From the Ground Up

Interview with L.A. Ballet directors Colleen Neary & Thordal Christensen

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One might say that they’ve got ballet in their blood. Colleen Neary has been dancing since she was nine; her husband of nearly 30 years, Thordal Christensen, since he was six. This year, the co-directors of Los Angeles Ballet, founded in 2006, celebrate the troupe’s 10th season, a near-miraculous feat, really, in a town not known to be particularly pointe shoe-friendly.

The couple’s mission—to bring ballet to the cultural masses of L.A.—has been meticulously designed, and is decidedly working. Having grown in size from 21 dancers a decade ago to a current 35, with the opening season’s operating budget at $900,000 and today’s nearing $4 million, the company manages to weather any storm, artistically, financially or otherwise.

“We’re still here, and it feels good,” said Christensen, who, at 50, maintains the tall swagger of a danseur noble, one who once also served as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet. “It’s been a tough road,” he acknowledged, “but we’ve stayed with it and have gotten a lot of support from the communities. It’s never easy, but if we put one foot in front of the other, that’s how you survive.”

Added Neary, a former New York City Ballet dancer who joined the troupe in 1969 and was a soloist from 1975 to 1979—and whose svelte body is still Balanchine-worthy at 63: “At one of our first meetings when we were discussing this troupe, I said, ‘Enough talking, let’s get out there and dance, and raise awareness and interest.’

“We’ve had a presence and proved to ourselves that it can happen,” Neary continued. “To start from the bottom up, you have to build something valuable that people will be proud of. In that way, we’ve changed [peoples’] views, and I do feel we’ve come a long way.”

Indeed, LAB’s repertory has also grown, well, by leaps and bounds. Initially a canny blend of classic story ballets, including an annual “Nutcracker” and a slew of Balanchine works (Neary became a répétiteur in 1985, when the George Balanchine Trust authorized her to teach and stage his ballets), the rep also featured “Napoli” and a full-length “La Sylphide,” making good use of Christensen’s Bournonville pedigree. The Los Angeles Times described that 2009 production as “handsome,” one that “marked [the company’s] latest stage of artistic growth.”

Expanding its choreographic reach, the troupe has also tackled works by Jiří Kylián, José Limón and Lar Lubovitch. And, in keeping with Balanchine’s belief that ballet not be elitist, the troupe straddled the commercial and concert worlds by commissioning world premieres, including a trio of pieces by So You Think You Can Dance choreographers, Sonya Tayeh, Mandy Moore and the young phenom, Travis Wall.

For its seventh season, the Neary-Christensen team mounted a full-fledged Balanchine Festival, presenting seven works over four months, ranging from “La Valse” and “Agon” to “Rubies” and “La Sonnambula.” Neary said she feels a responsibility to the choreographer, who created more than 400 dances, by passing them down to her charges, as well as setting Balanchine works on other dancers around the world.

During this 10th anniversary season, which features Romantic classics, LAB has already performed “Giselle,” and ends a three-performance run of “Don Quixote” on Saturday (the costumes and sets are borrowed from Boston Ballet). The American premiere of Frederick Ashton’s “Romeo and Juliet” is scheduled for four performances in May and June.

With LAB proving its mettle in previous seasons with “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” Christensen explained the appeal of narrative works: “We’ve done a lot of Balanchine and neo-classical pieces, but we’re also very good at telling stories as a company. And that’s what the classics do—they teach you how to tell a story.

“It’s also difficult to build an organization on small pieces, because you have to have audience attendance and name recognition of the pieces to draw an audience. It’s a combination of those things.”

But does the world really need another “Don Q,” even if LAB’s production features the great Danish dancer and onetime City Ballet principal, Adam Lüders in the title role?

Neary explained: “The production is not unusual, but it’s quite lively. Both Thordal and I had experience with “Don Q.” I staged Nureyev’s for several companies in Europe when I was working there. In fact,” Neary continued, “it was Rudolf who brought me back to dancing. I had left City Ballet and was teaching and working as a ballet mistress with my sister [ballerina Patricia Neary].

