writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

13 October 2003.
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performed twice in the New York area this weekend. Much to my regret, work prevented me from attending the Sunday performance at Brooklyn College. It was a thrill and an honor, though, to be part of the audience for the all-Balanchine evening on Saturday at the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts. A cherished honor, since the rich variety of dynamic texture, the stylistic refinement, and the musicality of the dancing in Divertimento No. 15 and in Apollo (presented in the original New York City Ballet staging, which includes the birth and childhood of the god, as well as Igor Stravinsky’s complete score) are now superb and may be peerless. Despite the fact that certain enchaînement may be textually questionable, the hearts of the ballets are intact. Even the costumes, credited to Holly Hynes—the current Director of Costumes for NYCB and the costume consultant for the George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins trusts, as well as the resident designer for the Farrell Ballet since the company’s inception in 1999—look as if they’ve been slightly rethought since I last saw them.

Or is it the new level of the performances that makes the costumes look renewed? This is the life and breathtaking care with which I remember these two ballets being danced at NYCB during the 1970s; this is the Balanchine that drove me to the New York State Theater night after night, regardless of casting or whether a dancer could nail her pirouettes every time. In previous New York-area seasons of the Farrell Ballet, this is the level of dancing that I’d hoped to witness and never quite did. This is the argument for dancing as an ongoing process of growth and discovery—from performance to performance, from season to season—rather than as an end-stopped product that has been laminated for fixed presentation. This is also the aspect of Farrell’s enterprise that makes a balletgoer miserable over the economic necessity for the company to tour with taped music, which has the effect of placing the ballets behind bars when they should be running wild. As another theatergoer mentioned, to Farrell’s credit she chose recordings that were demanding of the dancers in terms of tempi and articulation.

As Divert, especially, unfurled, I kept thinking of Sallie Wilson’s similarly exacting stagings of the Tudor masterpieces for the New York Dance Theatre, and wondering how Farrell—who is also working with good yet, occasional exceptions aside, not star dancers—got from many of them the performances she did, in which they seemed to rise above their own technical limitations to a level of freedom that made the ballets gently soar and gave their dance incidents absorbing interest for their own sakes, as choreography. Without having watched either coach in rehearsal, one can’t even begin to speculate on the reasons for the difference, although it’s possible to observe that Farrell has chosen dancers who tend to be quite turned out and whose feet and legs—especially those of the women on point—exhibit the more strength and tenacity. The men she cast in three of the program’s four offerings were also fine dancers (Alexander Ritter, in particular) and open-hearted presences, aristocratic in their manners yet fully alive to the movement, even when they couldn’t quite nail it.

NYCB principal Peter Boal, who performed Apollo, was grand, clarifying the tiniest differences in the role’s temperament and initiative and conveying a depth of dance imagination in it that, in recent years, I’ve only seen suggested in the Apollo of Philip Neal, which the Farrell Ballet also presented, several years ago in New York at the New Victory Theatre.

Boal began to deepen his approach to the role independently, at NYCB in the mid-1990s; however, his performance in New Jersey was more exciting and detailed than it has ever been. His restless adventures with modern dance and with the classical choreography of Leigh Witchel in the past few years may also have contributed to the life with which he now endows his Balanchine roles, just as Farrell’s own experience with choreographers other than Balanchine (notably Maurice Béjart) seemed to confer a touch of fascinating dramatic mystery on her dancing for Balanchine, himself. From his first, silent cry as the swaddled, adult-sized infant “born” to a multiple pirouette from the Leto of Lisa Reneau—who may be the most glamourous mother wracked by third-stage contractions to appear under a proscenium arch on either side of the Hudson in decades—Boal was simply a wonder of concentration. His Apollo has become a standard for his era, as those of Jacques d’Amboise (my own favorite), Edward Villella, and Peter Martins were for theirs. Boal’s muses and his mentoring Handmaidens (see below for casting) meshed seamlessly with his performance to give us an Apollo of all-around excellence, though it was the Polyhymnia of Natalia Magnicaballi, rather than the Terpsichore of Jennifer Fournier, who looked as if she was the love of his life.

Magnicaballi also performed the virtuoso role that Farrell originated in Tzigane. She danced it precisely, yet without mystery, directing it toward the audience and flirting directly with her handsome partner, Momchil Mladenov, rather than creating a conversation with interior or invisible forces. (Apart from Farrell, the only soloist I’ve seen in Tzigane to achieve this quality of dancing for oneself and, perhaps, for a divine power—the quality that takes the ballet out of the realm of demi-caractère work and confers on its Gypsy references a Parisian element of smoke infused with incense—is Maria Calegari.) It was also slightly disappointing that the great technical crest of the Tzigane solo—the tilting attitude penchée that Farrell would reverse, in a huge, ballooning conversion, to a full off-balance frontal extension—had to be adjusted for Magnicaballi to give the effect of the full transformation without her actually realizing it in full physical terms.

