Shining a Light (Notes on The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Other Things)

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is holding its first season at the Joyce (through Oct. 23), which is also its first full New York season. I’ve seen the company twice before, at City Center (where they presented a re-construction of Balanchine’s “Pithoprakta” in 2007) and at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton (where they danced an excerpt from another reconstruction, “Clarinade,” as well as a pas de deux from Béjart’s “Romeo and Juliet”). The staging of lost Balanchine works is one of Farrell’s aims, formulated in her Balanchine Preservation Initiative. A noble goal, even if one sometimes wonders if ballets like “Pithoprakta” and “Clarinade” really needed to be revived. But Farrell’s main challenge continues to be the fact that her company is still to some extent a pickup ensemble, with casts changing from season to season. The one constant, and the soul of the operation, is of course Farrell herself, a dancer with an almost mythical standing in the world of American ballet. Not having seen her dance, I can only speak of what I’ve gleaned from videos of such ballets as “Diamonds,” “Don Quixote,” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream”: an incredible freshness, a sense of abandon, and an almost completely natural approach to the steps (bordering at times on artlessness). Also, a deep understanding of what the ballets are about—their meaning infused every part of her body, from her feet to her fingertips, and of course her eyes and that wonderful cascading hair. She was not interpreting so much as living. None of this can really be taught, but it can be understood and passed on in part, through example and guidance. Unsurprisingly, many ballet companies ask her to stage Balanchine ballets; surprisingly, New York City Ballet does not.

So one cannot help but be excited to see what these dancers will show us about the choreography that we don’t already know. And curious about the reconstruction of a ballet we don’t know at all, the “Haieff Divertimento,” from 1944. There’s always the hope of rediscovering a lost masterpiece. If so, “Haieff Divertimento” is not the one. But the main problem, on opening night at the Joyce, was mainly a mixture of nerves, imperfect preparation, and canned music. Unlike Miami City Ballet’s excellent début in New York a couple of years ago, on opening night (Oct. 19), Farrell’s dancers just didn’t seem quite ready for the big time. It’s no small thing to dance Balanchine on the turf of New York City Ballet, with its wonderful wide stage, exceptional dancers, and full orchestra. One day, New Yorkers see Sara Mearns or Wendy Whelan dancing “Diamonds” as if technique were simply not an issue; the next day we see Violeta Angelova struggling with balances, behind the beat of a too-fast recording, and losing her nerve. It’s not really a fair comparison. And yet, even in this, the most problematic performance of the evening, there were little revelations which will stay with me. One was the benevolent, almost compassionate way in which the Angelova periodically gazed at her cavalier, as if to say, “you’re a lovely, sweet man, but I really must go fulfill my destiny.” I had never seen quite that note of queenly compassion. Clearly, this comes straight from Farrell, and it enhances anted deepens the rapport between the two dancers onstage. The second surprise was a moment I had simply never noticed before, in which the ballerina briefly rests her hand on the shoulder of her adoring partner, like a queen blessing her faithful knight for the last time. Wobbly and un-authoritative as this performance was, it was worth seeing even if only for these two almost insignificant nuances of color. This is what Farrell has to offer.

The rest of the evening had its highs and lows. The reconstruction of “Haieff Divertimento” (a mediocre work, in my opinion) was notable mainly for the way it foreshadows phrases from “Square Dance,” made thirteen years later. The courtly bows, the deep pliés in fifth, the square dance formations, the complicated piqué arabesque sequences and hops on pointe for the women, the non-stop entrechats and brisé jumping sequences for the men. One can also see Balanchine trying things out, just to see how they look, especially in the partnering for the principal couple. It’s interesting to see once, and helps us understand how Balanchine honed re-cycled and discarded elements of older works, but it’s not indispensable viewing.

Another rarity was “Meditation,” a pas de deux from 1963. It was the first role created for Farrell by Balanchine, and it reveals a choreographer completely in the thrall of his young dancer (it’s no secret that Balanchine was in love with her, even though she was still a teenager, and he almost sixty). A man in street clothes walks forward, kneels, covers his face in anguish; a beautiful young woman, hair loose over her shoulders, wearing a simple, gauzy dress, drifts onstage, embraces him from behind, removes his hands from his face. Their dance is all longing, caressing, gliding, falling. It is a distillation of Farrell’s essence: childlike, boiling over with emotion and sensuality, and ultimately elusive. At the end, the woman places the man’s hands over his eyes, and disappears. It’s almost uncomfortable to see Balanchine working in such a sentimental mode—telling his own story, laying himself bare for all to see. It’s one thing to read about his obsession with Farrell in the history books, another thing to see it enacted before one’s eyes. On Oct. 19, Elisabeth Holowchuk danced with Michael Cook; Holowchuk, a very precise, almost fastidious dancer, has none of Farrell’s ardor, but she gave a lucid, detailed performance in which each look, every move of the hand, had meaning, without being histrionic in any way. (I was most struck by the sensitivity of her hands.)

