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Not sharing the microphone. Agami, far left. All photos by Reed Hutchinson.

In 2013, Israeli dancer and choreographer Danielle Agami migrated from Seattle to Los Angeles with her young company, Ate9. In the past four years, she’s had so many gigs that I wondered if she had a magical Time-Turner (see “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), to be everywhere at once. Two shows at Los Angeles Theatre Center; choreographer of the headphone opera “Invisible Cities” at Union Station; an out-of-the-box solo for ballerina Melissa Barak; an award-winning piece in Palm Springs; a residency at UCLA; other shows in L.A., Orange County and elsewhere.

I’ve probably left things out, but you get the idea. The woman pushes hard and works harder.

On Saturday (Nov. 11), Agami and AteNine (now Nine, instead of 9) premiered “calling glenn” at Royce Hall, and both the piece and the fact of being presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance are important milestones for Agami. “calling glenn” is a strong, complex piece, 70 minutes straight through. It depends upon, and benefits from, the collaboration between Agami and composer-musician Glenn Kotche, who plays live during the work, upstage and behind the nine dancers. Kotche, of the alternative rock band Wilco, moves between a large drum set laden with strange and beautiful-sounding percussion instruments to two different xylophone-type pieces. (I’m hedging because technically they might not be xylophones.) Kotche delivers rhythmic assurance and a melodic backdrop that nicely contrasts with Agami’s twisted and distorted movement (more on that shortly). Kotche’s intent is never to overpower the dance, but to drive it forward and complement. He succeeds wonderfully. At one point the dancers pull chairs in front of him just to watch the concert, and you empathize.

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Carisa Songhorian, Genna Moroni, Jobel Medina and Glenn Kotche at the drums

The dance is rather otherworldly and the stage is stripped of backdrop and wings; Kotche’s instruments are the scenery and black chairs lined up on each side are its only props. The dancing proceeds episodically, with scenes flowing one into the other, sometimes with clear demarcation and other times not. Agami favors a jerky movement style, the dancers’ bodies distorted, twisty and weighty. Dancers perform differing signature gestures at once, and these unrecognizable shapes are complicated in a formless way. There’s a great deal of falling, as though gravity is simply too great a force to fight.

It’s not until almost the halfway point that Agami suggests a narrative I recognized. Two by two, dancers meet for differing duets, each one a cascade of actions begetting reactions triggering others. Some were sexual, others confrontational. There’s tenderness, too. During her duo, Agami meticulously places her arms in a perfectly round hoop and partner Raymond Ejiofer dives through, accepting her challenge.

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Raymond Ejiofor jumps through Agami’s hoop

Later, a woman brings a microphone onstage and is about to address us, until another woman pushes the first out of the way. A shoving match ensues, and soon, everyone is miming angry words, their bodies tensed into repulsive and hateful gestures, Kotche’s drumming standing in for what would be shouted diatribes; music is better. It’s a perfect encapsulation of today’s ugly public discourse. With the microphones evenly lined up, the onstage society suddenly looks like a prison, and the six women and three men have become captives of their own intransigence.

The stumbling block I have with Agami’s pieces is the amorphousness of the body language she and her dancers conceive. I admire the physical intricacy. But there is an obscurity, a remoteness, even a mixed-message quality to her dances that I have yet to crack. In a post-performance question and answer session, Agami noted that she is aiming to express “tiny stories, passions, fantasies, hope and beauty” and emotions. My reading is often the opposite; her work can feel cold, full of intellectual puzzles. I often don’t feel the heartbeat.

That said, “calling glenn” is a step forward, a risky leap of revelation and trusting herself. And the cast, which includes original company members Sarah Butler and Ariana Daub plus Rebecah Goldstone, Genna Moroni, Carisa Songhorian, Gary Reagan and Jobel Medina performed with commitment and passion. I was particularly taken with her male dancers, Ejiofor, Reagan and Medina.

