Dance Review: Suzanne Farrell Ballet Stages Balanchine in Washington

November 13th, 2012

— Every season of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet is also a season about George Balanchine. Suzanne Farrell, who danced from the 1960s to the 1980s, was that choreographer’s most celebrated muse. Her company has presented annual seasons at the Kennedy Center here since 2001. In these, she never ceases to address diverse facets of her master’s genius, reviving different — often rare — ballets every year.

The company has just presented a week of two programs, whose six ballets spanned 1929 to 1972. (Both programs ended with “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” One contained “Divertimento No. 15” and “Prodigal Son,” the other “Danses Concertantes,” the intermezzo from “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” and the 1967 version of “Valse-Fantaisie.”) The range of idioms included classical, romantic, comic and modernist (usually more than one of those at the same time). Some were plotless, some narrative; some were works in which Ms. Farrell had given celebrated performances, while others she had never danced.

Ms. Farrell herself is still remembered, rightly, as the ultimate in ballerinadom. The grandest, most innovative and most unpossessable of dancers, she was at once the coolest and the most inflamed, the wittiest and the most inspiringly audacious.

I say this because, if you go to the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in quest of her most particular qualities, you’re likely to be disappointed. The company does provide varied and important aspects of the Balanchine experience, but generally comes together for only a few weeks each year. (It does occasionally tour; almost all the dancers perform elsewhere, too.) It is simply too small in scale — unattached to a school, short in its seasons and limited in personnel — to present anything like the ballet universe that Ms. Farrell once epitomized.

Given those considerable limitations, the Farrell company achieves many marvels. Ms. Farrell had never previously staged the 1972 “Danses Concertantes” (misleadingly dated in the program as if this were Balanchine’s long-lost 1944 original). From the start her version brings out stronger streaks of insouciant comedy than the already good one we currently watch at New York City Ballet. Chez Farrell, each of the four trios (containing two women, one man) has a more strikingly differentiated character and vitality; and the leading man (Kirk Henning) is altogether a far more madcap, impulsive character. Likewise her first-ever stagings of the “Brahms-Schoenberg” intermezzo and the 1967 “Valse-Fantaisie” plunge the audience straight into the intense whirls of 19th-century Romantic feeling that both works evoke.

Often it looks as if Ms. Farrell is herself a school. Her dancers in “Divertimento No. 15” show basic features of Balanchine style that are often missing elsewhere: the way of making time and space meet with moment-by-moment brilliance, of making steps not follow music but embody it, of opening up legs ardently into space like flowers opening to the sun.

Yet, when it comes to the higher flights of the solos and pas de deux of “Divertimento No. 15,” today’s Farrell dancers don’t match the best recent achievements of other companies who also specialize in Balanchine, like New York City Ballet, Ballet Arizona, Miami City Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet. Natalia Magnicaballi, a Farrell ballerina most seasons, has a cool luster in several roles (not least the third variation of “Divertimento No. 15” and the “Brahms-Schoenberg”), but her variety is distinctly finite. As the Siren in “Prodigal Son” she was a blank. Though the Strip Tease Girl in “Slaughter” released a bombshell quality in her (despite the wrong hairdo), she stays on the polite side.

Elisabeth Holowchuk, a long-term Farrell soloist, has danced many ballerina roles. She can show both humor and fervor but, as “Danses Concertantes” and the first variation in “Divertimento No. 15” showed, she lacks technical strength and doesn’t project powerfully enough. The finest dancing this season was from Heather Ogden in four roles, especially in the “Brahms-Schoenberg” and “Valse-Fantaisie.” Generally a fleet, light mover, she also showed a surprising gift for rapacity and coldness as the Siren in one “Prodigal” performance. Also very fine in another “Valse-Fantaisie” was Violeta Angelova: she seized the music and made it her own.

I’ve mentioned the fun Mr. Henning released in “Danses Concertantes.” He was also terrific in “Slaughter,” in which he alternated between the Hoofer and the Big Boss. I don’t remember ever seeing a better Hoofer; when his tap dance, strongly delivered, finally reaches its climax, he beams with relief as he shoots himself dead. Michael Cook — whose good looks, like Mr. Henning’s, register theatrically — was also excellent in both roles, an admirable partner in the intermezzo and an intense if not gripping Prodigal.

Admirably, the Farrell company never repeats the previous season’s best hits but always tackles new terrain. I learn each year from watching it. But, though it keeps changing impressively, it has never grown. It keeps adding to our understanding of Balanchine, but is not equipped to show the sides of him that Ms. Farrell herself released.

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