The venue of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium is a sumptuous 1931 era jewel in central Pasadena. The décor and expanse of its proscenium makes it a fitting framework for any classical ballet company. Happily, it held the Los Angeles Ballet (LAB) in a lovely nimbus as they performed Saturday evening.

I do love when the curtain goes up on ‘Serenade’ and the dancers all standing with the singular arm up, in anticipation? In supplication? It is at once poetic and arresting at the same time. One feels as if something magnificent is going to happen, and it does. The lighting recreated by Nathan Scheuer and staging by Darla Hoover both courtesy of the Balanchine Trust was beautiful. All worked in cosmetic harmony with the fabulous choreography.

Los Angeles Ballet in "Serenade" - Photo © Cheryl Mann 2024

Los Angeles Ballet in “Serenade” – Photo © Cheryl Mann 2024.

So much has been written about ‘Serenade’ that I hardly need add to the historical volumes. So many dance companies have performed it that it is a kind of litmus test to certain neo-classical repertoires. The question then is how did LAB do ‘Serenade’? I am glad to say that they did it very well.

The color palette of the costumes, soft blues with the men in dark navy blue against the   backdrop was gorgeous and set a relaxing vibe for the choreography to wash over. The ballet comes at you in waves and I am sure the dancers feel the same way performing it. The romantic tutus to the ankle remind me of “Les Sylphides” and convey the same sweeping movement as the patterns develop and envelop the stage. The dancers were certainly up to the task and brought a light airiness to the work that was marvelous.

Los Angeles Ballet in "Serenade" - Russian girls - Sarah Ashley Chicola (center) - Photo © Cheryl Mann 2024.

Los Angeles Ballet in “Serenade” – Russian girls – Sarah Ashley Chicola (center) – Photo © Cheryl Mann 2024.

As the four movements unfolded it became a sort of dream that the dancers were having en masse, and we the audience could watch from the outside. At the point where the female dancer lets her hair down (Lily Fife with a fantastic mane of red hair) the piece turns more sensual. Sarah-Ashley Chicola and Brigitte Edwards follow suit and Chicola’s hair has a life of its own in length and volume giving the movement a wanton aspect that was beautiful to see against the cold hued background.

I also appreciated the solid pointe work which I saw onstage as throughout difficult allegro passages and including the jumps, the heels were firmly planted and preparations for the partnering and lifts were made smooth by the use of the entire pointe shoe and not just the box. This technical aspect made the jumps softer and indeed the plies more satisfying. The melancholy note at the end of the ballet where the ballerina is lifted and all fades to black is a perfect ending to such a fantasy.

Los Angeles Ballet's Lily Fife and Jake Ray as the Waltz Couple in "Serenade" - Photo © Cheryl Mann 2024.

Los Angeles Ballet’s Lily Fife and Jake Ray as the Waltz Couple in “Serenade” – Photo
© Cheryl Mann 2024.

Speaking of technical aspects, I must mention an event which marred the production considerably. While the dancers were performing and lost in their parts, a single woman clad in dark clothing, hair down, carrying a duffel bag and a water bottle blithely walked across the stage, upstage of the scrim but downstage of the backdrop for all to see. Whether this person was a dancer or a technician of the theater is immaterial as they could not help but notice the stage lights on them as they crossed the great expanse of stage and 20 dancers a few feet away from them! I at first thought it a joke and then when they kept on walking unfazed by the goings on around them, I gasped. In all my years of viewing ballet companies around the world I have never seen that. Also, during the first two sections of ‘Serenade’ the backdrop was in motion by people moving quickly behind it at too close a proximity. This creates a wind and wave that flows across the entire backdrop like a flag in the wind. It was a bit distracting and took away from the action onstage. Again, it is a customary rule to not run behind the backdrop and make it ripple in such a way. I was surprised that LAB would let this happen. In ‘Firebird’ there are three pieces of fabric that quickly flit across the sky standing in for the Firebird before she comes down to earth. One of them zipped out and stuck hanging lifeless center stage for some minutes before the crew could get it offstage again. For these two events to happen to ‘the leading ballet company in Los Angeles’ in its ‘inaugural programmed season’ for Artistic Director Melissa Barak seems to speak to a lessening of performance standards in general. It could be due to a rushed load-in of the ballets that LAB were presenting at the Civic Auditorium, or not enough time for a technical run-through of the program. If Los Angeles Ballet wishes to represent the City of Los Angeles in a way similar to New York City Ballet representing the City of New York, then these simple technical rules need to be considered and put in place.