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Aszure Barton's Awa¦üa - photo by Don Lee 3

Dancers in Aszure Barton’s “Awáa,” photo by Don Lee

The Music Center kicks off a new initiative this summer, called The Music Center on Location. The downtown performing arts center is moving off campus, presenting two smaller dance companies and music artists at the Ford Theatres: Aszure Barton Dance in “Awáa” on Aug. 18 and Jacob Jonas The Company on Aug. 19, in shared program with Tim Hecker and Kara-Lis Coverdale. In October, the Music Center will present British choreographer Akram Khan’s “Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata” at Culver Studios on West Washington Boulevard in Culver City. These are all big steps for this institution, and via email I asked President and CEO Rachel Moore to talk a little about this decision to begin presenting events away from the center’s traditional downtown venues. Below is an edited version of our email conversation.

Laura: How and why did you decide on the Ford as a venue for this initiative?

Rachel: The upcoming music and dance engagement at the Ford Theatres is part of…our commitment to taking the artistic vision of the Music Center beyond our downtown campus to venues across L.A. County and providing even more opportunities for audiences to engage with the arts. It is critical to us, not only as a county venue, but as L.A.’s performing arts center, to serve all of Los Angeles County and to be relevant and accessible to audiences of all interests. Working with the Ford Theatres creates a natural partnership as the newly renovated amphitheater is located in close proximity to the Westside of Los Angeles along with the West Valley and offers an intimate setting for many different artistic genres.

Ana Barros (@anasbarros)

Photo of Jacob Jonas The Company by Ana Barros

Laura: And tell me a little about how you chose to present Aszure’s and Jacob’s companies?

Rachel: The Music Center is presenting highly talented artists, both based in L.A., as well as some pieces that have never been performed here. We are always focused on presenting world-class talent and providing a platform for L.A.-based artists. Aszure Barton is now an Angeleno after recently relocating to Los Angeles. She is a prolific choreographer with strong emotionality. Her piece “Awàa” celebrates sexuality and humanity through movement and will be performed for the first time in Los Angeles. Jacob Jonas is a young choreographer and dancer raised in Los Angeles who combines contemporary ballet with breakdance and acrobatics. His company will perform a new piece commissioned by The Music Center On Location called “On Me,” where the company will explore the idiom “to carry the weight of the world on one’s shoulders.” We are excited to include Jacob’s unique blend of athleticism and dance in our program.

Laura: It is a complicated time for all of the arts. Big performing arts institutions like the Music Center have for at least a decade been trying new ways to reach audiences and to be integral to a broader swath of society. How will the Music Center on Location help and are you worried that by going to smaller venues in other parts of the city, you are stepping on the toes of other Los Angeles theaters, such as the Wallis and the Broad Stage?

Rachel: Much as we would like everyone to be able to visit us in Downtown L.A., we know that just may not be possible! That’s why we created The Music Center On Location. We’re in the early days of this program, but, ultimately, we hope to provide more programming in all five county districts and work with local artists, community groups and other important stakeholders to build relationships throughout the region with the goal of providing even more access to the arts.
What’s more, The Music Center On Location is about creating and building partnerships with arts organizations throughout the region. For example, we may present a future
engagement at the Wallis or the Broad Stage. Our intention is to collectively work together with our colleagues and, in doing so, raise the awareness for the arts across Los Angeles and Southern California.

StillLife

“Still Life,” photo courtesy Raiford Rogers

Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet’s last local concert was two years ago, when the company presented the debut of “Still Life,” a stirring, three-movement work Rogers choreographed to an orchestral score by Zbynek Mateju. The Czech composer had proposed a collaboration with Rogers via email, and the two worked for more than a year without having a verbal conversation. Mateju sent Rogers excerpts and piano reductions of his symphony as he composed it, and Rogers began conceiving his choreographic ideas based on the music, sketching them out on paper, as he always does. The two finally met when Mateju came to California for the premiere at the Luckman Theater at Cal State LA, and in the fall of 2015, the ballet, which features a backdrop of Ed Evans’ photographs, was performed again in Czechoslovakia. (Here is the Los Angeles Times story I wrote about their collaboration.)