“Rudy said, ‘You’re way too young and you’ve got a lot of talent, and have to get back on the stage.’ He inspired me and “Don Q” was what I came back with. Thordal was in that production in Denmark.”

Christensen chimed in: “I also did the [Yuri] Grigorovich version when I was very young, so our connection to “Don Q” is strong. And when you’ve danced it for so many years, you know its strengths and weaknesses. A lot of the storytelling has to do with tempo and keeping an audience interested and alert.”

Los Angeles Ballet rehearsing “Don Quixote.” Photograph by Catherine Kanner

Los Angeles Ballet rehearsing “Don Quixote.” Photograph by Catherine Kanner

On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles Ballet’s 12,000-square-foot studios, Neary and Christensen were putting their dancers, who range in age from 18-34, with most in their mid-20s, through some fiendishly difficult paces of this wildly popular ballet that teems with one-arm lifts and dizzying fouettés.

Lüders, wearing cargo shorts, an LAB tee and blue tennis shoes, was gesticulating with his arms, looking skyward, his Sancho Panza, a jocular David Renaud at his side. Principal dancer, Julia Cinquemani, who shares this production’s plucky Kitri with Allyssa Bross, did a series of leaps, with Christensen telling her, “Don’t throw your arms away after that first jump.”

The director then demonstrated what he wanted, a beaming Cinquemani repeating the move, now finely tuned.

As Neary manipulated the taped music of Minkus, a lusty Dustin True, the leader of the gypsies, danced full-out, his turns whiplash fast, his outsized jumps thrilling. The angelic-looking Chelsea Paige Johnston, in her seventh season with LAB, assumed a defiant stance as one of the gypsy soloists, the corps eventually on bended knee, their faces a study in deep concentration.

Neary explained that she and Christensen had wanted to keep many of the original dances from Petipa’s version, including that of the gypsy, fandango, and matador, Espada (danced by son Erik Thordal-Christensen), all of which are familiar to audiences.

“We do research, but mold it around our dancers, and worked a lot on that with Adam. Sometimes Don Q can be a stick figure walking around,” added Neary. “We’ve made him, in our view, alive—an actual character, and not just a man exiting and entering. He’s quite human.”

Said Christensen: “You want to humanize him, and connect the dancing, but make the story be surrounded by him. There’s not a lot of meat on the story, so when you lose what meat there is, you end up with a showpiece. We wanted also to be able to tell the story of Don Q and his struggles.”

During a rehearsal break, Lüders, who lives and teaches in Copenhagen, but has guested with LA Ballet since its first season, said he loves dancing the role of the titular Spaniard.

“It’s wonderful for me and it makes me do this role again that I did many, many years ago with Balanchine—his role. City Ballet was very young and I was not particularly glad about it, because I did all the beautiful ballets. But then he put me into this as a 27-year old, and I [thought], ‘Am I going to go into character roles,’ although New York City Ballet doesn’t really have character roles, as such.

“But looking back, it was fantastic that I did it, and here I’m doing it again and I’m absolutely thrilled.”

Julia Cinquemani, Kenta Shimizu and LAB ensemble in “Don Quixote.” Image Reed Hutchinson

Julia Cinquemani, Kenta Shimizu and LAB ensemble in “Don Quixote.” Image Reed Hutchinson

Cinquemani, 24, who joined the company in 2010 and also has her own line of clothing, Jule Dancewear, said she loves performing Kitri. “It’s so much fun and there’s so much energy.  You have to go out there with abandonment and go for it [unlike] “Giselle,” which is very controlled and placed and graceful. This is more fiery and it’s really exciting.”

