writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Dancing to Tchaikovsky

All Tchaikovsky Evening
Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Eisenhower Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

[December 2-7, 2003]
December 2, 2003

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis

"For dancing, always Tchaikovsky,” Balanchine is said to have said once, and Tchaikovsky’s music certainly figures prominently in his work. From Serenade, the first ballet he choreographed in America, to Mozartiana, which received its premiere at the New York City Ballet’s Tchaikovsky Festival in 1981, Tchaikovsky’s music inspired some of Balanchine’s most beautiful ballets.

Both these works, as well as the Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and “Tempo di Valse,” a/k/a The Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker, made up the Suzanne Farrell Ballet's opening night program. The company is part of the Kennedy Center’s own Tchaikovsky Festival that will include the Kirov Ballet and Opera at the end of the month. Washington has been privileged to watch Farrell’s small company grow. This year is the first time we’ve seen it at the end, rather than the beginning, of its season (it's just come home from a tour) and, in Serenade especially, Farrell’s group of in-between-jobs and off-season dancers really looked like a company and not a workshop group.

Farrell is building from the ground up, and while performances in leading roles can be spotty, the corps is more cohesive, and it dances with more sophistication and subtlety each season. One of the chief pleasures in watching a Farrell staging is her musicality. She’s often staked her claim as a Balanchine stager saying that she hears music as he heard the music, and her stagings bear this out. In Serenade, especially, the interplay and counterpoint between and among groups of dancers Tuesday night was beautifully clear, the dancing propelled by the music, rhythmically and emotionally. Farrell’s dancers dance full out; they’re always going for the movement, another pleasure in watching this young company.

The program opened with a Mozartiana that’s not yet fully realized. The shape of the ballet was certainly clear, but individual sections hadn’t yet jelled. Chan Hon Goh, a ballerina on loan from the National Ballet of Canada, is as different a dancer from Farrell as can be imagined—light, delicate, a born Giselle, with none of Farrell's wild, off-center power. Yet she’s always found a way to make roles created on Farrell her own. There’s a shy, visible joy in her dancing, which was appropriate here (after a thoughtful Preghiera) and the third and fourth solos of the Theme et Variations, especially, were beautifully danced. Her partner was Jason Redick, a soloist with Boston Ballet, replacing an injured Peter Boal.  Redick seemed a bit stiff and understandably nervous. The man's part is a killer.  It was made for Ib Andersen, and few dancers have Andersen's speed and angelic grace. Redick seemed heavy in the first two solos, but he’s a strong jumper (he danced the third solo, full of bounding beats, very cleanly) and I hope to see him do this later in the run, when he's settled into the role.

What was missing was a rapport between the two, and a sense that all the dancers (including four young girls, four women who may be their older counterparts, and Alexander Ritter, who danced very well, but grinned a bit too much, in the Gigue) were part of the same world. Add to that a slow tempo and a performance that was generally over-careful, and this Mozartiana was like a taffy pull.

Jennifer Fournier and Runqiao Du also seemed to be dancing at cross purposes in the Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. They’re not ideally matched. Du, a principal with the Washington Ballet, is more a lyrical dancer than a virtuoso and his dancing lacked crispness and polish, especially in the landings. Fournier seemed a bit tentative—perhaps because she needs a bigger, stronger partner. All of this made for a muted performance of a work (and on a program) that needed a firecracker.

The surprise of the evening was Shannon Parsley who led the “Tempo di Valse” from The Nutcracker. She danced on such a grand scale, and seemed so happy to be there, that her happiness infected everyone on stage.  When the girls—wildflowers, not of the hothouse persuasion —gallop across the stage in the jumps at the waltz’s end, one wished they had a bigger space, so they could really fly.

Parsley was the stand out in Serenade, too, bounding about, bold and sassy, as the “Russian” girl, and dancing with the same pleasure she showed in the Nutcracker excerpt. This Serenade benefitted greatly by lighting (by J. Russell Sandifer) that changed from an almost midnight blue in the opening moments to a dusky hue, making it look as though the dancing takes place by moonlight—none of the Brite Lites I’ve seen in some recent productions—and it makes a difference, as the darker lighting bathes the ballet in mystery.

Bonnie Pickard was very committed, very passionate, as the “girl who falls down,” but didn’t take center stage; one forgot her when she wasn’t there, and Parsley dominated the ballet, upsetting its balance. Momchil Mladenov gave one of the strongest performances I’ve ever seen in the Elegie. A melancholic adventurer, he captured perfectly what one has read Balanchine wanted to portray—a man with a destiny, who dallies, but must move on to fulfill that destiny. Everything was clear, yet nothing was too much. Mladenov's hands were especially expressive.  When does one ever notice the man’s hands in Serenade? Yet Mladenov made a ballet out of the hands, reaching, touching, lingering, using them to express everything his character experiences. His exit, as he's walked off by Natalia Magnicaballi's sorrowful, implacable Dark Angel, felt especially right. It would be pleasant to stay and he’s sorry to cause pain, but destiny is destiny. The beauty of Serenade is that there is no story; the story is different every time you see it. But that’s the story I saw Tuesday night.

It’s this element of surprise, combined with thoughtful stagings, that makes me look forward to performances by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. In a time when all too often ballets elsewhere look hastily put together, coached by video, dancers thrown on without seeming to know why they’re there, in this company, even when there’s a miscasting or an off-kilter performance, there’s nothing sloppy about it. The intention is always clear, and you can always see the ballet.  And then there are the surprises.  Sometimes it's a small one, like the way the tiniest of the little girls in Mozartiana danced as fiercely, as intensely as any adult, as though she had the most important part in the world, or Mladenov's hands in Serenade, reaching over a woman's shoulder to touch her back to hold on, just for a moment, to something he knew he was about to lose.  And sometimes it's a huge one, like Goh and Boal's ebulliently happy Chaconne last year.

Serenade was the closing ballet, and it left a glow. I keep thinking of the famous photo of Balanchine, surrounded by those chunky American girls way back in the summer of 1934. They're watching him show a step with every fiber of their being, gulping in the information, wanting to learn with an intensity you can feel, and that went far beyond a simple eagerness to please. Farrell's dancers have more streamlined bodies and are better schooled, of course, but when they dance, you see the same fervor.

Oiginally published:
Volume 1, Number 10
December 4, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis




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last updated on December 3, 2003