The fourth ballet of the evening, Variations for Orchestra—a solo that Balanchine created for Farrell in 1982, to Stravinsky’s 1965 Variations in Memory of Aldous Huxley—is like a speed-reading of Balanchine’s most precious ideas about dancemaking embodied in a single dancer: an amazing summary of choreographic motifs that one finds in other Balanchine-Stravinsky ballets, deployed in dizzying, and dazzling, succession, and without any transitions whatsoever. They go by so fast, in fact, that without pristine clarity of execution the whole thing can have the effect of an incomprehensible blur. Shannon Parsley, a company soloist, debriefed herself of them with admirable speed and assurance, smiling broadly as she did so, as, projected on a scrim behind her, the gigantic shadow of a second, uncredited dancer (Farrell herself, one fantasizes—inaccurately, I’m sure) went through most of the dance in synch. This was not the way it was staged in 1982, when it was given its première two weeks after the close of the Stravinsky Centennial Celebration, for whose opening Variations was intended: the addition of the magnified shadow is Farrell’s own contribution to the staging. It’s a brilliant one, too, for it calls attention to the fact that there is far more to the solo than the physical facts of the steps, gestures, and postures the onstage dancer executes: there is, embedded in them and haunting them, the vision of the dance that the choreographer had in making it—a vision to which Farrell, herself, was privy.

As Balanchine’s catalogue raisonné, Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works, notes, Balanchine had first used the Stravinsky music for another solo for Farrell in 1966, near the beginning of her career at NYCB, when that solo constituted the third section of a ballet called Variations, for each of whose sections the same Variations in Memory of Aldous Huxley was played, with completely different casting and choreography. (The first section was for an ensemble of 12 women, the second for an ensemble of six men.) The point, apparently, was to give the audience a chance to absorb music that didn’t embrace the listener on a first, or even a second hearing. Balanchine had taken a similar tack in 1954, when, under the title Opus 34, he presented two completely different ballets—one storyless and one a nightmare about a surgical procedure—to two successive performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment-Music for a Motion Picture, opus 34, from 1930. The storyless half was danced by Diana Adams, Patricia Wilde, Nicholas Magallanes, and Francisco Moncion; the nightmare was enacted by Tanaquil Le Clercq and Herbert Bliss.

The 1982 Variations, number 425 of the works listed in his catalogue raisonné, was the last choreography that Balanchine made. Considering that the work, then, is on the threshold of Balanchine’s entrance to immortality, that shadow—the ultimate abstraction of dancing, a monumental body without a particular human identity—may well be the closest that Farrell can get, given her resources, to showing us how Balanchine imagined dances: in the abstract, huge and looming in a mystic way, a product of light and organized sound that suggested a grandeur of ephemeral permanence no more paradoxical or obscure than the shadows of clouds or the ancient, trailing afterglow we call starlight. And then one dancer, in one performance, makes one facet “real,” for a time. Yet the depth of the ballets, or whatever aspect of them that makes them great, is not in their particular stage reality. It is in something; however, one probably would need a course in astrophysics—or metaphysics—to say more precisely what that “something” is.
—Mindy Aloff

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
11 October 2003
New Jersey Performing Arts Center

All choreography by George Balanchine
All costume designs by Holly Hynes
All lighting designs by J. Russell Sandifer

Divertimento No. 15
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Divertimento No. 15 in B-Flat major, K. 287)
Dancers: Momchil Mladenov, Alexander Ritter (Theme); Frances Katzen (First Variation); Bonnie Pickard (Second Variation); Cheryl Sladkin (Third Variation); April Ball (Fourth Variation), Runqiao Du (Fifth Variation); Shannon Parsley (Sixth Variation).
Gina Artese, Amy Brandt, Kristen Gallagher, Elisabeth Holowchuk, Katelyn Prominski, Lisa Reneau, Meaghan Spedden, Ilona Wall (Minuet).

Variations for Orchestra (1982)
Music by Igor Stravinsky (Variations in Memory of Aldous Huxley)
Dancer: Shannon Parsley

Music by Maurice Ravel
Dancers: Natalia Magnicaballi, Momchil Mladenov, Celeste Gucanac, Katelyn Prominski, Meaghan Spedden, Ilona Wall, Bill Biondolino, Benjamin Lester, Eric Ragan, Stephen Straub

Music by Igor Stravinsky
Dancers: Lisa Reneau (Leto, Apollo's Mother); Elisabeth Holowchuk, Lydia Walker (Handmaidens); Peter Boal (Apollo); Bonnie Pickard (Calliope, Muse of Poetry); Natalia Magnicaballi (Polyhemnia*, Muse of Mime); Jennifer Fournier (Terpsichore, Muse of Rhythm and Dance)
*N.B.: This spelling is from the program. The catalogue raisonne[accent aigu] for Balanchine uses the alternate spelling, Polyhymnia, for this character. Both are considered correct.

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

Copyright ©2003 by Mndy Aloff



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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).

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last updated on October 7, 2003