Neary and Christensen know what they want in a dancer and have shaped the company accordingly. Holding auditions in L.A., Seattle and New York, they see between 250 and 300 dancers each year, with Neary explaining that they seek musicality, ability, and “a talent we can develop. We look at not only where they’re at now, but where they could be three or four years from now.”

Added Christensen: “It’s all about the individual dancer being able to develop. And it’s always our intention [for them] to start young and let them emerge and grow with the company.”

The members of LA Ballet also have health insurance—one of the directors’ original goals—with a team of on-call medical professionals, including a physical therapist available to them. Contracted for 28 weeks, with principles working up to 32 weeks a year, the dancers, much like the melting pot that is Los Angeles, hail from all over the map, including Australia, China, Korea, Japan, Italy and Denmark. From the States, dancers have also called home cities such as San Diego, Seattle, Oregon and, of course, Los Angeles.

“We want to see individual personalities,” noted Christensen, “but also want a cohesive expression. Once they come into the company, we have to integrate them and make it look like [they’ve] grown up together. Behaving on stage, the energy, the aesthetic—those things are what creates a company style.”

Working as a team, day in, day out, year after year (back in the day, the pair also danced together at Pacific Northwest Ballet), Neary and Christensen admit to the occasional spat, but theirs is a true partnership, forged by their passion for dance and their love and respect for each other.

“It’s been a long relationship and we make it work in a positive way,” said Neary. “We both have certain strengths and try to utilize them.”

“In any relationship,” added Christensen, “you shape each other, too. After years, we do that automatically—in our personal relationship and in our working relationship.”

Neary does much of the staging, because, she said, she’s “good at knowing what’s right, left and how many counts there are, adding, “Thordal’s good at making patterns and at telling stories. We have the same aesthetic on what should be out there and what should be told in dancing and acting. We also work together before we go into the studio and discuss things.”

Colleen Neary as Carabosse in Los Angeles Ballet's “The Sleeping Beauty.” Image Reed Hutchinson

Colleen Neary as Carabosse in Los Angeles Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Image Reed Hutchinson

With the couple’s fondness for story ballets, it’s no surprise that Neary often appears in characters roles, including performing the witch in “Sylphide” and assaying Carabosse in last year’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Of the latter’s three-hour production, the L.A. Times’ former dance critic, Lewis Segal, wrote that it, “justified company (and civic) pride both as an index of growth and for sustained achievement.”

“Thordal does direct me,” Neary points out, “but I also have my own vision. I love performing character roles. I did them for such a long time in Denmark [where] they’re such fantastic actors, and they make it human in the way that it’s a person, not just somebody doing mime with their arms.

“When I was with Béjart,” Neary recalled, “I learned a lot about performing onstage and being grounded. I had to speak onstage, sing onstage and develop a character within myself. Our company is very young and we haven’t developed that side of it yet.”

What they have been developing, however, is their school, which began with 20 students and has grown to nearly 90, and, happily, their audiences. 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 different theaters throughout the greater L.A. area.

Because of that, Christenson says, the company has acquired a diverse local following—in spite of L.A.’s legendary traffic. “Going out where the people live makes it better. And,” he noted, “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.

“We’ve seen steady and healthy growth,” added Christensen, “especially in the last three to four years, since we first did “Swan Lake.” Where are we going to be in another 10 years?

“Time will tell, but I think we’ve broken a barrier—of what people generally perceive dance in L.A. to be,” he said, pointing out, “We’ve been on the forefront of breaking that barrier. It’s going to continue to develop, because you’re always reaching out to do bigger and better. That process is the same.”

Not mincing words, Neary added, “We’re very ambitious. We try our best to do the best we can all the time. I’d love to see this company with our own venue and a live orchestra—those things come in the future. But we do a lot of prioritizing and when I’m not here or when Thordal isn’t here, we’d like to know it’s [still] going on. You build an institution and can only hope for the best.”

Christensen, often finishing his wife’s sentences, said with pride, “Hopefully [the company] will still be here 100 years from now.”

 

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