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Flash Review 2, 10-16: Lofty Aspirations
Suzanne Farrell: Muse in Search of an Angel

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

BROOKVILLE, New York -- Out of the depths of Long Island I report to you, O dance insider! After a two-week run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Suzanne Farrell Ballet hied itself to the Tilles Center here on Friday for a single performance of five of Balanchine's finest ballets. For the life of me, I couldn't get a handle on the audience -- elderly couples, pre-teens, little kids, few of whom seemed to have any knowledge about or interest in ballet. In other words, they didn't know what they were watching. That's fine, but it brings up again a continuing puzzle about the Farrell company. Having a show in a theater that serves a novice audience might be cynically construed as a nice way to shield oneself from too much scrutiny in the hyper-dance-intensive Northeast. Or it could be that Farrell wants to spread the gospel of world-class Balanchine-staging to the worlds outside Manhattan. Or maybe the Tilles Center just gave the fledgling company the best price on theater rental. Whatever the explanation, it will be difficult to take this company as seriously as one would like to until it begins to have at least a few New York performances at the Joyce or, better yet, City Center, where Balanchine himself began to build a company.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is decidedly still getting started. Made up of very young dancers, veterans of middle-tier troupes, and a few imports from NYCB, the company lacks the stage confidence and sheer star power that would put it into the ranks of the more important small companies in the country. Despite an expanding repertoire, longer engagements, and a major infusion of cash from the Kennedy Center (which now officially sponsors it), it is still in a state of Experiment. Nothing wrong with that, but even the name and the prodigious gifts of Farrell are not enough to keep her troupe going as an experiment forever. The company needs a goal. It needs time, and, most fundamentally, it needs funding. In the meantime, it can continue to do the important work that it now does, presenting vital (in the sense both of "vibrant" and "necessary") interpretations of some of ballet's greatest treasures.

The revelation in Farrell's staging of "Scotch Symphony" is the corps: floating, bounding, making every jump and gesture count. In contrast to the simpering one often sees these days in the corps at New York City Ballet, where Farrell was Balanchine's last great muse, these dancers were fully engaged at every moment. Farrell obviously spent much time coaching them in facial expressions and upper body movement; the effort paid off in their clear, pleasant, unforced style. The music seemed to carry them. (At the Kennedy Center the company danced with a live orchestra; here the music was on tape.) This staging of "Scotch" plays up the ballet's references to the Romantic tradition with simple arms, clear positions, and lower legs in arabesque. (No gymnastics tricks in this company.) Former American Ballet Theatre soloist Christina Fagundes was technically strong in the lead role, though she weakened towards the end and was over-sweet in character. Washington Ballet's Runqiao Du gave a rather flat performance as the man whose sylph is always just out of reach. In the brief but demanding soloist role, Kristen Stevens was charming and assured.

In "Monumentum Pro Gesualdo/Movements for Piano and Orchestra," the paired Stravinsky ballets, the corps was again astounding. "Monumentum" seemed to take place among the gods on Mount Olympus. With its creamy, cool, deliberate pace, this staging stressed the drama that comes through the shifts from one grouping to another. In "Movements," the women (Kirsten Bloom, Kristen Gallagher, Tara Mora, Bonnie Pickard, Marialena Ruiz, and Amy Seawright) reached a level of erotic tension rarely seen in performances of Balanchine's "leotard" ballets today. Sliding through space, they looked like white blood cells, or like a crowd of white horses seen from a far-off ridge. Working with Farrell seems to have unleashed the imaginations as well as the bodies of these dancers. It was clear that they had spent long hours listening to Stravinsky's variously elegant and prickly score; again, the attention to the music's rhythmic pulse payed off, revealing the clarity and beauty of Balanchine's designs. Du was surprisingly fierce in the male role, after the youthful blandness of his performance in "Scotch Symphony"; here it was he who overpowered his partner, not the other way around. The lead female role in "Movements" (originated by a very young Farrell in 1963) is a special challenge, walking the line between unruly animal instinct and blase modern cool. Jennifer Fournier (of the National Ballet of Canada) has fine qualities as a dancer, but in these two pieces she was somewhat studied. I think Fournier could be quite good in these two ballets if she learns to forget herself a bit more onstage -- that is, if she learns not to be so worried about getting everything exactly right.

