With a program drawn from a half dozen beloved ballets, Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre returns to Glendale’s historic Alex Theater with A Ballet Spectacular on Sunday, September 24, 2023 at 5 p.m. Led by long-time artistic director Natasha Middleton, PBDT company members and guest artists bring exuberant selections from the character-driven story ballets that are the company’s signature.
Recently Middleton talked with LADC about the selection of these ballet excerpts, how the company and the studio maintained through the pandemic closures, the recent rebuilding efforts including her return to choreography, the company’s long history in Los Angeles and its heritage dating back to the Europe’s famed Ballet Russes.
“Drawn from the classical repertoire, these ballets reflect Armenian, Spanish, and Russian cultures, the kind of diversity that we wanted for this program,” Middleton explained. “The first act includes excerpts from Don Quixote drawn from Spanish culture. The second act includes dances from Armenian composer Aram Katchaturian’s Gayane as well as Katchaturian’s Masquerade Waltz, the Russian pas de deux Spring Waters, and a return to Spain with the Act III pas de deux from Don Quixote.”
Choreographer Marius Petipa’s 1869 Don Quixote (or Don Q as it’s known in ballet shorthand) takes its title and plot loosely from Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel Cervantes’ Spanish literary classic about the wandering knight errant. As a ballet, Don Quixote became a staple in Russian ballet companies. Europe’s Ballet Russes was among those in the west offering full-length versions and excerpts, especially the gala-ready Act III Grand Pas de Deux.
“The excerpts from Don Q focus on the young lovers Kitri and Basilio. The various dances and action convey their often humorous efforts to evade her father who wants to marry Kitri to a wealthy man, which Basilio is not. Their efforts are aided by a street dancer and a toreador, who also get some terrific dance moments.” Middleton notes.
Irina Gharibyan dances Kitri, Eduard Sargsyan is Basilio, Lester Gonzalez and Damara Timus are the toreador and the street dancer. Fans of the Act III Grande Pas De Deux won’t go away disappointed as Sargsyan returns with Natalie Palmgren for that one.
“One of my priorities has always been to have live music. This time, we’re fortunate to have award-winning Russian pianist Mikhail Korzhev playing live for two dances. One is Spring Waters [Choreography by Asaf Messerer] with music by Rachmaninoff,” Middleton says.
Barely two minutes long, Spring Waters is a study in strength and trust as the ballerina repeatedly launches herself across the stage into her partner’s arms with increasing risk and intensity until he bears her offstage held aloft, often one handed. Dancing Spring Waters are guest artists Elan Alekzander from Anaheim Ballet and Lester Gonzalez. The pianist returns to accompany what Middleton describes as “a light, airy solo” set to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 32, No. 3 in E major.
Middleton sounded particularly excited about the multi-culture themes in Gayane composed by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian. The ballet’s somewhat intricate plot interweaves Armenian, Russian, and Kurdish communities uniting against a band of smugglers, a struggle that resolves with three weddings among the good guys.
“Gayane’s music and the ballet includes folkdance themes as well as ballet. The Saber Dance is possibly the most recognized music from the ballet and the dancing is just as exciting,” Middleton offered. The folk-dance derived Lezghinka from Gayane is also on the program.
Katchaturian’s mystery-drenched waltz from Masquerade provides Middleton a chance to return to her role as a choreographer.
Middleton emphasized that the company’s dancers and the program choices, especially those going back to the Ballets Russes are all about story telling.
“I’m drawn to the story telling in these ballets,” Middleton says, “The ballets are classical but with real characters, Kitri, Basilio, Gayane, are human beings who are dancing, not otherworldly characters as in Swan Lake or La Sylphide. These characters are dancing a story or a relationship that is part of the story.”s
The story-telling ability is also something Middleton looks for in PBDT dancers and the guest artists she invites.
“I look for acting skills and facial expressions, in addition to ballet technique,” Middleton shares. “I look for story tellers who can create an atmosphere that the dancing fills with meaning without going too far or giving too little.” The type of theatrical story-telling that the Ballet Russes was known for.
The word “scion,” is generally perceived as a male descendent of a notable family. The word originally referenced the young shoot of a plant, certainly not gender specific. In that sense, Middleton is a scion.
As artistic director of PBDT, Middleton can trace her lineage in a direct line to the Ballet Russes where her grandmother Elena Wortova danced for the original, and later her father Andrei Tremaine danced for a successor company, Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. After he retired, Tremaine settled in Los Angeles and in 1954 was a founder of Pacific Ballet Theatre, the predecessor of Middleton’s current company. Established in Burbank as a school and soon after as a ballet company that performed for more than a decade under the name Media City Ballet, in 2012 Middleton returned the company name to its roots with a small tweak, now Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre.
This performance marks the PBDT’S resurgence after the pandemic.
“With the pandemic and statewide shutdown, we stopped performing and closed the studio in March 2020, like everyone else,” Middleton recalled. “Fortunately, we did not lose the studio. We used the time to make repairs and fix up the studio until we could start to bring the company back and reopen for classes. It has been slow coming out of the pandemic. The younger dancers especially lost time and missed out on valuable experience, but everything is coming back.”
After that gradual rebuilding from the pandemic dark times, PBDT offered smaller events to regain its performing groove. This performance marks PBDT’s return to the mainstage and also the opening of its 2023-2024 season.
Next up will be a holiday show combining excerpts from The Nutcracker and Middleton’s version of The Little Match Girl. “We used to do a full-length Nutcracker, but this is dancing that highlights the familiar music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score. And it pairs well with The Little Match Girl which I’ve rearranged with the action in 1800’s England. It has a similar feel to the musical Oliver including a rousing pub scene involving the girl’s father. It conveys the sense of the story while avoiding the sad ending.”
The spring 2024 program will have a contemporary focus, including more of Middleton’s choreography. Venues and dates for the rest of the season were still being finalized at the time of this interview. As the company returns to performing, the dancers and Middleton are back after an involuntary hiatus and ready to dance to make up for that lost time.
Written by Ann Haskins for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre – Photo courtesy of the company.