The recent Kennedy Center engagement of the newly fledged Suzanne Farrell Ballet raised an old question. Given the nasty fact that Farrell remains in seemingly permanent exile from the New York City Ballet, where she was once Balanchine’s reigning muse, how can her unparalleled gift for keeping the master’s choreography alive best be implemented?
After the ballerina’s retirement from the stage in 1989, her career logically took the form of a series of teaching, coaching, and staging assignments. Her results were gloriously evident in last year’s Balanchine Celebration, another Kennedy Center project. Farrell’s productions – Divertimento No. 15 for the pickup group she’d formed (and transformed) from a motley crew of veteran dancers and neophytes, Agon for the Miami City Ballet, and Mozartiana for members of the Bolshoi Ballet – were inarguably the most wonderful entries in a distinguished showing that suggested Balanchine’s oeuvre had prospects independent of the NYCB’s haphazard custodianship.
At that moment, Farrell’s ad hoc group officially declared itself a company. This season, it advanced its ambitions by presenting a repertory of seven Balanchine works, leavened by one of Jerome Robbins’s, in an eleven-day run. Despite heartening moments of clarity and radiance, the performances were, overall, disappointing. Perhaps the letdown was inevitable, since this is a company in name only. Apart from the Kennedy Center association, it has little of the support, essential to the presentation of classical ballet, that a sound institutional structure can provide. Farrell’s troupe is more like a dream than like an organization.
The group must manage with a constricted rehearsal period – this time, under a month for those eight ballets, each a touchstone work – and it has no assurance of continuity, let alone a solidly planned future. It comes together, inevitably with many a change of face, only to prepare for a specific gig; the rest of the time, the dancers are busy earning their living elsewhere – with other companies or as itinerant performers. It has no depth or richness of personnel. The leading roles were shared out among four women and two men, all overtaxed; the rest of the two-dozen-member roster is corps de ballet. Worse, the group harbors no truly significant talents at either level. While Farrell works miracles in the silk-purses department, there is a natural limit to what she and her protégés can achieve, despite everyone’s evident devotion. It’s impossible for Farrell to endow any dancer with the extraordinary qualities she revealed in her stage career – the physical capacity to develop a phenomenal technique (and to imprint it with a unique personality) and the intangible faculties that mark supreme performing artists, such as imagination and passionate abandon.
The positive side of this undertaking? Despite their limitations, the SFB stagings let you see Balanchine’s choreography projected cleanly and spaciously, with music as the motor. In their finest moments, which are admittedly erratic, they achieve tenderness without succumbing to sentiment, style without degenerating into affectation. It’s telling, though, that in a repertory encompassing works as significant and diverse as Apollo, Scotch Symphony, Duo Concertant, and La Sonnambula, the only fully satisfying production was that of Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, a breathtakingly brief affair, lovely and selfless, emphasizing group configurations. It’s a design for generic dancers, showing the purity of their training and the purity of their purpose without posing the thorny challenges of mature artistry or stardom. It’s a mirror, too, of the aspect of Farrell that is all innocence.
Dance Theatre of Harlem just played two weeks at the City Center with the dancers looking swell and the repertory leaving much to be desired. The company breeds performers distinctive for their grace of both body and spirit. Physically, they are exceptionally handsome, and they display a pride and joy in their beauty that has nothing to do with narcissism and everything to do with the celebration of life. Technically, flaws remain – most noticeably a stiffness in the feet that compromises the men’s jumps and the women’s pointe work. Yet when a step or phrase is rendered awkwardly, it’s usually evident that the dancer has the right idea about it, that his overall training is on the right, classical track.
These are not haughty artists; they dance to engage and please their audience, but without tarted-up charisma. In abstract roles, they present themselves in a modest, friendly manner, the men, in their cavalier assignments, combining the required aristocratic elegance with a gentle sweetness. They tackle dramatic roles, no matter how unbelievable, with a conviction lost to most people once the make-believe games of their childhood are past. Dancers like these deserve finer material. Indeed, they need it, desperately, if they’re to realize their potential.
The repertory for the recent season comprised only second- (and third-) rate works, along with several that should have been given the coup de grâce at their dress rehearsal. The opening-night program, with four brand-new ballets, reproduced this situation in miniature. Laveen Naidu contributed a vapid rote exercise in neoclassicism to lovely music by Ernest Bloch, Lowell Smith succumbed to Khachaturian’s Spartacus score and produced a wannabe Soviet-style duet, and Augustus van Heerden concocted a Spanish melodrama that was more lurid pantomime than dance. The best item in this sorry lot was Robert Garland’s New Bach, which gently ridiculed the myth that blacks have an affinity with jazz that prevents them from succeeding in classical realms. The absence from the current repertory of choreography by Balanchine, the mentor of DTH’s heroic founder and leader, Arthur Mitchell, is either inexplicable or shameful. I’m trying to find out which.