Scene from "Verklärte Nacht." Photo: Anne Van Aerschot.
Startled. That's what you would be if venturing into UCLA's Royce Hall these past few weeks for two dance events staggeringly different from each other.
One was the avant-garde company, Rosas, founded by that now-venerable Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker -- she appeared on the European scene in the 1980s and is still going. In fact, UCLA hosted a week-long residency of her perspectives, which are mostly linked to contemporary music.
The other was the hard-working local company, Los Angeles Ballet, digging into a collector's classic, "Giselle," and unearthing nuggets of profound poetry. More on that later.
De Keersmaeker represents the purity of abstraction taken to its limit. Especially in "Fase," where hardly a smidgeon of human feeling mars her concentration throughout the 70-minute repetitive endurance contest by composer Steve Reich, that peer of formulaic minimalism in all its minutely altered states. You could even say she goes to undue lengths to obliterate all references to a shared life experience.
Ah, there was the mechanical heroism of "Fase"-- those swinging arms (the right one only) acting as a propeller in this unison duet that featured swinging skirts and a single repeated routine, the two figures shadowed on a screen that crowds the number to four. You had to marvel at the stamina of dancers De Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven. You also had to hang onto your heartbeat, throbbing in sympathy with relentless sight and sound. Was this a trance inducement or a medical warning?
On another night (just hours after the Paris massacre with artistic/executive director Kristy Edmunds addressing the Royce audience with moving words ) the company offered its version of "Verklärte Nacht," to the same Schoenberg music that Antony Tudor famously set his "Pillar of Fire" on, back in 1942.
Not surprisingly, De Keersmaeker's piece had none of the outsider narrative of Tudor's ballet (which she denies ever knowing about) but hers does honor the music's tone of harrowing neo-Expressionism -- with Pierre Boulez's recording amplifying its shards of split harmonies. If only the two dancers had not seemed as though their continuous, undifferentiated angst -- thrashing about, flinging onto each other, collapsing to the floor -- was just 30 minutes of improvised agitation.
As to De Keersmaeker's opposite -- in dance, that is -- let me start with a confession: I cried during the second act of LA Ballet's "Giselle," overwhelmed with its aching beauty. And that's hard to do, especially for a "Giselle"-collector who has logged at least 50 different performances of this Romantic antique over the years.
Why? Because it tapped deeply into the universality of human feelings, the core of this 19th-century art -- which must reflect life, as they say, in some manner.
And it did, at Royce Hall, on this last stop of our resident company's 10th season tour of local theater venues. It was something about the confluence of Adolphe Adam's wondrous score (a recording, spliced masterfully by Michael Andreas) that captures the low-candle heat of sorrow, the libretto's motif of struggle from real life's unfair social divisions, its pained ascent to mythical redemption through love, and its absolute purity of white gossamer in a night-darkened glen.
Transcendence was in the air.
The same transcendence, if you recall, that Lermontov felt on a rainy Sunday afternoon in London's Mercury Theater when he slipped in to see Victoria Page ("The Red Shoes") dance "Swan Lake."
You see, these classics can nail you at some point if all the elements jibe. If a pitch of the story's desperate, multi-layered passion infects everyone onstage at the same time, if the atmospherics are cloaked in a singular tone of moonlit unworldliness, if the music saturates the scene, and the dancing and gestures all speak together with it. Yes, it takes all of that.
The entire white-act cast caught the poetic spirit. Alyssa Bross and Ulrik Birkkjaer illuminated their better immortal selves as Giselle and Albrecht -- she with a seraphic presence, he with Byronic urgency.
It didn't matter at this point that earlier Bross was a tad smiley-faced and hardly fragile enough physically to convey the fey, peasant girl Giselle in her real life. Or that some tell-tale signs of regionalism showed through the presentation (up to and including the directors' open begging for donations.) The company handily deserves its place as LA's resident ballet enterprise.
What is harder to explain was a joint event at the Ahmanson: Hubbard Street Dance and Second City, both of them stellar Chicagoans. Separately, they are inspired groups well known around the country. But together, in "The Art of Falling, " they managed to show less of what each does so well.
The Hubbard dancers, who are masters of Twyla Tharp choreography, for instance, functioned here largely as comic props, their bodies bent and angled into set furniture that supported the "slapshtick" of Second City vignettes -- which were funny, but not funny enough for these celebrated improv artists. The whole thing amounted to not much more than nothing with nothing.
But across the plaza at the Chandler Pavilion was the adventurous "Moby Dick," having its Los Angeles Opera premiere, and thrusting its composer Jake Heggie into an ever-growing spotlight. The stunner of the occasion in this work, based, of course, on Melville's humungous novel, had to be the production's visuals -- in one scene, with sailors cast adrift, a computer graphic design located them so realistically on the vast dark sea that was about to swallow them up that the music got a huge boost in its sense of existential aloneness.
In fact, the whole opera occupies a genre -- it includes Britten's "Peter Grimes" and especially "Billy Budd" -- works that explore a shipboard universe, its male hierarchy commanded by a captain whose whims and obsessions and prejudices infect the various subsets of underlings, all of them cut off from landed civilization.
And just as the staging's design is extraordinary so is the music, orchestrally, a thing of graphic excitement that follows each plot turn.
It's remindful of a sumptuous big screen epic, but far better endowed. The vocal line throughout was comfortable for all voices -- easy, natural and flattering, if not pointedly dramatic.
The other local premiere, also concerned with bodies of water, took place across the street at Disney Hall where the LA Philharmonic under Ludovic Morlot played the much-vaunted "Become Ocean" by Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams (not to be confused with that better known composer John Adams, also of Pulitzer fame.)
According to this minority report, there was not much to hear beyond a lot of amorphous murmuring which continued on for 40 minutes. A fine sleep-aid? Possibly. A vehicle for a virtuoso orchestra when all the sections looked to be playing just accompanimental figures? Definitely not, since a computer engineer could probably create the same effects.
Perhaps the guest conductor Ludovic Morlot could have given it greater advantage. But when he and the band turned to Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the gifted young Armenian Sergey Khachatryan as its champion, it didn't matter anymore -- because here was playing to ravish the ear.
Rarely do we come across a violinist who speaks Beethoven in long phrases as understandable as a Lawrence Olivier reading of Shakespeare. And that's without mentioning his technique -- it allows the softest slivers of intimacy, a racing-heart urgency, eloquent warmth without gushing. During his gorgeously compelling cadenzas it seemed that no one in the hall drew a breath.
TV INTEL: If you stay tuned to MSNBC (maybe elsewhere too) you are no doubt rejoicing in the Infinity commercial -- it plays the overture to Mozart's "Magic Flute" as accompaniment to the most musical frame changes while the advertised car slaloms down snowy slopes. The bonus? Those changes are remindful of Ingmar Bergman's in his movie of the same opera.