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Review 1, 11-25: 'Serenade' in Farrell Major
Ball, Pickard Shine as the Muse Celebrates the Master
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Tsao
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
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
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