writers on dancing



The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Eisenhower Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing arts
Washington, D.C.
Novemmber 22, 2005

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright ©2005 by Alexandra Tomalonis

Dead at fifteen! — loved, lovely, happy, gay,
Leaving the ball; long, long to make us weep.
Dead! From her frenzied mother torn away
By Death’s cold clutch; e’en in her ball array,
And in a coffin put to sleep.—Victor Hugo*

These lines (along with the passage in Henreich Heine’s “De l’Allemagne” about the legend of the Wilis) inspired Théophile Gautier to imagine “Giselle.” The first act would be about a young girl, dancing at a ball so fiercely that, at the end, Death claims her. The management of the Paris Opera thought this too insubstantial a book for a ballet in 1841, and Giselle had to find another path to Wilidom, but the poetic image of a young girl about whom Hugo  could write, “Dancing caused her death: with eager, boundless love/Balls—dazzling balls—filled her with ecstasies,” would be perfect for a ballet a century later. All in good time. Balanchine’s “La Valse,” set to Maurice Ravel’s “Valse nobles et sentimentales,” centers on just such a girl and just such a meeting, and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet brought the ballet to life last week.

The ballerina doesn’t appear until the end of "La Valse," the eighth (of eight) sections. The long beginning of the ballet is a ball at which young couples meet and twirl. It’s all very decorous, though there are hints of mystery (the “Three Fates” whose gloved arms shield their eyes—from what?) and an atmosphere as decadent as it is neo-romantic. In 1841, audiences might feel sympathy for a girl who dances herself to death. In 2005 (or even in 1951, when the ballet was made) we’ve seen it happen so many times, and cried over so many lost girls, that, emotion spent, we watch the drama play out. But when it’s danced with the commitment that this company brings to it, we can suffer emotional vertigo.

Alexandra Ansanelli (late of the New York City Ballet, soon to be dancing with Britain’s Royal Ballet) was a very contemporary Girl in White: eager, perhaps over-eager, a starlet greedy for attention and experience and the tokens her celebrity deserves: jewels, flattery and rich clothing in sophisticated  black. As fits the times, she’s an Extreme Waltzer, bounding onto the dance floor with a huge jeté and throwing herself into the dancing as only someone young enough to feel immortal might. There have been a variety of interpretations of this role over the years. Nancy Reynolds, in her invaluable “Repertory in Review,” describes Tanaquil LeClercq (who originated the role) and her “angular sophistication and doomed half-innocence;” Patricia McBride as having an “almost vampire-like characterization with a quality of sophistication;” and Kay Mazzo and Farrell as “innocent young girls.” Ansanelli adds another side to the girl who dares dance with Death.

"La Valse" could become a real company showcase. Alexander Ritter, as the young man with whom the Girl dallies before Death dangles his jewels in front of her, was the real tragic figure here: genuinely smitten by her, and crushed by her death. Momchil Mladenov was a bit pallid as Death, but this was opening night and he may well become more seductive with practice. The ballet was strongly cast, with the first seven waltzes—each individually characterized—danced by principals and soloists. The pace and the pull of the waltzing, from the ensemble up, boiled as the ballet progressed. “Dancing on the edge of a volcano” (as Ravel described his music) indeed; the heedless, relentless whirling captured the giddy, dangerous thrill of the waltz.

“Clarinade,” made in and about the cooler times of 1964, was the first ballet Balanchine choreographed for his company’s new home in Lincoln Center. Farrell has revived its pas de deux (which she danced with Anthony Blum), though not its ensemble sections. The ballet was considered slight, and soon disappeared. It may have seemed slight in 1964, but in our leaner times, it’s a model of clarity. “Clarinade” is about teenagers, Balanchine in Robbins mode (complete with two somersaults for the man). P.W. Manchester complained at the premiere that “All the clichés of supposed modern jazz are there—the outward thrust of the hip, the forward thrust of the pelvis, the backward rock on the heels.” Many of these “clichés” are now considered bedrock Balanchine style. However one thinks of them, Erin Mahoney-Du rocked and slithered through her role with enormous zest. Mahoney-Du (familiar to local audiences as one of the Washington Ballet’s most interesting dancers) somehow managed to make the role clearly a Farrell role without doing a Farrell imitation. The man’s part is very much secondary, but Mladenov seemed to have fun with it. David Jones was the clarinet soloist with the onstage “band,” in a score originally written for, and played by, Benny Goodman.

“Duo Concertant” has been a staple of the young company’s repertory for several seasons. “Duo” is a series of duets, punctuated by moments of dance-silence when the two dancers (Natalia Magnicaballi, on loan from Ballet Arizona where she is a principal dancer, and newcomer Matthew Prescott) walk to the side of the stage and listen to the musicians (Oleg Rylatko, violin, and Glen Sales, piano) play Stravinsky's 1939 score of the same name. The relationship between the dancers changes with each cast. Sometimes it seems a ballet about a choreographer and his muse, others about a man and a lost love. Or a love not yet lost, but he’s doing his best. In past performances here, Magnicaballi has been the young, sweetly rebellious muse, or love, of the more experienced Peter Boal. This year, the gender tables were turned. Prescott was the inexperienced one who needed to be tamed, and Magnicaballi was the (slightly) older woman. Magnicaballi has gained enormously in stage presence and performing savvy in the past year, and danced like a star. Prescott, dancing with all the juice of youth, may well become one.

The program opened with “La Source,” one of Balanchine’s Paris Opera ballets to the music of Leo Delibes, and it was the least realized work of the evening.  Shannon Parsley, a lovely young soloist, danced the steps well, but only towards the end did she seem caught up in the music. Runqiao Du (a principal with Washington Ballet) was elegant, if underpowered, as he often is when dancing in the spotlight. (In “La Valse,” dancing with three women, he was lost in the music and in the moment and glowed.) The ballerina role was made on Violette Verdy, the embodiment of the light, decorative and precise French style that drew Balanchine from time to time, and it needs a ballerina's authority to pull the ballet together.

More performances, allowing the dancers to build confidence and become comfortable with the ballets, would help, of course. So what now for this little Brigadoon of a company? Many of the dancers have been with it since the beginning, but they can’t live on a few weeks’ dancing a year. That the company is together so seldom yet dances together so well is a tribute to Farrell and Susan Pilarre (listed in the program as rehearsal assistant) as well as the faithful dancers. Scheduling the company over Thanksgiving week isn’t very helpful. Opening night was full, but Washington empties out over Thanksgiving, not only of Congressmen and lobbyists, but of university students and ordinary residents. The company will never build an audience that way. More performances, spread throughout the year, and this company could give us a “La Source” and “La Valse” that the world would come to see.

*From “Fantômes,” translated by Marian Smith in her book, “Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle;” Princeton University Press, 2000.

Volume 3, No. 44
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Alexandra Tomalonis



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last updated on November 28, 2005