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Moving Dance Forward: American Contemporary Ballet

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Both music and dance lovers know that May 29, 2013 marks the 100-year anniversary of Stravinsky's earth-shattering work, "Le Sacre du Printemps," a ballet score written for the very "unballetic" choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. While it may now seem difficult to fathom riots breaking out at Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Ã?lysées in 1913, with the composer in the audience trying to shout down naysayers and Nijinsky backstage standing on a chair shouting out the fiendishly difficult tempos, this is precisely what happened.

And whether the audience was displeased with the music, the dance, or both (one critic referred to it as Le Massacre), this historic night proves the profound impact that live music can have on dance, no matter the composer or choreographer. It's this particular philosophy that choreographer Lincoln Jones, artistic director of American Contemporary Ballet Company, embraces. A native Angeleno, Jones danced with South Carolina's Columbia City Ballet before moving to New York City, where he taught ballet and also danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Realizing he preferred choreographing on his students to teaching -- and believing there were more musical opportunities in L.A. since the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003 -- Jones decided to return home. The year was 2010, and he also brought with him his associate director and muse, the ballerina Theresa Farrell.

"I was reading an interview in Westways Magazine with KUSC's Jim Svejda," Jones, 38, recalls, "and at the end of the interview, he was asked, 'Is there anything in L.A. we shouldn't miss?' [Svejda responded:] 'The Da Camera Society. Somehow they always get it right.' I didn't have any money at the time but I called them -- they perform chamber music in historic sites -- and said, 'We're starting a ballet company and we'll give you tickets if you give us some.' They did and I thought their show was phenomenal."

And thus was an arts partnership born, with the series, "Music & Dance: L.A.," launched last year during ACB's first season. Featuring two instrumental works interspersed with a pair of dances that were presented over two nights in four concerts, the programs were held in a warehouse that had room for 80 audience members. In addition to the nightly one-hour performances, the concerts were followed by the Da Camera's Society's catered socials, with finger food, wine and live jazz. ACB's second season continues in June, with another four concerts scheduled over two nights, and then again in August with more new works in the same two-night format.

"This is a great way to build a community," explains Jones, whose über-modern choreography is inspired by George Balanchine and often features asymmetrical groupings, extreme articulations and intricate footwork, "because when you go to a big theater although there may be 3,000 people sitting around you, it's hard to meet someone other than the people you've come with. By doing this in a more intimate setting, and having live music afterwards, I was excited about the idea of people engaging with each other around these two art forms -- music and dance."

For those who may feel intimidated by classical ballet, ACB also began a series of lecture demonstrations earlier this year. "Dance + Design: Behind the scenes with ACB," featured Jones providing an intriguing look at how ballet works, with the talks highlighted by live dance demonstrations, including premieres of short ballets with ACB principal dancers and resident musicians.

Kelly Garrison, general director of the 40-year old Da Camera Society, says that bringing dance into the mix has been quite the learning curve for him.

"It was the first time we combined chamber music with a dance form, and I'm used to only worrying about musical ensembles. I've learned so much about the world of dance. Dancers need an enormous space, for example, and we also had to bring in a Marley floor for them to perform on. But in this intimate setting - 80 percent or 90 percent of the room we're in is the actual performance space where the dancers are - the audience is right there in front of them."

Another attraction in pairing the organizations is that each audience is exposed to a different art form -- a kind of double niche marketing strategy. "We might have people coming who have mostly a dance background, and other people that are mostly into music," Jones says. "To have them experience the other art form and engage with each other and talk about their experience, I thought that was exciting."

Photo: Sam Muller.
Photo: Sam Muller.

Also exciting is ACB's new home, a 13,000 square-foot warehouse that fronts Wilshire Boulevard, across from the L.A. County Museum of Art, where its 10 dancers can be seen rehearsing from the street and where this season's concerts will be performed. Farrell, 28, grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York, and has had extensive ballet training. Virtually a poster girl for Balanchine, whose credo was, "Ballet is woman," Farrell eats, drinks and sleeps dance. She says that working with live music makes all the difference.

"What I enjoy tremendously, is the subtle differences that happen in live performance," she says. Because of the music, your performance changes. Obviously, Lincoln's choreography has taken so much from the music, and with his work the steps flow into each other and it feels good. I'm also more engaged with the music," adds Farrell, "and that makes the performance more alive - for both the dancers and the audience."

"DANCE+DESIGN II" rehearsal. | Photo: Joshua Schaedel
"DANCE+DESIGN II" rehearsal. | Photo: Joshua Schaedel

And how do the musicians feel about merging the two art forms? Martin Chalifour is the L.A. Philharmonic's Principle Concertmaster, a position he's held for 17 years. He says he didn't grow up experiencing much ballet, but has become a huge ACB fan, even donating his time to perform with the troupe.

"I've liked the fact that last season, when I was able to sit down and watch and listen to something I was not involved in -- the musicians were taking turns accompanying the dancers -- that's when I could feel the full impact of what could happen to anaudience. Both art forms augment each other in the most beautiful way," says Chalifour.

"DANCE+DESIGN II" rehearsal. | Photo: Joshua Schaedel.
"DANCE+DESIGN II" rehearsal. | Photo: Joshua Schaedel.

"I've also enjoyed the fact that a choreographer -- Lincoln -- would not only talk about dance steps, but fashion his ideas on details of the score. We worked on a piece by Hindemith and also some Stravinsky. Lincoln will cater to the complexities of the musical score," adds the violinist, "and that's what he has as his inspiration. I was so surprised he could read music so well and detect mistakes. It never occurred to me that a dance master could know so much about music."

And speaking of Stravinsky, or rather, his music - rhythmically fierce, dissonant, unpredictable -- it's being heard all over town during this Sacre centennial. Not only is the Los Angeles Music Center having a yearlong Stravinsky celebration (in February The Joffrey Ballet performed a reconstruction of Nijinsky's Sacre at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with other Stravinsky-related concerts planned for the remainder of 2013), but Jones is also contemplating creating his own Sacre for ACB. Instead of a full-blown orchestra, however, Jones says he would use Stravinsky's own two-piano reduction.

"DANCE+DESIGN II" rehearsal. | Photo: Joshua Schaedel.
"DANCE+DESIGN II" rehearsal. | Photo: Joshua Schaedel.

Until then, Jones has been studying another score from the Russian composer, one he'll use as part of ACB's current season. Stravinsky's Suite Italienne will be featured in June, with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra assistant concertmaster, Tereza Stanislav, on violin and Rob Thies on piano. (The other dance work is Dvorak's String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, the American; the instrumental works are Vivaldi's La Folia and the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia.)

A firm believer that ballet is a musical art form, Jones says, "Dance is fairly limited as a storytelling medium, but as a musical one that works in a visual realm, it is unique and unlimited."

Or, as Farrell likes to say, " It's our launching pad to move ballet forward."

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