by Leigh Witchel
Suzanne Farrell’s company passed into history much as it entered: inconsistently. The group put on a final season of Balanchine ballets, mostly works associated with Farrell. The final two shows had the hallmarks of performances throughout its span: great and substandard ones; casting that ranged from excellent through mediocre right down to bad. And sometimes a single dancer was all of the above.
Most of the trouble spots were at the last matinee. “Gounod Symphony” had an ill-fated performance. Natalia Magnicaballi had already danced a solid turn in “Meditation” and Michael Cook had done the same with “Tzigane.” Yet “Gounod Symphony” exposed both of them harshly. Cook didn’t have the lines for a white tights role and was having problems keeping Magnicaballi on her leg in turns.
“Chaconne” wasn’t badly danced. You could easily see its beautiful construction and counterpoint, but it had an even more insidious problem – one that also had been there from the beginning. Farrell had a spotty record of transferring the magic she had as a dancer to her stagings.
The ballet is a straightforward suite of dances, but it can be so much more. The music is from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Of course Balanchine saw Elysium as a paradise of long-legged women. After adagios for the women and the lead couple, Balanchine’s heaven morphed into a suite of court dances, and of course the court had ranks. But don’t the angels as well? After all, we envisioned the heavens in our own image.
Taking on Farrell’s role, Heather Ogden is an allegro dancer at heart, and was far more at home in the set of variations than the opening adagio. It was solid, but when she looked up or yawned back, she was on balance securely – there was no risk. Solid and secure aren’t adjectives you think of in the same breath as Balanchine. Even when she syncopated her accents, she did that neatly. “Chaconne” needs a dancer that you can’t know so easily.
Some dancers seemed like different people in the span of an intermission. Allynne Noelle didn’t register strongly in a secondary pas de deux in “Chaconne” but she smoldered in “Tzigane.”
Happily the final show, the same evening, was a far better farewell. It involved largely the same dancers, just switched into parts they handled better. People who looked at sixes and sevens in the matinee looked great.
“Gounod” features one of Balanchine’s most Cartesian ballerinas: Noelle was sharp and accurate, moving through turns and extensions that seemed to pivot in several directions and angles to show off the view from each set of coordinates. She dove into the arabesque penchées and turned fearlessly. Partnering her, Thomas Garrett looked more secure than he did with Ogden in “Chaconne.”
If anything demonstrates the question of how forever Balanchine is, it’s “Gounod.” The ballet was restaged by Vida Brown in 1985 from her notes, but hasn’t been danced by a professional company since 1993. It’s a good work, but vies for a repertory spot on which other ballets have a tighter grip. The second act divertissement of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has a similar layered feel for the corps, but the obvious comparison is the ballet made to music by Gounod’s student Bizet, “Symphony in C.”
Farrell’s production showed the clean strengths of her company but also hinted at its limitations. Holly Hynes costumed the large cast in dresses and tunics. The ballerina entered late, wearing a shade of tan you would expect your landlord to offer as a wall paint option. The corps costumes were more congenial; black or white with simple adornment of contrast piping. Pretty and effective, but hard to get away from feeling budget chic.
A more serious limit was that Farrell only staged three of the four movements. The missing movement incorporated reconstructed choreography by Peter Martins. Wasn’t there a workaround or did the ballet have to be presented with a chopped staging like “Western Symphony?”
Two short works created on Farrell were the center of the program. “Tzigane” is a less substantial work, but it’s easier to stage. The short ballet is a chamber version of another Farrell role, the Rondo alla Zingarese of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” “Tzigane,” in its reduction, is more obvious: when Balanchine thought about gypsies, he thought about ballet’s gypsy stereotypes, which meant violins, ribbons, prancing and turned-in kicks. The Ravel is brief and doesn’t build the way the Brahms does; it whisks away with the briefest flourish. It takes a strong lead couple to hold it together.