Los Angele Ballet's "Firebird" - Paige Wilkey as Firebird, Jonas Tutaj as Prince Ivan - Photo© Cheryl Mann 2024.

Los Angele Ballet’s “Firebird” – Paige Wilkey as Firebird, Jonas Tutaj as Prince Ivan – Photo © Cheryl Mann 2024.

The second part of the program was “Firebird” and this ballet delivered on all counts. It is wonderful to see an old classic narrative story ballet get an updated restoration and see it work its magic even after so many years and incarnations. From the 1910 season of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe with choreography by Michel Fokine, music by Igor Stravinsky to this 2024 version with choreography by Yuri Possokhov, music: same, the “Firebird” still entrances us with meaning. As Joseph Campbell so ably demonstrated with his passion for Myth, these Fairy Tales have deep roots in the human psyche and lessons for us to learn even today.

Los Angeles Ballet's "Firebird" - Paige Wilkey as Firebird, Jonas Tutaj as Prince Ivan - Photo© Cheryl Mann 2024.

Los Angeles Ballet’s “Firebird” – Paige Wilkey as Firebird, Jonas Tutaj as Prince Ivan – Photo
© Cheryl Mann 2024.

‘Ivan,’ played by Jonas Tutaj, was every bit the strong prince, earnest, honest, maybe even simple, but honorable and transparent in his captivation of the Firebird as well as his love for the princess. His entrance into the enchanted forest set the entire scene for the ballet. The ‘princess,’ played by Sarah-Ashley Chicola, was perfectly aware of her own status, at once sharing with her ladies-in-waiting, and at other times lording it over them. In this way she presented a young princess, full of sassy curiosity and capable of royal cheek. ‘Kaschei,’ was played by Marcos Ramirez and although sometimes presented as a sorcerer, this version had him as a kind of Goblin, living underground in the roots of the forest with his gang of Goblin men. He was wonderfully malevolent, threatening with wild gestures and big leaps. His make-up and costume serving to render him inhuman if not other-worldly. And the ‘Firebird’ herself, played by Paige Wilkey who portrayed her with a world-weary sort of carnal knowing, a sensual and laconic attitude that said, ‘Here we go again’ when Ivan pursued and captured her. She was exhausted and curious all at the same time. Her sad farewell to Ivan at his winning the princess spoke volumes to what might have been. There are many currents running under the surface of this fairy tale. One of them being the light of Christianity represented by the Firebird and the gift of her feather to Ivan in case he should need it against the dark magic of the ancient Earth Deities, a.k.a. Paganism represented by Kaschei and his goblin men. It was a wonderful take on the story and the lighting by David Finn and recreated by Nathan Scheuer together with the staging by Roman Rykine made it a fantastic addition to the program. Well done.

This program is to be performed at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center Saturday, May 25th at 2:00pm and 7:30pm, and at Royce Hall at UCLA on Saturday, June 1st, at 2:00pm and 7:30pm.

Let us hope that the load-in and Tech rehearsals for those two shows prove to be more successful than what was witnessed by this reviewer. While Los Angeles Ballet has every promise of becoming a ballet company befitting this eclectic and vibrant city, at least technically it has a few kinks to work out before it earns that mantle.

For more information about the Los Angeles Ballet, please visit their website.

Written by Brian Fretté for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Paige Wilkey as Firebird – photo by Cheryl Mann for Los Angeles Ballet