Now the two have made a second piece, “Joshua Tree,” which will have its world premiere on Aug. 12 at the Luckman. The Jacaranda Chamber Orchestra will accompany the dancers for “Joshua Tree” and a reprisal of “Still Life,” and the musicians, on their own, will  perform Stravinsky’s Concerto in D.

Keeping with the theme of conversing via email, I sent Rogers some questions to bring us up to date since the company’s last show in July 2015. Here are his replies.

Laura: So after the “Still Life” premiere, the ballet was performed in Europe. Can you tell me a little about that and any subsequent performances.

Raiford: In September 2015 “Still Life” opened the Golden Prague Festival at the National Theatre. The Gala concert marked the 70th Anniversary of the Prague Dance Conservatory. The ballet was performed by the Bohemia Ballet, which is a company consisting mostly of graduates of the conservatory.  I was asked to set “Still Life” by director Jaroslav Slavicky.  He was familiar with the music of Zbynek Mateju and was intrigued by our collaboration.  After watching a video of the L.A. performance, he invited me to Prague.

Laura: How did the collaboration for “Joshua Tree” come about, and what was your working method this time?

Raiford: Zbynek and I have stayed in contact ever since “Still Life.”  I am inspired, and challenged, by his music. We both share similar ideas in our approach to collaborative pieces. Last year, Zbynek proposed another, longer, collaborative piece.  After visiting Joshua Tree in his first visit to California, he suggested Joshua Tree Symphony.  Last year  Zbynek first started sending me small piano drafts of the piece. He finally sent the finished recording of the symphony around three months ago. 

Laura: Tell me a little about the new ballet. What’s the scenic design for this piece?

Raiford: Mateju’s new symphony (33 minutes) is complex and abstract. My goal as a choreographer in “Joshua Tree” is to uncover the inner narrative of the piece.

The dynamics, tempo, and mood of the music constantly shift. We are using 12 dancers. The set design is a projection of paintings by artist Michael Nava. (We’re using) a projected animation consisting of over 20 different consecutive stages of a painting created by Michael. The artwork slowly evolves over the course of the symphony. The costumes are simple blood red leotards by Yumiko.

There is no story or theme. The mood is reflective and mysterious. The purpose of the ballet is to explore the idea that dance itself can embody sound without the dogma of subjective interpretation. The intent of Joshua Tree is to visualize the imaginative idea of the score without superimposing an artificial narrative.

Click here for more information about the concert and to purchase tickets.

“Girl, Get Off” premiere — dancers (from left to right) Ashlee Merritt, Andy Lawson, Megan Pulfer, Ellen Akashi, Samanth-Jane Gray and Natalie McCall. Photo by Tracy Kumono

Clairobscur artistic director Laurie Sefton tackled meaty topics using a serious and sometimes morose tone at a concert she called “no option, choice, preference,” Saturday night at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.

Her Clairobscur Dance Company, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, presented the world premiere of “Girl, Get Off,” a sensual piece about sexual exploration from a female perspective.

Ellen Akashi, dancing with unflagging power, starts the piece alone, flipping repeatedly from her back to her side, and crab walking on her elbows and heels. As the dance progresses, to a mixed score of original music by Bryan Curt Kostors and recorded songs by Apparat, Massive Attack, and others, Askashi is joined by the other dancers for couplings and rendezvous that suggest moments of lustfulness, but without pleasure or contentment. (Samantha-Jane Gray, Andy Lawson, Natalie McCall, Ashlee Merritt and Megan Pulfer round out the cast.)

Pulfer and Akashi. Photo by Tracy Kumono

Partly because sex has its own intense human movement language, it’s a frequent topic for dance. (And, another reason is, simply, because it’s sex.) But how to express oneself in an artistic way without becoming tawdry? Sefton has her dancers miming sexual positions, which, though an obvious course, didn’t make her specific points discernible. In skimpy or tight costumes (credited to Sefton with Leslie Karten and Ruth Fentroy) the dancers robotically rub their hands on their breasts and shake their behinds at the audience. They wrap their bodies around one another, forming relationships that sometimes end in jealous recriminations. At the end, Akashi extends her arms and limbs as the others pull strings from her black bikini costume, which suggested to me that her partners had taken little pieces of Akashi. What had she gotten from them? That was unclear, but there was little in their gestures or expressions that depicted even lustful pleasure let alone genuine human contact.

