Suzanne Farrell Ballet / Joyce Theater, NYC / October 19-23, 2011
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, named for the transcendent dancer who was George Balanchine’s last muse, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Ironically, after a decade of generously favorable response to the group’s work, some observers are questioning the wisdom of the enterprise’s very existence.
Sarah Kaufman, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic, sums up the situation clearly in her review of the troupe’s showing at Kennedy Center in DC (the Farrell Ballet’s official home), which directly preceded the present New York run. The Center’s support for what became the Farrell Ballet had been urged by James Wolfensohn when he was chairman of the Center’s board. Like so many of us, he had been inspired by the ballerina’s incomparable dancing.
Thanks to Farrell’s unique experience with Balanchine and her own vision and skill, the company she evolved over the past decade has consistently offered passages of sensitive, selfless, profoundly musical dancing. Nevertheless, it remains essentially a small pick-up group that can work only sporadically with Farrell. Inevitably, few if any of its dancers have been of the highest professional caliber. Under these circumstances, which are dictated by well-intentioned yet insufficient funding–and the absence of a Lincoln Kirstein clone to guide its growth–the organization can’t hope to develop even as far as an aspiring regional ballet. “The questions now are,” Kaufman concludes, “Could Farrell’s talents be better used? And could [Kennedy Center's] money be better spent?”
Once it was clear that the New York City Ballet, under Peter Martins, didn’t care to have Farrell around in her ideal role–coaching the dancers in the Balanchine repertory–I once hoped another sort of plan might work. What if three companies ripe for and worthy of what she can offer–Miami City Ballet, just for example–each agreed to hire her for a residency of three months per year, during which time she would coach and teach company class, imparting her deep understanding of Balanchine’s principles? This was a pipe dream, my colleagues insisted; logistics alone would make it impossible and the present state of the economy would make it unlikely.
So dance fans are left with what Farrell can do with the resources she has. What I saw on the opening night of her company’s New York run was disheartening. The ballets performed were Haieff Divertimento (1944), which Farrell had reconstructed; the pas de deux from Diamonds (1967), in which she originated the ballerina role and hasn’t been equaled yet; Meditation (1963), the first ballet Balanchine created for her; and the justly renowned Agon (1957).
As a curtain raiser–a meet-and-greet affair, introducing the dancers to the audience–the light-weight Haieff Divertimento would have been just fine if only Farrell’s dancers had the ability to toss it off with ease technically and the principals had invested in it dramatically.
The work for the four-couple corps and a central, unpartnered man is dotted with spiffy little bows from one dancer to another and from the dancers to the audience. You see immediately that this is the work of Balanchine because of the swift, crisp footwork, the inventiveness in the use of formal classical steps, and the liveliness and logic of the stage patterning. All of this reminded me of the perkier sections of the more substantial, and equally arch Danses Concertantes (1944; revised 1972).
And then, at the heart of the piece, we get the Romantic Balanchine. The man who lacked a partner meets the one destiny has chosen for him. He yearns to possess this sylph or muse who, as women of her ilk do, keeps floating away from him. The best that can be said for the Farrell crew’s execution of the choreography is that Kirk Henning was promising as the main guy and everyone tried really hard to bring it off. The problem here–and throughout the program–is that effort is just what you don’t want to see in a performance.
The pas de deux from Diamonds, the concluding section of the three-part Jewels, revealed most clearly what Farrell has been able to accomplish with her dancers and why the deck is stacked against her. Balanchine created the ballerina role on her and her dancing persona. Her grandeur, her lushness, her daring, and her potent dance imagination are incorporated into its design.
As in every ballet Farrell has mounted on her company, her coaching has clearly been superb and miraculously without ego. But she is working with people (here Violeta Angelova, partnered by Momchil Mladenov) who are dancing the coaching, phrase by phrase, step by step, as if they had a microchip containing Farrell’s wise, detailed, and objective instructions embedded in their bodies. The dancers operate as if they understand these instructions and respect them but they can’t follow them–or, when they do–can’t make them cohere. The results include missteps, disjointedness, and a woeful absence of confidence and spontaneity.
Agon was all too obviously beyond the technical abilities of Farrell’s dancers, and yet its timing was, in every detail, as deliberately strange and adept in its relationship to Stravinsky’s spare, compelling score as it had been at the ballet’s premiere. I remember being one of the astonished witnesses of that first night, merely a teenager but able to recognize that Agon was what the City Ballet was “about.”
The ballerina role in the climactic pas de deux was created on Diana Adams (partnered by Arthur Mitchell). Farrell later inherited the part and now has assigned it to Elisabeth Holowchuk, who performed leading roles in three of the four ballets on the Joyce program. Holowchuk is an accurate dancer but, lacking both inherent drama and sensuousness, she simply doesn’t register as a theatrical personality.
The most relaxed dancing on the Joyce program came with Meditation, made for Farrell when she was still in her teens. It’s a duet that’s a man’s (Everyman’s? The choreographer’s?) naked confession of love for the dream woman he can never fully possess. It registers as a powerful rush of emotion (the Tchaikovsky score helps a lot), leaving little memory of specific steps and or stage patterning. Performing it, Holowchuk managed to entertain the possibility of expressiveness while Michael Cook was convincing through his authenticity and mercifully unpoetic. Any guy could find himself in this situation, he suggested. And this is certainly true–if only because unanswered love can be as emotionally gratifying as love fulfilled.
Shoring up the sporadic performances of her troupe, Farrell has contrived projects that are supposedly do-gooders for the dance community. Borrowing dancers from other companies to fill out the ranks of her necessarily small troupe is claimed to enlarge the visiting dancers’ opportunities. Does importing more proficient dancers than she has to lead a production fall into the same category? Or is it evidence that the Farrell Ballet is not in a position to produce stars from its own ranks?
Another undertaking, reviving Balanchine works previously thought to be lost, presumably rescues them from oblivion. But Balanchine, an undeniably productive and resourceful choreographer, himself allowed these works to disappear. Often he recycled the best inventions in them when he made a new ballet. In viewing Farrell’s reconstitution of the “lost” works, Balanchine fans with long memories can enjoy the parlor game of seeing where some phrases or effects showed up in subsequent ballets–reworked, refined, and elaborated in their new context.
Farrell’s projects, especially when given formal names like the Artistic Partner program and the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, may engender respect for her company and elicit significant funding. But they are, in the end, essentially social work and scholarly endeavor, not art.
Farrell’s dancing was an immense gift to the world. People who never had the chance to see it “live” fall in love with it via video alone. Once a ballerina who couldn’t be surpassed, Farrell subsequently demonstrated her extraordinary ability as a teacher and coach of Balanchine’s style and repertory. Surely she’s earned the opportunity to function at a level that corresponds to her gifts.
© 2011 Tobi Tobias