Both shows had casts up to the job. Magnicaballi did a great job in the evening. Stepping on toe through the violin solo, whirling, stopping, or staring us down, she sketched a portrait of a dramatic personality both musically and through gesture. Her gypsy was a tough survivor, not letting Cook get the better of her. He also looked far better in “Tzigane.” At the matinee, Noelle filled her solo with mystery and charisma, as she pointed to her palm and shuffled back quickly, refusing to reveal what she foretold.
“Meditation” is also a gloss, this time on the Act 2 pas de deux from “Giselle.” A modern-day Albrecht arrived in a polo shirt, walked to center stage pensively and kneeled, as in “Giselle.” The woman came to him, wearing a white filmy dress. Like Giselle, she was unreachable but here she was not sent from the underworld, but from a different far away land: his past. Like most of Balanchine’s angels, her hair was unbound.
The man, in both casts Kirk Henning, was a supplicant. Magnicaballi embraced him. She didn’t lift him to his feet; you could see from her look that she expected him to stand on his own. Balanchine’s muses may be in service to male creativity, but they are demanding and implacable. They aren’t there to comfort or forgive; they’re there to spur the man on. Yet later, you could see Magnicaballi decide to run back and hug Henning.
In the evening cast, Elisabeth Holowchuk worked with more emphasis on musical values: arm movements were right on the note. Still, her performance felt even more cinematic than Magnicaballi’s; this was an Affair to Remember, one of ecstasy, sadness and wrenching emotion before the big final embrace and collapse. Holowchuk covered Cook’s eyes and hugged him to leave. He beseeched the same heavenly powers Albrecht did and exited in sorrow, going the opposite direction from Holowchuk.
Both “Tzigane” and “Meditation” gave a great workout to the violin soloist, concertmaster Oleg Rylatko.
The company ended with Balanchine’s American beginning: “Serenade.” Conductor Nathan Fifield kept the tempo brisk, rather than sentimental; the corps hustled in bourrées on pointe. Noelle showed off her turns as the Russian Girl. Ogden was strong, accurate and musical in the Waltz, but you still didn’t get a lump in your throat.
And then the final bow. Farrell, in bright red, was escorted out and the company came out one by one to leave roses at her feet. She stood erect and mouthed several times, “Thank you.” As the curtain finally began to fall, she gave the slightest shrug as if there was nothing she could do to change this.
For so many, Farrell represented the most direct link to Balanchine. She was their hope, their true cross, the avatar of how Balanchine ought to be danced. And yet despite high points, her company was never consistent enough to hold that mantle firm.
Farrell’s final repertory season programming looked more like New York City Ballet’s did once upon a time. This is stuff that might have been programmed in the mid-80s; in fact it was by NYCB, including reviving “Gounod.” A generation has gone by and it would be hard to find a program like this at NYCB again. Balanchine is danced differently than he was danced even three decades ago, more punched with more emphasis on the end of the phrase.
Yet though the mutation and deterioration of Balanchine’s ballets is a real thing, there is a greater force that can’t be combated. History. Life goes on. Time goes on. We’ll soon mark 35 years of the interregnum, waiting for the next ballet genius. Dancers need ballets made by living dance makers on their bodies. Three and a half decades of ballets, including a few that demand a place in repertory, have appeared. Economics has also come into play. NYCB has inexorably drifted towards story ballets to fill the theater.
Farrell and others bore witness, and they continue to. The record matters. We need to continually remind ourselves what it means to dance Balanchine, to dance Petipa, to dance Ashton. There will still be gifted proponents of Balanchine’s works long after we are gone. But nothing is forever. Not Galeotti, not Bournonville, not Petipa. We are stuck in history. Whether we like it or not, we are the generation that will witness Balanchine pass from a living force to a historical one.
copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel
“Chaconne,” “Tzigane,” “Meditation,” “Gounod Symphony” (matinee)
“Gounod Symphony,” “Tzigane,” “Meditation,” “Serenade” (evening) – The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
December 9, 2017
Cover: The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in “Serenade.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.
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