The evening opened with “desiccated earth/California,” which debuted last year, and which is about human misuse of the planet, according to program notes. There was a robotic quality to this piece, as well, with the piece’s characters reacting little to one another.

“desiccated earth”

Sefton’s movement language begins in, and is driven by, the upper body, so the dances can feel rooted in place. The dancers shuffle their feet or jump lightly while they are gesturing in double time, hands chopping the air, arms waving like windmills, or madly rippling their fingers. There’ a bit of a musical quality to this dichotomy, with the lower body acting as a piece’s rhythm, while upper reaches act as the melody.

Dancers enter and exit, occasionally scampering on a rectangle of grass, and this connection with a representation of something living and green caused a shift, some feelings of joy, even. But it was harder for me to decipher much of the code that seemed imbedded here.

The Bully of the title. Photo by Erich Koyama

This was not the case with the three sections from “Bully,” which is from 2012. These were very distinct portraits, first, of a self-loathing Bully—scarily and beautifully danced by Evan Swenson—second, the Gang members on auto-pilot, blindly following their leader, and, finally, the reaction of the Victim (an expressive Natalie McCall), who decides that death is the only way to escape the torment. This piece was organized as a series of vignettes. It is Sefton’s most-praised recent piece, and it’s easy to see why; her message and emotional tone are consistent and pure.

Jonas flying during "In a Room on Broad St." Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

Jonas flying during “In a Room on Broad St.” Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

The Friday night debut of Jacob Jonas The Company at Wallis Annenberg Center  was a big deal for choreographer and artistic director Jonas.

The Beverly Hills High School alum is only 24 and started his concert-contemporary-street-dance group a mere two years ago. And there he was, with his 11 dancers being presented by this small but new and mighty (as in influential) theater, in his hometown.

But it was another milestone, too, in a string of them, for the dance community in the Los Angeles metro area, where theaters rarely take risks by presenting young local companies. There has been a steady and  exciting expansion, in quantity and quality, of dancing and dancers (and most of Jonas’ group are from Southern California). Jonas adds another dimension to the scene.

Jonas was a young teen when he hooked up with the Calypso Tumblers, a street performance group in Venice with whom he ended up touring worldwide. Jonas has hand-picked dancers with diverse backgrounds and dance skills, from ballet to jazz to parkour to breaking. Jonas takes all of that material and thoughtfully utilizes it to present a message, sometimes a story, a metaphor, and, if Friday night was any indication, it’s material that always has heart.

The opening piece, “In a Room on Broad St.,” gives us 10 seemingly lonely individuals, clearly cut off from one another, but who, by my interpretation, appeared to want human connection. (In the post-performance discussion, Jonas said that competition was a main theme of the piece.) Jonas and Anibal Sandoval had a remarkable duet, pushing and overpowering one another with their backs pressed together. In a solo of amazing physical feats, Lamonte “Tales” Goode twisted his body into pretzel poses, balancing one-handed.

Dancer Lamonte "Tales" Goode. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

Dancer Lamonte “Tales” Goode. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

In the premiere of “fly,” Jeremy Julian Grandberry, Charissa Kroger, Brooklynn Reeves and Jill Wilson repeatedly traced a zigzag pattern from left to right across the stage. A virtuoso step or two was added during each crossing, creating variations to an ever-developing theme. As the piece progressed, the backstage curtain very slowly rose, so by the end, the audience could see the dancers running back to the left side, where they’d start their zigzaging journey again. Jonas later revealed that this linear route was inspired by a heart monitor machine and a recent death in the family. I’m not sure I would have intuited his meaning. But it didn’t matter because the moving picture Jonas has choreographed has enough complexity and suggestions of narrative possibilities that it succeeds even without Jonas’ back story.

