When the Blankenship Ballet Company performs Saturday, women will pirouette en pointe and fold their bodies into arabesques. Men will soar and spin, and lift dainty dancers onto their shoulders. But it won't be a typical night at the ballet — far from it. The evening is being styled instead as cabaret theater.
For creative producer Mark Blankenship and his wife, artistic director Bertha Suarez Blankenship, the event illustrates a commitment to time-honored classic technique in a way that is accessible and entertaining for audiences who aren't necessarily ballet aficionados.
Consider the eclecticism: In addition to ballet, styles will range from Afro-Cuban to flamenco and hip-hop to belly dance. The music might span centuries and continents: Georges Bizet to Madonna, with a pianist and bagpipe player on hand, too. Other performers include an opera singer and a TV actress.
And the venue is unique: No drab, ordinary auditorium but the gilded, high-ceilinged ballroom at the Alexandria, a hotel-turned-apartment building erected downtown in the early 1900s. Instead of sitting silently in neat rows, guests will be invited to nosh on food and drinks from downstairs restaurant The Gorbals while seated at tables arranged around the stage.
“To some it's a gimmick,” Mark says, referring to the stage arrangement and stylistic mash-up. But he counters that today's audiences demand innovation: “We're adjusting a traditional art form for a contemporary audience that's not willing to sit through four acts of Swan Lake.”
He doesn't want guests to feel that attending concert dance is a “burden or chore.” To that end, tickets are moderately priced — $20 in advance, $25 at the door, or $30 including appetizers. (In contrast, tickets for the Bolshoi at the Music Center next summer range from $34 to $125.) The Blankenships hope the Alexandria will seem casual and inviting — especially for downtown's hip, artsy types, as well as those living at the low-rent Alexandria and similar downtown residences. They're also counting on the proximity of audience to stage to attract patrons who like a cozy, intimate feel. One of the producers, Jaime Garza, explained the approach by saying, “You can walk in, buy a drink, get a snack and see dance 10 feet away.”
Garza, a structural engineer, often takes classes with Bertha, a svelte ballerina known for her expressive rendition of The Dying Swan. She has cultivated a dedicated following of adult dancers — professionals and amateurs alike — keen on learning the virtuoso technique she acquired dancing with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba for 14 years. In 1994, she defected from Cuba and eventually settled in Los Angeles. She created Blankenship Ballet in the mid-'90s with her husband, then a practicing attorney. In 2009, the company relocated from a Venice studio to the Alexandria.
They celebrated the move with a gala at Vibiana, the converted downtown cathedral built in 1876. Last summer, Blankenship Ballet hosted performance-artist Miguel Gutierrez at the Alexandria's historic Palm Court in what the L.A. Times called one of the best dance events of the year. Saturday will be its first attempt at a sophisticated, cabaret-style show.
To pull it off, Blankenship Ballet has assembled more than 20 performers. Megalyn Echikunwoke, from CSI: Miami, House of Lies and other TV shows, was tapped to introduce each act. Opera soprano Shana Blake Hill will sing excerpts from Carmen, La Rondine and Samson and Delilah — maybe while being lifted in the air. Expect piano accompaniment from Mark Robson, who plays with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ramon Ramos Alayo will display Afro-Cuban moves, while Richard Chavez will pound the floor flamenco-style. The Jewels That Raq!, a belly dance troupe, will lend yet another global influence.
Most of the ballet dancers have performed with Blankenship Ballet since the mid-'90s. Some even danced with Bertha in Cuba. They'll highlight bits of the classical repertoire — including Pas de Quatre, and Don Quijote — along with modern, hip-hop and burlesque. “We want to show that we're ballet dancers, but we can do everything,” says Bertha, who will also perform. “No limitations.”
After the Saturday show, Blankenship Ballet plans to present a scaled-down version for several nights at the nearby Salvage Bar & Lounge. It's part of a larger goal to bring dance into unique venues — bars, hotels and, one day, maybe the aging but majestic theaters that grace downtown's Broadway with bright lights and vast marquees.