In “Agon,” what I found most notable was the sense of discovery that shone through the entire cast; more than half a century after its creation, this is still a remarkable ballet, full of surprises, wit, and moments of almost shocking vulgarity. The performance lacked brilliance, but in a way, it allowed the wildness of the choreography to shine even more brightly. Even so, there is not doubt that Farrell is at a difficult crossroads; the company is not really as good as it should be, and Farrell’s gifts deserve more. The troupe clearly needs more rehearsal time, a more consistent roster, live music, a higher all-around level of dancing. The key to all this, of course, is money, and money is a hard thing to come by, especially these days.

On Oct. 14, I went to the first official showing of the newly-formed Satellite Ballet, the creation of Troy Schumacher (a dancer at New York City Ballet) and Kevin Draper (an architect, poet, and multimedia artist). The company is very much a work-in-progress, but the basic concept is this: Schumacher and Draper have teamed up with a group of West Coast indie/classical musicians (led by Nick Jaina), and together they develop ballets based on images and themes drawn from Draper’s texts. These “librettos” are more like stream-of consciousness poetry, cascades of images and emotions with titles like “Epistasis,” “Cosmonaut,” and “Progress.” (They can be downloaded from the company’s website, satelliteballet.org.) To be honest, I’m not crazy about the poems—they seem muddled and meandering to me–but this is a matter of personal taste. The poems themselves are not part of the performance and serve mainly as a starting point, a launching pad for the collaborators’ imagination.

All in all, I was impressed by the group’s commitment to this collaborative working method, its seriousness of purpose, its lack of flash. The resulting synthesis (of original live music, projections, lighting, costumes) feels honest, elegant, and engaged. And the music? Pleasant, lush, melodic chamber pieces with hints of Satie here, Chopin there, and a touch of tango and gypsy melody. Most of all, without being particularly memorable, it served the dance.

All of the dancers come from NYCB, and they’re a fine-looking bunch: Marika Anderson, Daniel Applebaum, Samuel Greenberg, Lauren King, Ashley Laracey, Teresa Reichlen, and Taylor Stanley. The basic building blocks—outstretched arms, flexed palms, dynamic use of space, angular shapes—are familiar to followers of City Ballet. Of the two pieces, “Epistasis” was the more adventurous, and here Schumacher added gestures like plucking and grabbing the air, and non-balletic touches like a quick zapateo. Like so many choreographers, he is testing the line between “pure” movement and gesture, abstraction and representation. But even more, he is drawing in his dancers’ qualities and exploring their range. Lauren King, invariably cast in bubbly roles in her home company, was quietly lyrical, expansive, focused. It was nice to see her without all the makeup, hair down, feeling relaxed enough not to smile. I’d love to see her in the first section of “Vienna Waltzes,” or the mysterious second section of “Episodes.” The young Sam Greenberg was strong, manly and mysterious, and very much up to the task of partnering the lush, impulsive, and long-limbed Teresa Reichlen. By the end felt we knew them all a little bit better.

The same cannot be said for the Houston Ballet, who visited the Joyce last week (Oct. 11-16). Houston has the fourth largest ballet company in the country, led by a well-known choreographer, the Australian-born Stanton Welch. It has been around since 1955; it has money. By now, it should have a strong profile. Somehow, though, the troupe didn’t make much of an impression. It’s not the dancers’ fault; they are uniformly strong, well-trained, appealing, excellent jumpers, wonderful turners. The problem was the repertoire, which felt utterly generic. Jiri Kylian’s “Falling Angels” (1989), set to Steve Reich’s “Drumming,” is stylish and slickly-constructed but totally dated. Women in black leotards, standing in squares of light, performing repetitive short phrases of vaguely eccentric movement. They pluck at their leotards, crouch, tilt their heads, undulate their torsos. The genre has been pushed light-years forward by choreographers like Ohad Naharin. This was followed by “ONE/end/ONE,” yet another of Jorma Elo’s arch, mechanistic ballets, set to a Mozart violin concerto. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to make Mozart sound totally mechanical. The men carry the women around like dolls, stiff-limbed and askew. They swivel their hips, swirl around in awkward poses, slide on point, twitch their fingers. The dancers pulled it off admirably—lots of triple pirouettes–but what a slog. It’s disheartening to think that this was the piece the company chose to commission with a large grant from the Nureyev Prize for New Dance (supported by the Joyce). The tutus, by Holly Hynes, were sumptuous (a dig at ballet’s grandiosity?); they must have cost a fortune. The final piece was a sentimental pantomime on commedia dell’arte themes by the British choreographer Christopher Bruce, set to pretty but bland music by Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma. A sad Columbine drooped like a rag doll; a couple grew old, walking hand in hand (

Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N ...read more

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