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'Mr. B' visits the Alex

March 31, 2013|By Donna Perlmutter
  • A performance of "The Four Temperaments" the Los Angeles Ballet's Balanchine Festival, will be performed Sunday at the Alex Theater in Glendale.
A performance of "The Four Temperaments"… (Courtesy of Reed…)

What's a Los Angeles Ballet for, if not to stage a Balanchine festival?

After all, that seemingly undisputed king of 20th-century pointe-dancing at New York City Ballet — George Balanchine — whose choreography graces the stages of companies throughout the land and others worldwide, has been enthroned by his emissaries. And one of them, Colleen Neary, co-directs LAB, along with Thordal Christensen.

So we did expect to see Balanchine gems in the current show, on view this afternoon at the Alex Theatre. But Neary and her sister Patricia — both of them former soloists with NYCB and hand-picked by their Russian-born master to be custodians of his ballets — had something even more special than their expert stagings of his works on this bill: revelations about life in the studio with this man who likened himself to "only a baker," but who turned out hundreds of treasured ballets, many of them magical, over a long career.

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And those stories, as told in a pre-performance talk, are legion. Together with moderator Lewis Segal — a critic of scrupulous scholarship and encyclopedic memory — they shared, yes, revelations. And it's time, at this 30th anniversary of Balanchine's death, time enough for those tales of up-close encounters with Mr. B. to have taken on a patina.

The sisters Neary, who are direct opposites of each other — Pat, flamboyant in a low-cut, short dress, gregarious and wittily self-mocking in her talk of double hip replacements; Colleen, more demure and less showy but just as unreserved in describing Mr. B's foibles — did, in fact, tell of vibrant memories of the man they served, a man who also seemed to delight in raising the competitive temperature between them.

"A lot of my stories need to be censored," Pat admitted, teasing the audience with what she would not reveal. But unabashedly she quoted him. "'You look like Frankenstein,' he said, as he walked stiffly and sternly towards me, after the performance of my first big part, Choleric, from 'Four Temperaments.'

"I guessed it was the dramatic faces he didn't like. But 20 years later he remembered making me cry then. 'I'm sorry I called you Frankenstein' he confessed."

Neither did Colleen escape Mr. B.'s scrutiny. In a lively Hungarian number she danced, one that "deserved a smile," she recalls, he chased her backstage to say "'But you smiled! What? Was your mother out front?'" So aghast was the balletmaster at any kind of flirtation with the audience.

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