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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Hit and Miss

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
Newart, New Jersey

October 11, 2003
Walt Whitman Hall
Brooklyn, New York
October 12, 2003

By Eric Taub
Copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub

What a difference a day makes! After seeing the Suzanne Farrell Ballet perform Saturday night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, if someone had asked me: is Suzanne Farrell were truly the inspired coach and Keeper of the Balanchine Flame she's often been made out to be, my answer would have been, probably not. Her dancers' performances were, for the most part, conservative, flat and markedly free of the risk-taking which was ever a hallmark of Farrell's own style. What can you say about a performance of Divertimento No. 15 where the corps girls seemed more interesting than most of the soloists? True, Peter Boal danced the greatest Apollo I've ever seen, but he's, well, Peter Boal, and what else would one expect?

Sunday afternoon, Farrell's company performed the same program, with the same cast, at Brooklyn College's Walt Whitman Hall, and the effect was greatly different. Although much about the performance was still problematic, the dancers, whether from fatigue or lack of opening-night stress (as NJPAC was their first exposure to New-York-area audiences this year), were less tentative, and, while too often discretion remained the better part of the Farrell dancers' valor (as when soloists discreetly omitted the more difficult bits of some solos in Divertimento), the ballets breathed more, and occasionally you could indeed feel a lightness and freedom which indeed brought to mind the later years of New York City Ballet under Balanchine.

In Divertimento No. 15, not even the wretched tape blaring over each theater's sound system could mar this little slice of Heaven (although Holly Hynes' overwrought costumes, with prominent purple zig-zags on the leads' tutus, came close). This was a nice performance of Divertimento which was long on atmosphere, but a bit blurry around the edges. I loved the eight girls in the corps. Although they were sometimes a bit overmatched by the choreography (and the brisk tempi of said wretched recording), they were always game, and danced with the kind of gumption and attack which is all-too-often missing in the dutifully drilled corps of today's City Ballet, and they carried (and flung) their arms with a happy abandon I haven't seen since my first years at the State Theater, back in the mid-Seventies' Era of the Broken Wrists (although Farrell's dancers eschewed the overly wrought hand-flapping).

Another delight was the return of Alexander Ritter to the area. While I know nothing of the circumstances of his departure from Boston Ballet, I hope he finds another long-term home, as he looked magnificent, and by far the best man on the stage, although he was only one of the subsidiary leads. His dancing has become more powerful and direct, yet still clean and precise. In both performances he danced the second "theme" before the many solo variations just about perfectly, making the tricky sequence of ronde de jambes en l'air saute and pique attitudes look not only fluent, but inevitable.

Of the soloists, April Ball, a former Boston Ballet principal dancer, was strong and rock-solid in the fourth variation, and was the only woman who didn't take the occasional shortcut through the tricky bits. Clearly the strongest woman in the company, Ball held the many poses à la séconde for just long enough to show us the cleanly hit position and hinting that she could have held it for much, much longer. While Frances Katzen, Bonnie Picard and Cheryl Sladkin all were a bit over their heads in their solos, I admired Sladkin for her willingness to attack, especially in Brooklyn, compared with Katzen's and Picard's disappointing habit of backing down from technical challenges. In the leads, Shannon Parsley is tall and strong, but was not quite as quick as that hummingbird sixth variation really needs. Again, hers was a cautious performance. Runqiao Du seemed to be having the proverbial Bad Night at NJPAC, with his big solo looking rushed, sloppy and roughly sketched. However, Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn he seemed entirely a different dancer, graceful and with an astoundingly quick leap. Momchil Mladenov, the other man, seemed every bit as tall on Sunday as he did Saturday.

