writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition


Starting Over

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

December 2-7, 2003

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis

Watching the Suzanne Farrell Ballet this past week, I kept thinking that what Farrell is doing goes beyond starting a ballet company from scratch. She's reminding us of why Balanchine's New York City Ballet was so treasured and so important. I don't mean to say that she's doing this deliberately. It's more likely she's merely trying to produce dance as though the aesthetic atmosphere Balanchine built were still in place.  For her, it clearly is. But the rest of us have lived through two decades during which not only his ballets, but also many of Balanchine's precepts, have become misunderstood or distorted. "Just dance it, dear," for example, once an instruction to resist layering artificial acting onto movement whose meaning was built in, now seems to mean, "just do the steps; nothing else matters," and is applied religiously to ballets that, indeed, contain nothing but steps. Everything is so overhyped that Balanchine's, and Farrell's, modest way of simply doing and letting the rest of the world figure out what they're doing—or not—can seem naive. It's hard enough to be heard when you're whispering. It's impossible when everyone around you is screaming.

In a sense, Farrell is starting over, for all of us.  She's doing what New York's Ballet Society did before she was born, but she's doing it in competition with a culture that demands instant results and pays lip service to "less is more" while demanding more of everything.  In the 1940s, America was fresh soil for ballet. Previous seeds sown in the 1840s, when Fanny Elssler made us ballet mad, or the 1860s, when The Black Crook was the hottest ticket in New York, or the Ballet Russe era, when people redid their living rooms in Bakst's colors, seemed as distant as the age of the Vestris. Balanchine had a clean slate, and he built an audience as well as a ballet company, educating balletgoers as he trained dancers. He was recreating what he knew in Russia, adapting it to his new country, of course, but much of his way of ballet mastering is very Old World: It's not the premiere that matters, it's the ballet.  Build for the long haul.  Try dancers out in new roles, let young dancers try big roles, and understand that they're not going to be perfect the first time out—those were rules that were followed in St. Petersburg and Paris and Copenhagen at least in the 19th century, and probably earlier. It's how institutions were built, and survived, and became great.

I don't know if Farrell is trying to build an institution or not. Right now, her interest is in presenting Balanchine's ballets as she thinks he intended them to be seen.  For this alone, Washington owes her a huge debt of gratitude. We once had regular visits of the New York City Ballet—three weeks a year during Balanchine's lifetime. Those seasons built an audience that came to appreciate CHOREOGRAPHY, not just star performances. (Not that there's anything wrong with stars, but a dependence on star dancers in negligible ballets, or worse, is one of the reasons why ballet is in the state it is today.)

The two programs of choreography danced this week had no right to work as programs; one consisted of four Tchaikovsky ballets, another, duets from nine very different works. But they worked on stage. Confronted by four ballets that are superficially alike, danced in succession, one can see see how different each is from the other.  Balanchine is in danger of being remembered only for his revolutionary "black and white ballets," but his more traditional works are worthy of preservation and appreciation as well. "The Waltz of the Flowers" from Nutcracker is so simple, so like Petipa in its vocabulary and its patterns (because the music is of that period, and Balanchine chose steps and stylistic accents that matched the period of the music) that it can seem like pleasant filler in the full-length ballet.  But it holds its own as a separate piece, and could profitably be set as an example in choreography workshops: stage this, figure out what he's doing, why this structure, why these steps. Next, make something like it, and THEN go out and break all the rules. Of course, what those who value classical dancing hope is that someone will pick up the baton from Balanchine as he picked it up from Petipa, and this can only happen when his works are on view, and danced as living things. At present, this is Farrell's greatest accomplishment. Serenade, especially looked as if it had been made on its young cast, but throughout the repertory, every dancer dances as though he or she wants to be here, in this space and in this moment, dancing these ballets.

The second program seemed, before curtain time, even more potentially problematic. Even galas throw in a pas de trois or two, and galas have stars. Nine pas de deux, danced, for the most part, by able rather than stellar dancers, could have been grim. Yet Friday night was one of the most satisfying evenings I've ever spent at the ballet. The variety the choreography. The  works were danced—and danced very well—mostly in chronological order, yet they didn't show any clear "progression"; both the craft and the genius were there from the time of Apollo, whose central pas de deux opened the evening. What they did show is how Balanchine stated and restated his all-consuming idea of the worship by a man of a female ideal and, aside from the man's desperate longing and the woman's elusiveness, the invention was endless.

The casting, however, was not varied, and this is a good sign (even though the reason for it may well have been because several dancers were injured).   Earlier seasons saw endless shuffling of roles, and it was impossible to tell what Farrell's idea of this or that role—or dancer—was.  Perhaps she needed to learn by experimentation. Casting began to settle down last year, and that practice has continued; although there were three possible casts announced for many of the pas de deux, there were only a few changes in actuality. Among the standouts this season: Alexander Ritter, making every gesture clear as the Poet in La Sonnambula; April Ball, making every step clear as the Waltz Girl in Serenade (Thursday night). Peter Boal and Chan Hon Goh in Meditation Saturday afternoon, when she seemed as much his fantasy as a memory. And Natalia Magnicaballi and Momchil Mladenov in the pas de deux from Agon, a ballet that is all too often a parody of itself nowadays. Magnicaballi is made of flesh rather than wire, and so when Mladenov pulled her body into all those impossible positions, the tension was palpable and the distortions more terrible, and more wondrous. Mladenov, dancing his solo with a very masculine power and rolling to the floor at the end in afterglow languor made the ballet sensuous without at all romanticizing it. Like Serenade, Agon seemed refreshed.

After decades of triple bills (often primarily of pop ballet) during the week and full-length ballets—any full-length ballet, as long as it has a story—on the weekends, a programming practice that bifurcated rather than unified the Kennedy Center's ballet audience, Farrell's emphasis on choreography is more than a breath of fresh air; it's a lifeline.  This was a No Bad Ballets week.  They should put that on the T-shirts. New York City Ballet will return this spring with an all-Balanchine program.  It's a shame he can't have a 100th birthday every year. (And it's even more of a shame that Ashton, Tudor and Fokine don't have a Farrell.)

The season was not on the Center's subscription series (although it could be purchased as an option), tickets were priced substantially lower than the Kirov Ballet, which comes in at the end of the month with Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and the SFB had a general as well as a regular balletgoer audience. It seemed quite open to Farrell's experiment. The run was nearly sold out, and even a surprise snow storm Friday and Saturday didn't keep people away. It might be a good idea, though, for Farrell to take into consideration that many in her audience are new to Balanchine, if not ballet itself. As Clare Croft points out in her review of the Balanchine pas de deux program, it might have been helpful if Farrell had been more explicit in her remarks; all of the details were there, but her speeches lacked a frame. Her reasons for choosing the different pas de deux on the Balanchine Couple program were implied in what Farrell said in her before the curtain speeches, but might not have been clear to the woman, small daughter in tow, who stopped the candy seller in the lobby to ask "What are we going to be seeing tonight?"

From Farrell and her company, what you see are the ballets.

Photos by Jon Nalon.
Top, Bonnie Pickard and Momchil Mladenov in Serenade; middle, Bonnie Pickard in Waltz of the Flowers; bottom, Serenade.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 11
December 8, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis





Back issues

Index of Reviews
Back Issues
About Us
Contact Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs



Clare Croft
George Jackson
Jean Battey Lewis
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Tehreema Mitha

Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger


The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

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

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!

DanceView is published quarterly (January, April, July and October) in Washington, D.C. Address all correspondence to:

P.O. Box 34435
Washington, D.C. 20043


Copyright ©2003 by by DanceView
last updated on December 3, 2003