In “Obstacles,” on the other hand, Jonas was intent on  sharing with us his inspiration and source material. “Obstacles” is about a friend, Mallory Smith, who has cystic fibrosis, which is a life-threatening disease. Audio of Smith talking about her struggles punctuate the dance. Her stories are honest; the emotion in her voice suggesting stoicism. Meanwhile, petite Marissa Labong (a powerhouse artist and veteran of the L.A. dance scene) and Jonas stand in a long diagonal spotlight. Labong attempts throughout the piece to get ahead of Jonas—climbing over him, sneaking around him, running in front.

Jonas and Marissa Labog. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

Jonas and Marissa Labog. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

But each time, Jonas firmly, forcefully, picks her up and places her back at the start, upstage left, and then places himself ahead of her, his back to her, his feet dug into the ground, as he waits for her next escape attempt. He’s her obstacle; he’s her disease. She has to live with him, whether she likes it or not. We watch her pass through various emotional states until she sits down cross-legged, giving up her battle. But he comes to her and they end up walking hand-in-hand to the starting point; it’s as if he’s encouraging her to keep trying, even though there’s nothing particularly kind about it.

Smith’s narrative was well-told and well-spoken, but it was superfluous; Jonas can trust his movement…although, I recognize that telling Smith’s story was a significant part of his intention. Still, he has created a universal piece about life. And he and Labog gave physically committed, emotionally memorable portrayals.

The program’s other premiere was a dance film called “Grey,” shot at the Getty Center. Jonas and cinematographer William Adashek captured the gorgeous contrasts of light and dark, curve and straight line in the iconic buildings, and beautifully matched dance to it.

The one stumble of the night was when the Wallis staff failed to alert the audience that the pause between the first two pieces was not an intermission. Nearly half the crowd left their seats–and no announcement was made to stay seated. As a result, “fly” was nearly half over before the streams of people returning to their chairs stopped. I’d like to see that piece again in better circumstances.

Symphony9

American Ballet Theatre has a lot to offer these days, and its one big, thrilling, ace in the hole is Alexei Ratmansky, its artist in residence. The choreographer—Russian-born and schooled, his skills expanded and fine-tuned in Denmark and Canada—treats the classical art form in an expansive way. He has a complete grounding in technique, of course, an appreciation of the theatrical toolbox, and the kind of curiosity an artist needs to break new ground. He does not reduce the classical palate in the name of self-serving innovation—he uses it all, thereby expanding it. Ratmansky does narrative, does abstraction, and philosophically and musically thematic works. He might be too classical for some. For me, he makes ballet vital and absolutely proves that it is a living art form, even for the 21st century.

The other thing he has done, and one of the reasons he has been such a boon for ABT, is he breathes life into a company that has always had dancer-talent to spare, but hasn’t effectively used them all. Because ABT is his home, Ratmansky knows these dancers and what they’re capable of. He casts them against type, so we see them  anew, too. Perhaps he even changes their own sense of self. In any event, the dancers onstage are always engaged, in the moment, and the ballets crackle with immediacy and the surprise of everyone pushing into the risky territory of truly live—rather than the safety net of the rote—performance.

This was the case Friday evening when the company danced an all-Ratmansky program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion ( the closing show of the ’15-’16 season for Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center).  In “Symphony #9,” to Dmitri Shostakovich, it’s Stella Abrera who shows us something else, something other than her adagio side, with saucy allegro phrases, little beats and jumps on point (there’s an ingenious pairing with Herman Cornejo, who is executing a remarkable string of etrechat six). Abrera and Craig Salstein are the lead couple of the first movement, a jaunty section of clever spatial devices, the dancers split by gender into interacting but separates “troupes.” “Symphony #9” (music from 1945) is one third of a Shostakovich trilogy, in which Ratmansky explores his own relationship, and the composer’s, to their shared homeland.