I missed Balanchine's last work, Variations for Orchestra, back when he made it for Farrell in 1982, so I was particularly eager to see what turned out to be a fairly typical bit of Balanchinian Stravinskiana, complete with akimbo hips, "Hello-Sailor" pique poses and a wildly flapping ponytail. This work cries out for illumination by a dancer of stellar magnitude (as does the next-performed Tziagane, or, not suprisingly, most of the roles Balanchine made or remade for Farrell). Such is not Shannon Parsley, who was dutifully athletic, even down to the her perky back-flip exit, but couldn't fuse the bits into something coherent. Perhaps that's why Farrell decided to augment this piece with the shadow of another dancer projected onto the backdrop, dancing sometimes in unison with Parsley, and sometimes in opposition. Whatever the intention, the affect was pretentious, when it wasn't distracting, aside from the moments when it appeared that the unnamed shadow-dancer was indeed more interesting than Parsley.

In Tzigane, Balanchine created the zenith of the dancing Gypsy fantasia, with Farrell, spooky and sultry (and just a little over-the-top silly), hinting at telling fortunes of monumental import, whether romantic or catastrophic, then ensnaring a strapping young Gypsy boy before joining in a happy, group finale, kind of like Le Baiser de la Fee with ribbons. I remember seeing Farrell's staging of Tzigane for Natalia Magnicaballi a few years ago and thinking she might grow into it once she loosened up a bit. Well, she still might. Perhaps to avoid comparisons with Farrell's vampish creation, Magnicaballi's gypsy is cold and reserved: imagine, if you can, a Scandinavian gypsy. (I can't either.) I'd have less trouble with Magnicaballi's understated affect if it wasn't also reflected in how she did the steps. She threw away so many Big Moments--like when Farrell would point portentiously at her palm before tossing something at the audience, or the whole sequence of tippy tappy walking on pointe while draped backwards over her partner's arm--that I found myself wishing that Farrell had not followed her oft-stated method of allowing her dancers to find their own ways to her roles, but, rather, had insisted "Do it like I did it." Perhaps Farrell's light-reined approach works best with dancers who are already strongly developed.

In Peter Boal, we have one of the most strongly, and beautifully, developed dancers of this generation, giving one of the finest performances I've ever seen, in Apollo. Not having seen Boal perform Apollo with City Ballet, I'm a little unsure how much credit to give Farrell for this, as Boal is certainly no slouch himself at interpretation. Farrell stages Apollo with the birth scene, which City Ballet has omitted since Balanchine restaged the ballet for Baryshnikov in the late Seventies, yet Boal handled this scene as if he'd been dancing it for years. When unwrapped by his handmaidens, Boal's first steps had a piquant hesitancy, like a newborn colt struggling to its feet. Throughout, Boal made sense of myriad details which often seem blurred beyond recognition today. I've never seen an Apollo so childlike and playful as Boal's: at City Ballet the Peter Martins model, where Apollo is tall, sober and God-like (and preferably Nordic) from his first appearance has become the norm.

At first, Boal's Apollo approaches his Muses as toys--when they first appear, he's like a boy beneath the Christmas tree. It is only after his enounter with Terpsichore that this Apollo begins to mature. Boal's muses in both performances were Bonnie Pickard (Calliope), Natalia Magnicaballi (Polyhymnia) and Jennnifer Fournier (Terpsichore). Pickard didn't get much beyond a dutiful rendition of her solo, and, while Magnicaballi easily handled the trickier parts of Polyhymnia's (the double pirouettes into arabesque were particularly pretty), she also didn't seem to delve far beneath the surface. Neither, on Saturday, did Fournier, who is clearly an experienced and strong dancer, but never seemed connected with Boal on anything more than a physical level. On Sunday, at Brooklyn, she seemed far more comfortable, and both gave to, and got more from, Boal. In the group scenes, the troika, the fan, etc., these were very well-drilled muses indeed, the perfect foils for the ever-perfect Boal.

So is Farrell the Future of Balanchine? The short answer, so far, is Yes, and No.

Photo: Natalia Magnicaballi in Tzigane.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 3
October 13, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

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The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

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last updated on October 7, 2003