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Flash Review 1, 11-25: 'Serenade' in Farrell Major
Ball, Pickard Shine as the Muse Celebrates the Master

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts’ao

BERKELEY -- For once, shall I just write a straight review, not mentioning my biases and leaving out all those annoying asides? Shall I pretend I'm writing for one of the big metropolitan dailies and have to toe that invisible, but not forgotten, line? Sorry, I wish I could sometimes, but the reason I write for this publication is that I can actually say what I really think and even have the chance to explain why.

You are probably wondering why I chose to lead with all that. Given that the Balanchine centenary is almost upon us, and that the Suzanne Farrell Ballet is making its US tour in celebration as you read this, I have been reflecting on this famous choreographer a lot recently and wondering how he came to be considered by some to be such a god. Please do not misunderstand me. "Serenade," seen as part of the Farrell company's recent Zellerbach Hall program, is one of my all-time favorite classical/neoclassical ballets. It is considered by many, including myself, to be a great masterpiece. In the near future I want to look at and write about Balanchine's body of work and see how individual pieces relate to the time in which they were created, how they appear in the present and how they might be perceived in the future. Context is everything.

For now, I'll start with what I saw at Zellerbach November 15, when the Suzanne Farrell Ballet made its Bay Area debut. (The company's New York appearance was also recently reviewed here, by my colleague Susan Yung.) The all-Balanchine program honored the choreographer's upcoming 100th birthday in January. I only wish that the program I saw had been a better mix of pieces. (To find my reviews of San Francisco Ballet's Balanchine programs, visit the DI search page and enter "Balanchine" and "San Francisco Ballet" in the search window.) When I checked the programming for other appearances on the tour I discovered that the company is also dancing "Mozartiana," "Variations for Orchestra," "Tzigane," and "Chaconne," as well as a program of pas de deux from "Apollo," "Sonambula," "La Valse," "Agon," "Ivesiana," "Meditation," "Don Quixote," "Chaconne" and "Stars and Stripes," plus the "Stars and Stripes" finale. It would have been relatively easy to have offered a wider range of styles within the Balanchine canon on the Berkeley program.

The evening opens with "Divertimento No. 15," set to Mozart's piece of the same name in B-flat major, K. 287, which premiered in 1956. It is unclear whether if the ballet had been performed to live music it would have fared better. The recorded music is a trifle fast and most of the dancers seem to be trying to catch up, never having the time to luxuriate in a movement or linger in a drawn out line. Even at a slower pace the piece would still have a hurried look because the steps come fast and furiously with little breathing room in between.

Two dancers in particular stand out: Bonnie Pickard and April Ball. I notice Pickard immediately as she has a quality that is very different from the others, but have to wait till she dances the second variation to be able to give her a name, after checking my program. She sculpts her epaulement -- that is, the way she highlights her neck and shoulders. Most of the others seem to take positions because they have been taught to make specific lines as opposed to feeling and shaping them from the inside. In the fourth variation, Ball is simply sublime. She has voluptuous legs that remind me of Lynn Seymour's, no skinny or sinewy sticks, but curvy, powerful, expressive limbs. She is musical and manages to squeeze out split seconds where she does linger and luxuriate. She has a radiance that invites you to dance vicariously with her and her port de bras is seamlessly fluid.

In general, the other soloists and the corps de ballet are a bit stiff or don't seem completely comfortable. I wish I knew why this ballet was chosen for the repertoire; Arlene Croce once referred to it as a ballet that is "famous for never being done well." (See Croce's review "Adagio and Allegro" from the New Yorker, January 30, 1978 collected in "Going to the Dance.") It would be hard to find a cast as brilliant as the original one -- Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Tanaquil Leclercq and Patricia Wilde with Herbert Bliss, Nicholas Magallanes, and Francisco Moncion. So this dance patiently awaits the moment in time when the God of Dance fortuitously brings together again a group of dancers of that caliber.

But I want to give the company the benefit of the doubt. It would be unfair to compare these dancers to Miami City Ballet, or New York City Ballet as both are solid troupes with year-round contracts for the dancers. The former, under the direction of former NYCB star Edward Villella, has established itself as a company that performs Balanchine ballets at a very high level, as noted in my review of the company's 2000 Kennedy Center appearance. The latter, at least when I last saw the company here in 1998 for its fiftieth birthday celebration and according to more recent reviews on DI, has showed a ragged, indifferent corps de ballet. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, to its credit, falls somewhere in between. Given that it only relatively recently became a legitimate company, and still appears to operate a bit like a pick-up company, i.e. a few weeks of rehearsal before a tour, I am impressed that the dancers perform with as much cohesiveness as they do. Except for a few momentary lapses, the corps works cleanly and in unison, and the soloists turn in solid performances, if a bit lacking in color, with exceptions noted.

After an intermission, we have "Tempo di Valse" (Waltz of the Flowers) from "The Nutcracker." It doesn't offer much to convince me of its worth on this program. The unflattering straight chiffon skirts in peach tend to make the corps look like they might all be a few months pregnant. At least Shannon Parsley is quite vivacious and crisp. I would have preferred to cancel the intermission and have gone directly from "Divertimento No. 15" to the "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." This piece, to music from Act III of the composer's "Swan Lake," was created in 1960 for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow. I saw Verdy dance it in London in 1972 or 1973 (I have forgotten who partnered her, though I suspect it was Villella), and I will never forget how much she moved me. Both Chan Hon Goh and Peter Boal dance very well. The audience is sitting up and paying attention and you can feel them responding to the dancers. I feel that Goh is playing to the crowd; she knows exactly when to flash a smile, or throw a glance in the right direction. The crowd gives them thunderous applause. I am less impressed. Yes, she makes everything look so easy and that is to be valued. But I would prefer more subtle shadings, more of the energy she generates for the audience to come from genuine passion for what she is doing instead of trying to sell us something.

"Serenade" is a ballet, quite the opposite of "Divertimento No. 15," that even when performed not so well, is still worth seeing. I have loved it for years and think that the choreography transcends however it may be danced -- indifferently, in a technically mediocre fashion, or even badly. Now I am completely carried away by Bonnie Pickard. When she dances I see someone compelled to move because she loves exploring the steps and the music. She seems to dance only to be dancing, not for the audience or its approval. Her relationship to what she is doing seems utterly pure, devoid of artifice, so profoundly authentic that it astonishes me. In my ideal world all dancers would have her artistic intention and integrity with her commitment to movement. As she is carried aloft on the diagonal upstage in the final moments, a few tears slip out of the corners of my eyes and I am reluctant to let this moment vanish. Natalia Magnicaballi, mysterious and lyrical as the Dark Angel, is a beautiful foil for Pickard, while Shannnon Parsley's stronger attack, which I found a little out of place in the "Tempo di Valse" works well in contrast to them.

Suzanne Farrell is off to an excellent start in building her company. She is laying a strong foundation in the corps de ballet, though it will be a few more years before those seeds have a chance to grow and flower. I also look forward to seeing the works of other choreographers. With careful consideration in combining various Balanchine works, with an eye to revealing more of his facets and styles, this company could be another important repository for the works of this monumental dance creator.

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