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The Men of the Ballet Russe

by Kathy Lee Scott

June 9, 2007 -- Wilshire Ebell Theatre, Los Angeles

A remarkable reunion occurred at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturday, June 9, 2007. Five of six former Ballet Russe male dancers gathered to be honored, and hundreds of their colleagues, friends, students and balletomanes joined them.

Dressed elegantly in black tie, George Zoritch, Marc Platt, Victor Moreno, Paul Maure, and Andrei Tremaine enthusiastically posed for photographs and chatted with well-wishers, some who traveled across the country to attend.

Hosted by local radio host P.J. Ochlan, the evening featured portions of a to-be-released documentary about the men interspersed with live dancing. Members of the Burbank, Calif.-based Media City Ballet performed short excerpts from ballets in the Ballet Russe repertoire, introduced by former partners and students of the honorees.

The film, a preliminary edited version, included stories from all five of the honored guests, plus 93-year-old Frederick Franklin in New York. "(Choreographer Leonide) Massine brought acting to the Ballet Russe. He expected a lot and got it," Franklin said on the video. All six men told about their days on the road, riding trains and buses, dancing on all kinds of stages and enjoying themselves immensely.

Serge Diaghilev founded the first Ballets Russes in 1911 in Paris, and then took the company on tour throughout the world. Among its dancers over the years were Vaslav Nijinsky, Massine, George Balanchine, Alicia Markova and Anna Pavlova. Upon Diaghilev's death in 1929, the company disbanded. Two rival Ballets Russe companies were formed in the 1930s [the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (1932) by Colonel de Basil and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1939) by Sergei Denham], which toured extensively throughout the world until World War II.

Zoritch, 90, danced with Colonel de Basil's troop, and Platt, 93, Moreno, 78, Maure, 80, and Tremaine, also 80, toured with Denham's troop.

Host Ochlan combined gentle humor with his comments about the gentlemen, although he had fun introducing "Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun," winding sexual innuendos into his text.

Former ballerina Zina Bethune reminisced about dancing with Paul Maure. "He had amazing hands," she said. Maure "was a partner like no other."  She recalled how both of them were "pirouette crazy" and shared a joy of performing. "Thanks for the glorious dance," she said, smiling at Maure sitting in the front row.

Former Joffrey dancer Glen Edgerton credited Victor Moreno for teaching him how to partner ladies and avoid their "weapons": elbows and knees. Charles Maple, choreographer and former ABT dancer, studied under Tremaine before he went to New York. "He demanded perfection," Maple remembered.

Since their Ballets Russes days, some of the honorees settled in California to open studios and form their own companies. "These men have contributed a lot to ballet in California," said Natasha Middleton, artistic director of Media City Ballet and Tremaine's daughter.

The evening started with the short allegro from "Swan Lake," Danse de Fançailles, which featured soloists Tyler Nelson, Yoko Ambe, Felicia Guzman and Lukash Abrahamyan. The last choreographed the piece. Danced on a bare stage, the eight-member corps adequately flanked the two couples, who seemed a bit out of sync with each other.

Middleton staged the next piece, "Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun," using original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, in front of a painted backdrop depicting a mountain glen. Jonathan Sharp performed the faun powerfully. However, his strength seemed a bit tentative during some wobbly relevés. The object of his lust, Kristine Gregorian, was more sure on her legs.

The rigid movements and sensual plotline still seem odd even in today's more diverse dance world. However, kudos to the make-up artist who transformed the handsome Sharp into a fierce creature.

The short selection from Richard Rodgers' "Ghost Town" had Tatiana A'Vermond and Albertossy Espinoza bounding around the stage to bouncy music reminiscent of the 1940s-style musicals.

The sensuous pas de deux from "Scheherazade" featured married couple, Kyudong Kwak and Yoomi Lee, both dressed in Arabian-style pantaloons. In the lyrical moves, Lee was superb. However, her multiple turns seemed more like figure skaters' spins than dance twirls. Perhaps that was because she danced in soft shoes instead of en pointe, which might have made the dance even more alluring.

Kwak attentively partnered Lee, but he never changed his stern expression, even after she kissed him. He performed his grand allegro moves technically well but without any fire in them.

The pair's grand pas de deux from "Don Quixote" also lacked any spark, although they both danced beautifully. Lee's balances in attitude were secure. The couple seemed comfortable with the Petipa choreography, and Kwak actually smiled while partnering Lee.

The adagio from "The Red Poppy," choreographed by Tremaine after J. Erglis Smaltzoff and Lev Lashchilin, featured Lukash Abrahamyan and April Mcleod. Abrahamyan stood a good foot taller than Mcleod, which seemed appropriate since his character was an American navy man and she, a Chinese cabaret dancer. They interacted with each other believably. Tremaine's choreography was lovely and he created smooth transitions between the various lifts and moves. The only nitpick occurred when Mcleod locked eyes with Abrahamyan while they were apart, she looked upstage, averting her face from the audience.

The entire ensemble danced the final piece, the Polovtsian dances from "Prince Igor," filling the stage with movement and color. Middleton and ballet master Ruben Tonoyan staged the scene, with help from Tremaine and Maure.

Sergey Kheylik performed the warrior chieftain role energetically. He leaped high but with control. The four young warriors enthusiastically clapped and jumped their way across the stage. All the girls moved sinuously in their various formations.

The audience awarded the honorees, speakers and dancers with a standing ovation.

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