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By Victoria Looseleaf
They’ve got ballet in their blood. Colleen Neary has been dancing since she was 8; her husband, Thordal Christensen, since he was 6. Today, the couple is on a mission: to bring ballet to the cultural masses of Los Angeles, a town not known to be pointe-shoe–friendly. Having founded Los Angeles Ballet in 2006, the co-artistic directors seem to be thriving in their 12,000-square-foot space. Classes and rehearsals are in full swing and an upcoming fifth season promises to attract growing audiences in their adopted hometown.
“We’re having a presence and proving to ourselves that it can happen,” says Neary, a former New York City Ballet dancer whose svelte body is still Balanchine-worthy at 57. “To start from the bottom up,” she adds, “you have to build something very valuable that people will be proud of.”
Having danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet before becoming artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, Christensen, 44, also has major terpsichorean cred. “When you start a company like ours, there are always going to be people that have opinions,” he says. “But if your vision is strong and you know what you’re doing, you don’t worry about what happens in other companies. You move forward.”
Indeed, the youthful troupe (the average age is mid-20s) is treading where others before have failed. A sampling of past, well, missteps includes John Clifford’s Los Angeles Ballet in the mid-1970s to early ’80s, Joffrey Ballet’s bicoastal plan from the ’80s to early ’90s, and American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel’s attempt to take the reins of Ballet Pacifica in 2005. All left a wake of bourrées in their ultimately unsuccessful paths.
Undaunted, the Neary-Christensen team persists in weathering the storm, artistically, financially, and otherwise. With a strong board and a projected budget of $1.5 million this year, LAB begins its winter season with its own Nutcracker, followed by spring and summer seasons of four to five concerts each. As for the company’s repertory, it’s also growing, with a canny blend of Balanchine (Neary is a Balanchine Trust répétiteur), commissions, and classic story ballets. On tap for the fifth season are Giselle, more Balanchine, including Symphony in C, and a mixed bill, including new works.
Positive reviews continue to bolster the company’s image. Chris Pasles of the Los Angeles Times called its 2009 production of La Sylphide “handsome,” one that “marked the company’s latest stage of artistic growth.” Of its all-Balanchine program, Laura Bleiberg of the Times wrote that LAB had “entered a new phase…its dancers showing increasing mastery with a repertory that while familiar, is unforgiving.”
In keeping with Balanchine’s belief that ballet not be elitist, LAB has also begun straddling the commercial and concert worlds: In 2008, a pair of its dancers performed a pas de deux from Who Cares? on the hit television show So You Think You Can Dance; and last year, the show’s producers called on Christensen to choreograph a number for Melissa Sandvig, the “naughty ballerina.”
In perhaps their most daring move to date, though, Neary and Christensen commissioned four new works for a series of concerts presented last May, dubbed “New Wave LA.” Three of the choreographers hailed from SYTYCD (Sonya Tayeh, Travis Wall, and Mandy Moore), and the fourth, Josie Walsh (“25 to Watch,” January 2006), heads her own “renegade” ballet troupe, MYOKYO, with industrial music composed by her rocker husband, Paul Rivera.
That kind of programming, Neary says, is all part of LAB’s vision. “There is a lot of talent in Los Angeles, and to incorporate designers, composers, and choreographers all working with our dancers is following our original mission and goals.”
As for the dancers themselves, they number around 25 per season, with many from Southern California and others from places as disparate as China and Switzerland. LAB holds auditions in both L.A. and New York, and company members are offered 25-week contracts. The troupe plans to begin offering health insurance, and they have a team of on-call medical professionals and an onsite physical therapist to tend to the dancers.
Two and a half years ago LAB also began a school. Currently, the enrollment is at 65, up from 30 at its inception. Both directors teach company class as well as students at the school, which Neary says is intended to eventually be a feeder for the company. “We have three trainees from the school who work with the company and have danced in the past two programs, so we are building a base there for the company.”
As is the case with most troupes, dancers come and dancers go. Late last year, LAB lost one of its brightest lights, Corina Gill (“On the Rise,” September 2007). With LAB since its inception, Gill left to join the corps of Boston Ballet.
But Christensen remains pragmatic. “Corina was a wonderful dancer and was a big part of this company. Now there are new ones. It gives the chance for somebody else to blossom. And that’s what you want—that your dancers bloom.”
In rehearsals last spring for the new works program, the studio had as much traffic as an L.A. freeway. Under the take-no-prisoners direction of Tayeh (the quirky SYTYCD choreographer with the Mohawk, body jewelry, and multiple tattoos), three couples were negotiating a series of head-to-head moves, rapid-fire turns, and daring leaps to the cranked-up tango music of Astor Piazzolla. With their wildly swaying hips and full-throttle chassés, the fearless dancers could have been contestants in a postmodern dance-till-you-drop marathon.
At the same time in a downstairs studio, Wall was guiding eight performers in his piece, part of which was set to a string version of U2’s “With or Without You.” Sensuously moving to an elegiac violin melody before beginning a sequence of canon-like patterns, the dancers displayed liquid lines before hard-charging into a floor sequence.
Andrew Brader has been with LAB from the start. Having performed in the all-Balanchine program last February, he rose to the challenge of Tayeh’s choreography. “It’s definitely in your face. Sonya’s movement is different from what we’re used to, but it’s great to be choreographed on. I love that LAB is taking this kind of risk, and it’s good to have that contrast in the repertory.”
Former NYCB dancer Melissa Barak has also been with LAB from the beginning. But her burgeoning choreographic career (which includes her work with fashion designers, see cover story) kept Barak from participating last spring in LAB’s new works program.
Speaking by phone from New York, Barak underscored the difficulties in growing a troupe from the ground up. “L.A. hasn’t really warmed up to the fact that they have their own ballet company. We’d like to see more weeks and bigger venues, but our audiences have grown and the feedback is good. They leave the theater very impressed with what they saw,” adds Barak. “I think LAB is headed in a good direction.”
Following in the footsteps, so to speak, of Miami City Ballet, a troupe that performs in several South Florida cities and venues, LAB also produces concerts in several different theaters in the greater L.A. area. Because of that, Christensen says, the company has acquired a diverse local following. “The biggest problem in L.A. is traffic. But going out to where the people live makes it better. And,” he points out, “we see the same people, some traveling from theater to theater. This is a huge area and that’s the real potential about being in L.A.—being able to tour your own city.”
With close to 90 years of ballet experience between them, Neary and Christensen share an unwavering passion for the art form. Their son, 15, and a daughter, 13, both dance.
“You have to kind of have it in your blood to project that on the stage,” says Neary. “It’s not just the technical aspects, it’s also the musicality, the flow—an energy and a feeling for dance.”
As for the company’s future and a possible end to the City of Angels’ alleged ballet curse?
Christensen is confident the troupe will stay on an upward trajectory. “It’s growing by itself. It’s been five years, and every day there’s a new surprise that you have to overcome—but that’s the fun of making art.”
Victoria Looseleaf writes for the L.A. Times and teaches dance history at USC and Santa Monica College.
Pictured: Grace McLoughlin and Drew Grant in Josie Walsh's Transmutation.