Farrell took an impressive risk in deciding to stage "Duo Concertant," a compact ballet that requires dancers of the utmost sensitivity. It's a fine lyric poem full of deep, delicate truths; it needs to be read by melodious voices. Having been spoiled by Darci Kistler, I prefer a dancer somewhat older than Natalia Magnicaballi in the woman's role, but this Argentinian brought a jazzy spirit to the part that worked very well. She is a real find: tall, dark, and very thin, with a huge wingspan and a clean, burnished look. She also has a bit of humor in her dancing, and with former NYCB soloist Ben Huys as her partner in Friday's "Duo," that gentle wit set off sparks between them that, at the end, became a surging current of electricity. After a slightly hurried beginning, they worked together to calibrate the pace of the ballet, with trust and spontaneity emerging as they danced. Huys has a such a light, fleet style that at moments during his solos I expected him to fly up to the rafters like Peter Pan. I would have liked to see a few more performances of this ballet by this couple, just to see how their already powerful rapport would evolve. The fine musicians were Eric Grossman on the violin and Glenn Sales at the piano.

In presenting "Apollo," Farrell's restoration of parts of the original 1928 production which Balanchine eventually cut is simply masterful. The 1928 opening -- Leto writhing in childbirth atop a tall platform, the birth of Apollo, the handmaidens unwrapping him from his swaddling clothes, his first cry and first tentative steps -- is unbelievably beautiful, and it gives important clues to how the young god is to be understood. To see him come into the world, to see him grow up, and to see the three muses's hands above his head like flames of divine inspiration is to see how profound a story of education the ballet is.

Huys was a finely chiseled Apollo, not a rough-hewn god but a spirited and refined one. He reveled in the attention of the muses, his every step charged with curiosity about the gifts they were bestowing on him. Magnicaballi gave a dynamic interpretation of Calliope's difficult solo, packed with challenging pirouettes; she danced it briskly and smoothly, as if she were writing poetry on the air. Fournier was again too cautious as Polyhymnia, holding back especially in her hops on pointe. As Terpsichore, Chan Hon Goh (principal of the National Ballet of Canada and niece of the late choreographer Choo San Goh) didn't seem to me to present a complete character; she seemed nervous and could never quite decide what to do with her face. But she dances very warmly, if on a somewhat small scale, and again, it would have been nice to see her do this part a few more times. Towards the end of the ballet, when Apollo dances with all three muses, the performance seemed to come together. As they braided around him, the women looked at him with adoration -- Apollo is the sun god, after all, and here the radiant Huys was the sun around which worlds revolved. He grewmore powerful, more self-contained, with every moment.

This staging ends not with the famous "sunburst" image but with a slow climb up a tall staircase to the platform on which Leto (Marialena Ruiz) gave birth to Apollo at the beginning. This conclusion is far more dramatic than the one we're used to, as all the dancers, including Leto and the handmaidens, reach out their arms to the golden light that shines from the upstage corner -- a light that burns only inches away from Apollo, who stands at the top of the staircase as though mediating between the pure light of heaven and the mutable realities of earth.

"Apollo" is a strange ballet with which to close a program. It sends one home in a state of wonderment, musing on mysteries about birth and death, inspiration and eternity. It left me wondering, as well, about the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Its future is still uncertain. But -- speaking of muses -- there is an inherent power in a company that has such tangible links to genius. Balanchine claimed he could talk to Tchaikovsky. Farrell brings Balanchine's message to us in a way few others have been able to. If the practical details of this company can be worked out -- if, to put it bluntly, Farrell finds a Lincoln Kirstein -- there could be great things ahead.

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