to?) those crowds with rousing divertissements here and there.

I liked the can-can scene (nicely using music other than the identifiable Offenbach) and the accordion-accompanied café vignette, although the mish-mash of excerpted French pieces by Massenet, Ravel, Satie kept the artistic standard lower, as did the out-of-character peasant number he used as filler.

But Eifman has indisputable European flair. He'll never lack an audience. American regional ballet companies, trying to expand or just stay alive, could use some of that backstage bravura. And now I'm referring to Los Angeles Ballet, which, for all its excellence, seems to be in that particular financial struggle commonly experienced by our privately funded arts enterprises.

Needless to say, it was sad to see co-founder Colleen Neary make a plea from the stage for donations. Not only that, she announced that, following the performance, LAB dancers would stand at the exits handing out self-addressed envelopes for such purpose. It's come to this -- nine years after gifting the city with its ambitious, Balanchine-authorized, high-powered presence.

la-ballet.jpgLos Angeles Ballet

But the program at UCLA's Royce Hall told a story of triumph. Wide-ranging and choice, it showed off a whole new vein of versatility among the dancers. Just imagine -- if you missed it -- José Limón's "The Moor's Pavane," that singularly possessed modern classic in long regal robes and gowns, a quartet of impending menace, anchored by Purcell's stately darkness.

Would this troupe of dancers, dedicated to the tutu-and-tiara style of New York City Ballet, have any idea what the weighty ominousness of the "Othello" tragedy intends? The black Moor, a heroic figure, brought down by succumbing to a treacherous aide's lies and thus killing his beloved wife?

I, for one, could not imagine it. But, mirabile dictu, the four principals pulled it off (thanks to Limón master Alice Condodina's rehearsing) -- with greater credibility than even Ballet Theatre's recent New York performance.

It was time for directors Neary and Thordal Christensen to reach beyond ballet per se. But they did more, also showing a side of sophisticated wit via Jiri Kylián's "Sech Tänze," its European scampishness underpinned by Beethoven's jaunty dances. For once, with this bill of fare, we saw choreography the world prizes, not some scattershot local entries that hardly deserve stage space.

An earlier program featured that classical extravaganza "The Sleeping Beauty" -- its every detail polished to a shine, with ensembles perfectly together and coached to a fingertip. But the dancing was characterless, without personality, almost dead, glazed and inhibited. The very least a museum piece should be is alive. Why else would it sparkle in the memory?

On to music downtown: Closing out their last two Disney Hall standard-fare concerts of the season, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic turned first to a French program and then a Spanish one.

Gustavo-Dudamel-007.jpgBut tucked between the almost all-Ravel night was a world premiere by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the countrywoman of Esa-Pekka Salonen and thus an enormously welcome and well-commissioned personage at the Phil. Indeed, she's lauded in lots of places, since having her intro here.

Still, her "True Fire," an essay for orchestra and baritone, was overly long at 30 minutes, considering its unrelieved, dirge-like stretches of doom and gloom. Singer Gerald Finley has had more grateful opportunities and the merely respectful audience buzzed with conspicuous naysayers afterward in the lobby.

Leave it to Ravel, though, to redeem the evening. Dudamel and his band danced over "Le Tombeau de Couperin"'s lucid textures with light, airy steps throughout and gave the crowd something to stomp and whistle for after "Bolero."

So did they roar for a knockout performance of Manuel de Falla's "El Amor Brujo," although this music played by this orchestra doesn't need the distraction of a flamenco dance company enacting the story line up on a mid-level platform. Just hearing its urgent thrum and darkly Spanish expression brought out so splendidly was powerful enough.

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