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Letter from New York, 5-3: Debuts
Corella & Lubovitch: A company and a star are born

Angel Corella and Corella Ballet dancers in Corella's "Spring Sextet." Manuel de los Galanes photo courtesy Corella Ballet.

By Harris Green
Copyright 2010 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- Angel Corella's two-year-old Corella Ballet Castilla y Leon, Spain's only classical troupe apart from the flamenco-oriented National Ballet of Spain, made its local debut at City Center (March 17-20) a few weeks after the spectacular collapse of Morphoses / the Christopher Wheeldon Company. Both started up around the same time but had little else in common. Corella's company dances to tape recordings; Wheeldon's had performed to live music. Corella remained on American Ballet Theatre's principal roster while regularly returning to Spain to audition an international array of hopefuls. Wheeldon relinquished his title as resident choreographer at New York City Ballet but accepted free-lance commissions around the world, leaving NYCB colleague Lourdes Lopez to manage what was never a fully staffed, salaried ensemble. Morphoses dissolved this year in a firestorm of recriminations and counter charges concerning his availability and her scheduling.

According to Matthew Murphy's article in Playbill, Corella Ballet presently has the sort of patrons most company directors dream about. The Spanish government has supplied 80% of its financing, and the royal family has donated La Granja, a castle near Madrid, for its headquarters. Reportedly, Corella has hired 60 dancers, but only half that impressive number appeared at City Center: six principals (among them Corella and ABT's Herman Cornejo), one first soloist (the irrepressible Kazuko Omori), six soloists and a well-schooled corps described as nine "girls" and 10 "boys" who looked so young and dewy fresh such terms seemed neither paternalistic nor demeaning. Their stamina and patience were taxed more often than their artistry.

A respected resident choreographer is the company's major lack, as the evening's opening work demonstrated. Corella's "String Sextet," which premiered last year in Barcelona, provided a textbook example of what every novice choreographer should not do but generally does: 1. Choose an inferior work by a composer of great dance scores under the presumption that his every note is precious. (Corella selected Tchaikovsky's string sextet "Souvenir of Florence," one of that fluent master's most labored scores, that sounds more forced as it goes along.) 2. Decide every note is so precious it must not pass undanced. (Corella kept his principals, soloists and gallant corps relentlessly busy.) 3. Realize too late that limited, untested ingenuity forces steps and gestures to be repeated relentlessly. (Corella's corps occasionally seemed to be demonstrating a beginner's class in semaphore communication.) 'Sextet' thrashed into life in the third movement, when Florida-born principal Joseph Gatti tore through the sort of pyrotechnics Corella knows all too well. Most of the time it just thrashed.

The program I saw did not offer "Epimetheus" by English-trained company member Richard Ducker, however I doubt it could have earned bigger ovations than the three sure-fire short works that followed intermission. Excerpts fromLeonid Lavrovsky's "Walpurgisnacht," reduced to a pas de trois, brought the heady scent of Soviet mothballs to City Center. There was a bacchante in red (Omori) and what I took to be a shepherd in a breechcloth (Yevgen Uzlenkov) and, since he was bare chested and sported nubby little horns, a satyr (Gatti), all doing strenuously sensational steps to shreds of Gounod's 'Faust.' While the men lacked the classic Bolshoi Bruiser physique, the old master Vakhtang Chabukiani would surely have admired their go-for-broke technique, as well as Omori's flamboyance.

Now do I have to tell you that "Walpurgisnacht" gave way to the Black Swan Pas de Deux? Adiary Almeida and Cornejo met its familiar demands with aplomb. He casually extended his right hand during her series of partnered pirouettes to show she didn't really need his help. Almeida contributed further novelty by dancing her solo to rarely heard music from, I believe, the first act of "Swan Lake." Their fouettés and a la second turns left little to be desired.

Finally, there was "Solea," a fiery flamenco-style pas de deux for Corella and his sister Carmen with choreographer Marķa Pagés supplying the fusillade of heel taps on tape. Flamenco partisans will snarl that's the equivalent of an opera singer's lip synching at the Met. Although I probably shouldn't admit it since I would much prefer to be a "purist" than an "impurist," the Corellas, prowling through the gloom like two caged leopards with short tempers, looked tremendous.

