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A Fourth Jewel

If, as George Balanchine once so famously pronounced, “Ballet is woman,” then director and choreographer Lincoln Jones showed off the gals in his troupe, American Contemporary Ballet (ACB), to great effect in his world premiere, “Sapphires.” Envisioned as the fourth act of Mr. B’s 1967 plotless—and enormously popular—ballet, “Jewels,” Jones has tread where others have dared not go in his latest work that brings the company’s 12th season to a close, and was seen by this reviewer last Thursday.

Performance

American Contemporary Ballet: “Sapphires” by Lincoln Jones; excerpts from Balanchine’s “La Source”

Place

Bank of America Plaza, Los Angeles, California,  June 6 - 29

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

American Contemporary Ballet in “Sapphires” by Lincoln Jones. Photograph by Anastasia Petukhova

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As is always the case with ACB, the concert, which has a run of 11 performances, featured live music in a program that also included excerpts from Balanchine’s 1969 work, “La Source” (produced by arrangement with the George Balanchine Trust), as well as a brief instrumental interlude, the second movement of Ravel’s gorgeous String Quartet in F Major.

But it was “Sapphires” that marked Jones’ ambitious—audacious, even—foray into hallowed balletic ground. And while Balanchine managed to conjure the vibrant colors of emeralds, rubies and diamonds in “Jewels,” as well as evoking such locations as France and his native Russia, Jones, in mining the blue landscape of “Sapphires,” paid homage to the master while carving out his own terpsichorean terrain.

Sixteen stellar musicians, led by principal concertmaster Agatha Blevin, performed the 1934 Suite for String Orchestra in G Major by Arnold Schoenberg, whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year, and was the composer Balanchine himself had wanted had he actually choreographed the fourth act of “Jewels.”

Indeed, the five-part, 30-minute composition, Schoenberg’s first in America after he fled Germany and its encroaching Nazism, was written in the Baroque style, with each movement not only dancerly, but also a trove of frenzied counterpoint and rich harmonies. This was a far cry, then, from the composer’s earlier works that had branded him as the father of atonalism.

Beginning with the Overture, a quartet of ballerinas—Taylor Berwick, Sarah Bukowski, Victoria Manning and Kristin Steckmann—bounded onto the stage with smiles galore, before being joined by eight more women, the dozen ladies crowding the dance floor while deploying unison bourrées, their lines a study in near perfection.

American Contemporary Ballet in “Sapphires” by Lincoln Jones. Photograph by Anastasia Petukhova

Clad in Alexa Behm’s costumes, sapphire blue tutus, replete with cerulean-colored faux jewels, their bunheads sporting make-believe tiaras, while not exactly Karinska-worthy (the great costumer and frequent Balanchine collaborator), nevertheless gave the ballerinas a neo-imperial feel. But it was the up-close and personal aspect of the decidedly cool underground space—the Bank of America Plaza—that proved detrimental to Jones’ intricate and detailed choreography.

With the performance area long and narrow, exits and entrances were not a problem, but being up close and personal as a viewer allowed for little or no perspective. And while beauty and dedication to craft reigned, at times the stage area was akin to being at Grand Central Station during rush hour, with this writer worrying about possible dancer collisions.

Happily, there were none, and with the sounds of pointe shoes adding a percussive quality, as well as another dimension to Schoenberg’s score, “Sapphires” worked better in the duet sections, where performers could move about with more freedom. That freedom, however, wasn’t readily apparent in the Adagio movement, with Chasen Greenwood not altogether assured in partnering Elise Filo. Quincey Smith and Jonas Tutaj, however, did manage to embody the irregular rhythmic thrusts of the Menuet, which flew by all too quickly before an octet of women, including Claire Bednarek, Sofie Treibitz and Brittany Yevoli, rushed the stage in, well, playful mode.

Alas, so many ballerinas, so little space—and so few men. Enter, then, the noble Maté Szentes, who, in partnering Madeline Houk, exuded warmth, precision and confidence in the Gavotte movement, as well as providing effortless, ebullient lifts. The finale, Gigue, saw the three couples again take to the floor, with Victoria Manning offering a lovely solo, before a gaggle of seven gals, among them, Kate Huntington, Emma Maples and Vanessa Meikle, executing a series of swift jetés.

American Contemporary Ballet in “Sapphires” by Lincoln Jones. Photograph by Anastasia Petukhova

On a larger stage, the moving mass of glorious bodies—call it peak glam—would seem de rigueur, and where geometric formations could be better appreciated from afar, but in the confines of this staging area, even with Fernando Gonzalez’ evocative lighting design—often saturated with blue—the notion of making “Sapphires” look seamless, was out of reach.

Opening the bold program were excerpts from “La Source” (1969). Here was Balanchine’s homage to French classical ballet, his choreography accentuating the lucidity and refinement of style identified with the Paris school. Set to music by Léo Delibes and arranged by Adam Bravo, the first pas de deux featured Elise Kruger and Greenwood, who, unfortunately, did not make the dance look easy, his labored partnering problematic.

The second duet saw Szentes enter with Houk on his shoulders, their compatibility evident. His moves, light and springy, were the perfect complement to Houk’s ebullient gambolings, including precise steps, giving their technical prowess an infusion of humanity.  

In keeping with the French theme, violinists Blevin, and Abi Tsai, violist David Kang and cellist Daniel Lim performed the second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. Premiered in 1903, the quartet was Ravel’s first major success as a composer, with this playful scherzo a non-stop showcase of piercing pizzicatos, mesmeric modality, and heady exoticism reflecting the time’s fascination with the Far East.  

 Jones, like Balanchine, whose relationship to music was deep, also understands the body in motion, and is able to create a host of feelings in his ballets. One hopes, then, that he might continue working on “Sapphires,” polishing it to near perfection in a venue better suited to dancers.

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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