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Three Balanchine Ballets, One Free Picnic

Ballet gets set to music of Igor Stravinsky

Call it a summertime special. The Music Center is hosting Los Angeles Ballet and American Ballet Theatre for a trio of performances choreographed by George Balanchine and set to music by Igor Stravinsky. The longtime partnership between the two men is among the most famous in the dance world. We’re in for a treat. Los Angeles Ballet brings Agon (from 1957) and Rubies (1967)—at no charge!—to Grand Park this Saturday, July 6. Then ABT will present Apollo (1928) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on July 11. Each piece has a rich cultural and historical context. Agon, the Greek word for “contest,” includes movements based on 17th-century French court dances; Rubies was inspired by jewelry designer Claude Arpels; and Apollo features the Greek god of music in a stellar lead role. We spoke with Los Angeles Ballet artistic directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary about the Balanchine-Stravinsky connection and dancing under the stars.

Why are Agon and Rubies significant?

Colleen Neary: Well, Balanchine collaborated many times with Stravinsky. They were very good friends. They started their collaboration in 1928 with Apollo and became close after that. Balanchine loved Stravinsky not only for his musicality, but also for the mathematics of his scores. Agon is a very challenging piece musically as well as for the dancers and the audience. Rubies is from a full-length ballet called Jewels. It’s jazzy and a lot of fun and energetic, while Agon is mathematical and simplistic. So they fit well together—they have two very different moods and show the quality of the music and choreography.

Why do you say Agon is challenging even for the audience?

C.N.: The music is 12 tonal. It’s a piece that was ahead of its time. Musically it’s very off in its structure, too. It’s not difficult to hear, but it’s an advanced piece. There are not melodies in it that you can follow. So it’s challenging that way, but it’s such an incredible piece to watch because it is so musical. Agon was actually commissioned to be a ballet. Stravinsky sat at a piano in the studio with Balanchine as he was choreographing, and they worked together on it. Not a lot of ballets are like that.

For you, there’s a personal connection in that you have performed Balanchine pieces yourself. What do you enjoy about the Balanchine style? How has it inspired you?

C.N.: He was an inspiration in terms of what I’m doing now. I grew up training in his school and dancing in his company [New York City Ballet] and working with him very closely and being choreographed on by him. He put me in a position when I was very young of teaching and staging his ballets, so that’s why I’m here today doing that—not only for our company, but for other companies around the world. Dancing his ballets are incredible, because for a dancer they’re just the epitome of dancing. They’re so intricate and technically so specific in their structure. I danced in both Agon and Rubies.

Which was more challenging for you?

C.N.: That’s the thing about Balanchine ballets: They all are challenging in many different ways. Agon, of course, is musically and stepwise, too, and Rubies is just very high energy. There are a lot of leg lifts and a lot of jumps. But they’re both very different, so it’s hard to compare Balanchine ballets. They are equally wonderful.

Besides training your dancers physically, do you go over the history of Balanchine and Stravinsky and the meaning behind their pieces?

C.N.: We both try when we’re teaching to tell the dancers about who Balanchine was, and I always try to bring in some personal aspect of what he wanted within a role and how he was as a person to work with. Stories and little anecdotes—so they get to know him as a man.

Is this the first time Los Angeles Ballet will perform at Grand Park?

Thordal Christensen: Yes, this will be the first time we’re collaborating with the Music Center, and the park is so incredible, we’re looking forward to it.

C.N.: It’ll be exciting for everybody to come and see. Free performance, ballet under the stars.

T.C.: We like that aspect—that it’s free for everybody. Bring a picnic and sit down and enjoy.

On the other hand, is it difficult to perform in an outdoor space?

T.C.: It’ll be right at sunset. It’s going to be a beautiful setting.

C.N.: It’s always beautiful to perform outdoors as a dancer, because you get the breeze and the wind, and you can see the audience.

T.C.: It’s a good way for the company to get out in the community. This is the end of our seventh season, and we’re very excited about how far we’ve come.