Ballet: Alive and Laughing

Leigh Purtill's dance company even keeps the undead on their toes.

3 mins read
A group of people posing for a photo
Leigh Purtill, center, teaches that ballet is for rare birds of all kinds, not only Firebirds and dying swans. Photo: Leigh Purtill

In the summer of 2006, Los Angeles Times Dance Critic Lewis Segal wrote a stinging screed entitled “Five Things I Hate About Ballet” and claimed, “Ballet is dead.”

This makes choreographer and ballet innovator Leigh Purtill chuckle.

After all, she is the creatrix of “Sweet Sorrow: A Zombie Ballet,” where the undead, along with spiders, dragonflies, Medusa and gargoyles, tell an alternative story of Romeo and Juliet. In Purtill’s version, Rosalind, the niece of Lord Capulet, who is absent from traditional versions of the tragedy, assumes a major role.

A group of people wearing costumes
Women take charge of the narrative (and the underworld) in Leigh Purtill’s shivery reimagining of Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Leigh Purtill

Purtill founded her eponymous La Cañada-based dance company in 2017 and, in a recent conversation, explained that the upcoming Saturday Gala is part of her ongoing effort to bring ballet to a broader community. She says that her “Sweet Sorrow” is to Halloween what her “Cracked” is to Christmas— “Cracked” being Purtill’s twisted, Tim Burton-eque take on “The Nutcracker” in a “Nightmare Before Christmas” mode.

She says, “Segal was right in the sense that classical ballet isn’t growing. It’s not a dead art form to those who continue to love it. But a lot of people are turned off by the exclusion and elitism that Segal attacked.”

A painting of Sergei Diaghilev lying on the ground
Portrait of impresario Sergei Diaghilev, painted by Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov, 1904. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ballet, as we know it, was born in 1830s Paris and flowered in czarist St. Petersburg with “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” The form quickly faded in popularity, saved by the 1909 arrival in the west of Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes.

Diaghilev made classical dance a highbrow cultural obsession across Europe and in American cities for the following half-century. Part of the reason was that ballet gave the properly bourgeois a socially acceptable opportunity to view young, largely unclad bodies in motion, most notoriously the exquisite limbs of dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose portrayal of a randy, scarf-snatching satyr still gives some of us goosies.

Program cover for a Ballet Russes performance featuring Vaslav Nijinsky. Photo: Europeana

Since that time, Segal wrote, “Its reliance on flatulent nostalgia makes it hard to defend as a living art… But ballet has cultivated an intimidation factor that acts like a computer firewall… If people hate ballet, they frequently feel guilty and assume that it’s got to be their own fault, that they’re not educated or sensitive enough.”

The tortured thinness of the conventional prima ballerina serves as a reminder of what the human body can be made to do with sufficient iron will. And always, beneath the ribbons and the ruffles, classical dance telegraphs rigor and pain in a way that some find sadomasochistic—or, at the very least, unwelcoming to aspirants.

Purtill’s company, as she describes it, is intended for adult amateurs, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-80s. Her battle cry: “Ballet is for everyone.”

“I’m not looking for our company to be compared with other companies,” she says. “Our classes are always very supportive, and the atmosphere is always encouraging. We want people who see our company perform think to themselves, ‘Maybe that’s something that I can do.’”

A novelist, as well as dancer, teacher and choreographer, Purtill says, “I’m after a good story, and also a story that puts women in power. And also some laughs, which are all but absent from traditional ballet. Humor is very cathartic.”

In addition to local classes and productions, LPBC also engages with remote dancers in other locations who contribute video content. The Saturday Gala will include a short film inspired by Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the evening’s intimate catered celebration for 100 patrons total will be punctuated with four brief vignettes from new dances. Further expanding the impact of the company, LPBC has partnered with community agencies as part of the Gala.

Those community organizations include Brave Trails, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to LBGTQ+ leadership and Camp Brave Trails, a fully accredited overnight summer camp specially designed for LGBTQ teens ages 12-17. Another agency is the Conundrum Theatre Company, a Burbank-based nonprofit that seeks out, cultivates and produces original plays and musicals from Southern California artists and offers educational workshops and classes in acting, singing, dancing, directing and more.

To the audience member, a performance of classical ballet may seem like a splendid alien visitation from a distant, glamorous, decidedly aristocratic galaxy. The ectomorphic creatures who glitter and whisk by on pointe shoes seem impossibly otherworldly, requiring our silent reverence.

The experience created by Leigh Purtill’s company promises to be quite different, less perfect, and far more engaging. In a radical turn, even the lowliest of us are invited to join the dance with joy.


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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for capturing the essence of our company, Victoria! Your title could not be more perfect: we indeed strive to keep ballet alive and joyful, even when zombies are involved.
    Leigh

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