Ironically, the most intriguing work on the program was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. His "DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse," made for the Royal Ballet in 2006, found his flair for striking imagery offsetting many of the work's lapses into the predictable. There's limited shock value now in leaving the back wall of the stage stripped bare of any drop or scenery. Wheeldon's having the exposed bricks viewed in gathering light through a scrim refreshed the device since it was Jennifer Tipton's evocative lighting doing the gathering. The black border attached to the bottom of the scrim also made its slow ascent an eerie preparation for our first good look at Jean-Marc Puissant's decidedly outré setting. Imagine the fuselage of a crashed jetliner or possibly an immense ventilation system that has just fallen through the ceiling. However striking it may have looked on paper, this decorative wreckage must have presented problems once Wheeldon started to move people around. The chief use he made of it was to have a few dancers enter by gingerly squeezing through a twisted fissure. Otherwise, they danced behind it or before it, never on it or in it.

The ballet's main impediment was Michael Nyman's modified minimalist score. Whenever the rhythm got blatantly repetitious, Nyman covered it over with more orchestration without making the music any more rewarding. Wheeldon was no more successful at avoiding reiteration in his steps for 12 corps members. Four couples made up of principals and soloists, Corella and Cornejo among them, benefited from his gift for creating lively pas de deux. As the finale bore down, however, everyone eventually succumbed to the urge to repeat. Shining a spotlight in my eyes before the curtain fell squelched whatever tolerance I had left for this ballet.

By way of a postscript, I add that Wheeldon, ever resourceful, has temporarily resolved one frustration faced by 21st-century ballet choreographers: The fact that the great founding fathers of 20th-century ballet had already used much of the world's eminently danceable music. As one of the seven choreographers providing premieres for NYCB's 2010 spring season, he has chosen a score Balanchine had commissioned for the American Ballet Caravan's five-month goodwill tour of Latin America in 1941 but had never got around to using. Wheeldon's ballet set to the late Alberto Ginestera's "Estancia" premieres May 29.

Christopher Vo (foreground) and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in Lubovitch's "Coltrane's Favorite Things." Chris Callis photo courtesy Lar Lubovitch Dance Company.

Jazz & dogs from Lubovitch

The Lar Lubovitch Dance Company's season at the Joyce Theater (February 23 - March 7) featured two programs built mostly around jazz recorded by John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and vocalist Kurt Elling. Keeping his 11-member troupe merrily on the move has never presented much of a challenge for Lubovitch, as he demonstrated in "Coltrane's Favorite Things," one of the season's two premieres, done before a projected backdrop of Jackson Pollock's painting "Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)." Problems arise when he tries to justify what's essentially a modest concept with some philosophical "parallel." In 'Things,' Lubovitch says in a program note, Coltrane's "sheets of sound" match Pollock's "overall visual environment" that he in turn mirrors with his "ribbons of movement."

Really? Occasionally, the basic tune of "My Favorite Things," surely the sappiest of the several sappy songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," could be heard riding the crest of Coltrane's tonal tidal wave, but nowhere could a recognizable natural shape or object be discerned among Pollock's dynamic drippings. Lubovitch would have been better off coming down from his philosophical high horse about "parallels" and getting down to the business of making consistently rewarding as opposed to hard-driven choreography.

Good intentions were not enough to ennoble the other premiere, "Dogs of War," a slow-motion pas de deux between Attila Joey Csiki and Christopher Vo. Yes, they were dressed in camouflage fatigues and the score was two movements from Prokofiev's "War Sonata" and projected images of conflict crossed the backdrop, but 'Dogs' never recovered from that jolting Moment of Common Humanity when the two opponents show each other their family photographs. They resumed their deadly grapple, but banality, not brutality, was on my mind.

The season's most encouraging development was Lubovitch's casting newcomer Vo in prominent roles. As a sophomore at the Juilliard School, Vo, a Texas-born son of Vietnamese emigré parents, stood out among the scores of students in Eliot Feld's "Sir Isaac's Apples" (2006) for his tireless, joyous musicality. He looked like the only person onstage who relished having to descend and ascend a huge slanted slab for 80 minutes to Steve Reich's "Drumming." Feld used him again at the earliest opportunity. Lubovitch hired him upon his graduation in 2008.

Vo also came to the fore this season with two solos in "Nature Boy: Kurt Elling" (2005), maintaining a sharp silhouette amid buoyant leaps. A team player, he melded into the group without hot-dogging it in "Elemental Brubeck," created in 2005 on San Francisco Ballet, but his easy command of the stage never deserted him. In the Lubovitch company, where performances have the look of a family affair, Vo stands out like the ultra-photogenic kid brother in the Christmas dinner video on YouTube.

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