The slow second movement is led by Russian ballerina Veronika Part and soloist Alexandre Hammoudi. Here, there is sadness and love, each dancer representing and giving physicality to the “voices” of the opening clarinet and other woodwind instruments. Humans always need one another in Ratmansky’s ballets. At the section’s end, the couple lies down in jerky spurts, achieving a prone position that suggests perhaps they’ve died, making me think of the circumstances of the symphony, completed after the end of  World War II’s devastation.

Those connections are suggested in the final section (three musical movements played without pause) as the ballet now has a beige backdrop by George Tsypin with archaic drawings, including uniformed men with banners and dirigibles. The dancing is once again bright, upward, and Cornejo takes the lead here, Ratmansky using his lead’s unique buoyancy. Conductor David LaMarche led the musicians in their own stellar performance. Keso Dekker’s darkly hued halter dresses for the women and sleeveless tops and slacks for the guys were simple yet elegant. (Photo above by Rosalie O’Connor, with a different cast.)

symposium1

“Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” is named after Leonard Bernstein’s five-part concerto (1954) used here as a score. This is a balletic discussion about among seven men (photo by Rosalie O’Connor) that will find additional resonance, I suppose, if you are well-versed in the source material—Plato’s “Symposium”—but which isn’t necessary to know for appreciation. Dancers Jeffrey Cirio, Marcelo Gomes, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, Daniil Simkin, and James Whiteside “banter” through gestures and steps, solos and groupings that telescope a broad range of feelings, from intimacy and companionship to painful solitude. Devon Teuscher materializes through a dramatically revealed opening in the backdrop and represents Diotima, a priestess who taught Socrates about the philosophy of love. Teuscher and Gomes embark on a duet of intense longing, and then she leaves. But the ballet ends with the men in a group, pointing urgently at Tuescher, who returns to the stage. She is Platonic ideal, or that which one aspires to.

Symposium2

Slower and more cerebral than “Symphony #9,” “Serenade” makes stunning soloists out of dancers more often relegated to the uniformity of group numbers. Tall and gracious, Royal (pictured above, photo by Rosalie O’Connor) has a luxurious smoothness and pliant body. Jeffrey Cirio showed off fleet timing and soaring leaps. Shayer entertains with an infectious wit (and smile) and  bubbly personality. There aren’t enough solo parts for all of ABT’s high-caliber dancers Ratmansky puts them on the playing field, even if he can’t single-handedly level it. Brad Fields has created an understated but brilliant lighting design, helped by Jerome Kaplan’s white square scrim, positioned overhead. Kaplan’s costumes are problematic, though, with loose fabric scraps that interfere with the dancers’ steps, dangerously so.

Boylson2Rosalie O'Connor

The evening closed with Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” a magical, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately triumphant version of the Stravinsky ballet from 1910. Because I’m running long here, I’ll link here to my Los Angeles Times review of its premiere in Orange County in 2012. We saw a different cast on Friday. Among the leads, Cassandra Trenary was new to me, a standout soloist with big acting chops. She played up all the hilarious notes Ratmansky has given to the ragtag enchanted Maidens. Roman Zhurbin reprised the part of Kaschei and he continues to amaze with his reptilian version of evil. Isabella Boylston (above, O’Connor photo) was the night’s Firebird, and she brought strength and mystery to a part that feels stunted, never gathering enough steam; there are too many stops and starts, and ungainly positions. Perhaps someone will master it, but Ratmansky will tinker further.

In the meantime, bask in the unearthly imagery created by Wendall Harrington’s projections, Simon Pastukh’s unearthly trees and other scenery, and Galina Solovyeva’s fairy-tale costumes (glad the women’s wigs are back). It is an eye-popping sight.

The program repeats tonight (July 9) at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (July 10) at 2 p.m. Click here for more information.

As dance fans were celebrating the local premiere of Mats Ek’s 2013 production of “Juliet and Romeo” at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa Friday night (June 10), we were simultaneously contemplating never seeing any other ballets by Ek. The 71-year-old Swedish choreographer will soon take a break from the dance studio—perhaps a final retirement, though maybe not; even he’s not sure. But he has said that once he’s done, he will not renew the performance rights to his ballets. Phewt! Just like that, all his works gone, for good.

