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October 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: October 24, 2011
Category: review

Rediscovering the Fight in “Agon”: The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — Suzanne Farrell is hailed for her staging of George Balanchine’s ballets. So it was with great anticipation that the Suzanne Farrell Ballet was greeted at the Joyce Theater on Oct. 20 for its six-day, sold-out run. The company, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, began as a series of masterclasses by Farrell at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Since then, it has evolved into its own entity, though it has yet to reach its full potential.

Farrell’s chamber-sized group does not have the institutional backing of New York City Ballet, in which Farrell’s star shined brightly for a quarter century. Like many dance troupes, it cannot afford to give its members full-time work and so performs only short runs. This lack of consistency was fully evident on opening night; in the Joyce Theater’s intimate setting, it was difficult not to notice the admirable dancers’ intermittent flubbing of Balanchine’s eloquent steps.

Farrell’s artistic relationship with Balanchine is the stuff of legend. He loved her madly, and the affair was consummated on stage through the work he created on her. At City Ballet, she originated one third of the hundred-plus roles she performed. Although her era in general was marked by an expansion of ballet’s technical range and speed, Farrell was more than a virtuoso athlete. She possessed rare musicality and dramatic expressiveness, dancing each performance as if it was her last. Balanchine, who also lived for the day (who wouldn’t after surviving the Russian Revolution), steered her innate instincts exquisitely. Watching Farrell dance was like watching a racehorse cantering through a wildly complex, aural landscape. Each musical passage was imbued with vivid coloration, marrying sight and sound and creating its own special kind of ballet theater.

As Balanchine’s ultimate muse, Farrell is now a coaching goddess. Her dancers looked as though they receive personalized instruction (a rare thing in ballet companies) on each one of their steps. “Meditation” (1963), the third ballet on the program, was the first work that Balanchine created on Farrell, when she was 18 and he was 58. Elisabeth Holowchuck and Michael Cook danced the choreographic autobiography, to an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher.” At the beginning, Cook covers his eyes. When Holowchuck emerges from the wings, he doesn’t so much see her as feel her presence, like an inspiration. Her lyricism, lightness and unbound hair set him aflame. In the ecstatic duet that ensues, she flies through space through the ministrations of his arms. But unlike most pas de deux, this one lets the female determine her own trajectory. At the ballet’s end, Holowchuck’s arms reached beseechingly toward Cook, as though her limbs were the umbilical chord that connect to his heart.

Another rarity on the program was “Haieff Divertimento” (1947), made to Alexei Haieff’s Divertimento for small orchestra (1944). It went out of repertory 15 years ago. Farrell, who danced the lead, helped reconstruct the work last year and decided to change the costumes. Holly Hynes’s sea foam leotard and tights, with short diaphanous skirts for the women, were jarring against Haieff’s music, which has its light moments, but not the kind that evoke “The Little Mermaid” (and Merman). It was as if Hynes thought the majorette high-stepping at the ballet’s end, here done by Violeta Angelova, was the major theme. On the contrary, it is the architectural symmetry of the ensemble dancing. “Haieff” wasn’t ready for the stage on opening night. The dancers looked tentative, the lights were too bright, and the recorded music was too loud.

The worst case of jitters was in the “Diamonds” pas de deux from “Jewels” (1967). Inspired by the pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” this dance requires bravura confidence from the female lead. Violeta Angelova looked worried from the get go. Then she almost fell. Then her tiara slipped down over her forehead. Her partner Momchil Mladenov tried to steady her, but to no avail. Sometimes, failure is just the nature of show business.

The closing work, “Agon”(1957), to a commissioned Stravinsky score, requires an expansive stage which, theoretically at least, makes it inappropriate for The Joyce. Engaged in a contest of skill and will, the 12 dancers should look like gods on Mount Olympus. Here, despite being stymied by the lack of square footage, the dancers’ interpretation of Balanchine’s most famous abstract work was marked by Farrell’s attention to detail. When Michael Cook sprung into he air, he hovered magically, as though he was being supported by invisible walls found with his flexed hands and taught arms. This evocation of concrete imagery, for which Farrell was famous, made “Agon” into far more than a cubist painting, with dancers in black and white tights and leotards etching the stage with angular ferocity.

In contrast to the Farrell Ballet, City Ballet performs “Agon” with a crystalline precision. Their approach diminishes the central tenet of the ballet’s title, which means “to struggle.” Farrell’s dancers brought back some of that fight. Which is why Farrell, who could have simply ended her remarkable career in 1989 by retiring, remains an admirable force in the competitive world of ballet.


Copyright © 2011, Musical America


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