The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
"Scotch Symphony," “Concierto de Mozart," “Scene d’amour” from Bejart’s “Romeo et Juliet,” and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"
Opera House
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
June 6 & 7, 2007

by George Jackson
copyright © 2007 by George Jackson

Bigger than other ballet companies in Washington and commuting distance, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet lists 35 dancers*. That makes it just about the size of Ballet Russe troupes in their latter days. Unlike its neighbors and predecessors, the Farrell is a part-time enterprise, although one with major ambitions. It has toured nationally, even internationally, and drawn its talent from near and far. Certainly it doesn’t present itself as something civic or regional. Repertory for the company’s artistic director has meant ballets by name choreographers, but just three of them — George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Maurice Bejart — those with whom Suzanne Farrell worked one-on-one in her own dancing days.  

For the 2007 season Farrell had promised her Kennedy Center audience substantial doses of Balanchine and Bejart, the latter under his personal supervision. (Robbins, it is speculated, will be featured again in 2008, the 90th anniversary of his birth.) Bejart, however, was unable to pay a transatlantic visit and so just a single example, already in the company’s repertory, was danced. Balanchine was represented by two major works, two rare duos and a piece of fun from a Broadway musical.

“Scotch Symphony”, the major Balanchine on Program A, was musically right. Crisp and buoyant dancing predominated, vectored by a continuity of the romantic sort. Although Farrell’s ensemble hasn’t high polish, it is fresh and shows pride. The men have a new igor. Dramatically, though, this “Scotch” wasn’t quite as right. All the pairs did seem to enjoy themselves dancing, which gave the highland fling passages exuberance. Yet in tending the ballet’s suggested story, there wasn’t much mystery. Examples were the men guarding the Ballerina: stepping between her and the Wanderer who happens into this Scottish realm, they looked as though they were erecting a rote road block. What ought to separate the principal pair is a gulf of magic and time. Those connotations mustn’t be overdone, but making too little of them can also disappoint.

The principals for “Scotch” on opening night, June 6, were Bonnie Pickard and Runquiao Du. Pickard started circumspectly before she allowed herself to be caught up in the music’s flow and the choreographer’s allusions to romantic lore. By the ballet’s end she had merged with the role, not in the smoldering way of its originator at New York City Ballet, Maria Tallchief, nor with the determination of another memorable interpretation — that of the young Amanda McKerrow (coached at the time by Washington Ballet’s Mary Day and Choo San Goh) — but gently. Pickard became like dandelion down. Du made of the Wanderer role, created by the grandiose Andre Eglevsky, a fine miniature. The couple’s arm holds shook sometimes, yet they seemed a pair.

Classical pas de deux that catch on as concert items are distinct. Each of them, whether it is “Black Swan” with its glints of danger, “Don Quixote” with its summation of flirtation, the daring camaraderie of “Tchaikovsky” or the stylish pride of “Classique”, has a character. That’s what the “Concierto de Mozart” duet still needs. A vague air of graciousness surfaces in this excerpt from the adagio section a ballet Balanchine made in 1942 for the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, yet key passages call for something else. Is it transcendence that’s missing from the low floating lifts and the ballerina in arabesque being carried piggy back? Would courtly pomp provide the proper circumstance for the partners’ on-beat stepping? As it stands, “Concierto” is bland and the dancers, Elisabeth Holowchuk and Momchil Mladenov, were dutiful.  The duet had previewed in a workshop performance the Farrell company gave earlier this year, but apparently this was not a Washington premiere — that happened in 1964** according to Eakins Press’s Balanchine catalogue.

The program’s closing number and its third Balanchine, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”, had the verve if not quite the scale of big-time musicals. Kurt Froman (not the Froman twin still in NYC Ballet) tap danced sufficiently for the Hoofer’s role and made this character a very likeable guy, plausibly smitten with Lisa Reneau’s Stripper, who was sympathetic too. Reneau looked glamorous in the ballet’s first portion, with her hair up and wearing a little white. Although a lively dancer she didn’t dissect the movement to show its classical bones. When Reneau, in black now, had let her hair down for the after hours scene at the nightclub, she seemed heavier.   

More than standard ballet training is needed to dance Bejart’s choreography. Projecting his idea of passion, dancers must breathe integrally and infuse plasticity actively into steps, transitions and pauses. Mathew Prescott and Ashley Hubbard, the principals in “Scene d’amour” from Bejart’s “Romeo et Juliet” to the Berlioz score, caught some of the choreography’s sensuality. A couple of the tricky lifts gave Prescott momentary trouble, yet Bejart’s hedonism contrasted well and tastefully with Balanchine’s Apollonian approach.***

Most of the new casting on June 7 was for the leading male role in three of the four works. In each instance it affected the entire ballet. “Scotch”, in which Mladenov failed to gain Pickard’s confidence, looked dour on this second night. No one in it seemed to be having as good a time in the pure dancing as at the opening. In the role of Romeo, Du managed the lifts fairly well but took all the supple stylization out of the movement and pretty much turned Bejart choreography into classroom steps.Prescott improved “Concierto” a bit by bringing a sense of play to the partnering. “Slaughter”, with Katelyn Prominski as the Stripper, looked even better the second time around.  

Right now the Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s only star is Farrell herself. Even though she no longer dances and seldom appears in public, her hold on audiences is astonishing. She does have one personality on the roster — the Bulgarian, Momchil Mladenov. Washington first saw him in Martha Clarke’s revival of “Vienna: Lusthaus”, in which he undressed. He looked better naked than he does in tights which give his body a cadaverous aspect. That’s a drawback for classical roles that seems to inhibit him. Mladenov’s forte is movement characterization and so far his major contribution to the Farrell company has been in the title role of “Don Quixote”. It is a long, difficult, mimetic part and Mladenov gained the audience’s sympathy for Balanchine’s deluded dreamer of a Don. This time, in “Slaughter”, he cartooned (as intended) the part of the Danseur who speaks in heavily accented English and flamboyantly demonstrates a few ballet steps. How, despite the tights, would he fare as Bejart’s Romeo? To realize its ambitions the Suzanne Farrell Ballet needs riveting dancers in principal roles.   

* At least 3 of the 35 dancers were absent: Natalia Magnicaballi, Erin Mahoney-Du and Sara Ivan. 

**According to Jean Battey Lewis, the performance of this pas de deux was at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium on March 6, 1964 by Margaret Graham and Tito Barbon from Uruguay, who were visiting the USA for 3 months primarily to study with Balanchine. 

***On the evening of June 10, Du displayed a better understanding of the Bejart style.  

Photos, both by Carol Pratt:
Top, Bonnie Pickard and the company's men in "Scotch Symphony."
Bottom, Elizabeth Holowchuck and Matthew Prescott in “Concierto de Mozart.”

Volume 5, No. 23
June 11, 2007

copyright ©2007 by George Jackson

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