Which had me asking: Can you miss something you haven’t seen? Ek’s modern-dance-style ballets are rarely seen in the U.S.; I don’t believe (though I could be mistaken) that any American companies perform his pieces. In 2002, I saw his revolutionary adaptation of “Swan Lake” (from 1987), performed by Cullberg Ballet at UCLA’s Royce Hall. It was an inspiring and radical reimagining and, with men cast as swans, appeared to have paved the way for better-known productions, notably Matthew Bourne’s celebrated version.

So, yes, there was a bit of mourning going on as I was reveling in the Royal Swedish Ballet’s performance of his “Juliet and Romeo.” What a shame that we have experienced such a narrow slice only of this transformative artist’s work.

For the Shakespeare classic, Ek has pared the details to two acts, and traded in the familiar Prokofiev ballet score for a select patchwork of Tchaikovsky: a little Manfred, some Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 5, String Quartet No. 1, and so on. (Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen led the Pacific Symphony musicians in mostly inspiring playing.) Tchaikovsky’s own “Romeo and Juliet” overture-fantasy is pointedly missing from the lineup. The music does not give us other references and perhaps for this reason, and for the stellar way in which musician Anders Högstedt adapted the selections, the score feels like a natural whole, rather than cemented together crumbs.

The lovers’ Verona is a dark smoky stage stripped of wings and backdrop, with corrugated moveable walls resembling boxcar sides that are shifted to create plazas, rooms, diagonal walkways and generally evoke an ominous atmosphere. The unidentified and indistinguishable citizens don’t so much fight as stalk about in formations, their heads down and legs deeply bent—something like Groucho Marx’s deep-knee gait but without the humor. Enforcers (my word) occasionally appear on Segways, and a collective shiver goes through the crowds. This is one bleak landscape.

As the ballet’s title suggests, Juliet is a more fully illustrated character than Romeo, and her proscribed life as a young female feels far more prison-like. When Juliet rejects Paris near the ballet’s conclusion, it is her Father’s rejection—vividly illustrated when dancer Arsen Mehrabyan raises his arm toward her like a rifle—that knocks her out, not any sleeping potion. Ek gives nearly equal weight, and certainly equal time to ancillary characters. Mercutio in particular is highlighted. He, not Romeo, is the leader of their gang of three (with Benvolio), and as portrayed by the bald and brawny Jerome Marchand, he is outrageous—taking a leak on the walls—but a fearsome bully, too. That “thing” between Lady Capulet, here called Mother (the excellent Nadja Sellrup) and Tybalt (a smoldering Dawid Kuinski) is made blunt and obvious. The Nurse (portrayed by Ek’s wife, the renowned Ana Laguna) is a force of strength.

Even with all this other action taking place, though, the central love story is not slighted. Mariko Kida is a perfect Juliet, and a perfect Ek heroine: earthy, emotional, sexual, fleet and technically wizardly. Anthony Lomuljo’s Romeo starts out as a naïve boy, but grows up fast when confronted with something to live for. Their two major duets are highly charged, but so different from the usual love pas de deux because Ek’s characters never interact in expected ways. When Lomuljo lifts Kida, her body sags; at another moment, she hangs onto his back in an ungainly upside down position with her legs parted like antenna behind his head. After a rush of cantering steps they finally crash into one another in a desperate hug, and this co-joining, so long in coming, becomes that much more resonant for the surprise of it.   

At the pre-performance talk, Ek said that the story’s two legs are young love and violence. The story is universal to begin with. But its the way he sticks to those themes that Ek makes it fresh all over again. This almost feral ballet cuts to the heart. It is a reflection that is at once centuries old, and of today, too.

Here’s hoping for more Ek, tomorrow, as well.

“Juliet and Romeo,” Royal Swedish Ballet, 7:30 p.m. June 11, 1 p.m. June 12; Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. $30 to $160. (714) 556-2787, scfta.org