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Suzanne Farrell Ballet

'Divertimento No. 15,' 'Variations for Orchestra,' 'Tzigane,' 'Apollo'

by Art Priromprintr

November 7, 2003 -- Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles

I saw Suzanne Farrell Ballet at UCLA on Friday as well – what a great company. I was mainly interested in seeing the Balanchine performances because I’ve personally never seen much Balanchine although I’ve heard a lot about it. You can’t start watching ballet and get into it without eventually hearing his name tossed around in the same sentence with the words “genius” or “legendary.”

Watching this company brought back into focus the idea that ballet isn’t all about circus-like feats of technical skill; there’s a lot more to it than girls hopping around on their toes in pink tutus. What more is there? Well, as the Balanchine repertory argues, it can bring out all that is breathtaking and emotional about classical music. Take piece that opened Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s program at UCLA, “Divertimento No. 15.” It’s set to music the orchestral suite of the same name by Mozart. Music that was never really intended to be used as a ballet, but as a pretty piece of concert music.

The choreography ingeniously captures the intricacy and details of the music, adding a visual and kinetic element to the already beautiful music. Balanchine ingeniously ties groups of dancers and their movements to layers within the music, and he plays games with the eye in the way he weaves the dancers around each other on the stage. So, as the dancers move around, it makes sense on a subconscious level: it's like their movement is being propelled by some kind of internal force. It can be thrilling, bringing out some kind of emotional response from the viewer. So not only are you getting some exquisite music, you’re getting something exquisite to look at.

Which brings me back to the company itself. Part of the draw of seeing this company is seeing them dance Balanchine ballets under the guidance of Farrell, who arguably knows more about those ballets than most anyone on the face of the planet. She, after all, played a huge part in the creation of many of them. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet came about in 1995 as a project of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The company’s principals are drawn from major companies in North America – New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada – and the lower ranks are filled with young dancers trained by Farrell in her summer intensives. It is thus a somewhat ragged collection of dancers from a huge variety of different backgrounds. In performance, they aren’t the most perfect company, and for the most part, there is no jaw-droppingly impressive technique. But really – who cares. The company has a stylishness, energy and vitality that I, in my few years of ballet-going, haven’t seen from the world’s best companies – even the mighty Kirov, who performed in Hollywood and Costa Mesa only two weeks ago.

Yes, I wrote that correctly: The three-year-old Suzanne Farrell Ballet danced with more style and vitality than the Kirov did – and that’s saying a lot considering the Kirov’s reputation as the end all be all of classical ballet. Comparing these two companies, the Kirov was a bit too perfect; everything was so well timed and immaculately formed that we missed out on each dancer's humanity. There’s a moment in “Divertimento No. 15” where the corps de ballet of women are just standing there along the side of the stage, in the background of the principal couple’s dancing, and all they are doing is waving their arms around in time to the second harmony in music.

Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s dancers waved their arms, however, like it was the only thing that mattered in the world - and it was the only thing that mattered in the world at that moment. There was energy and bounce in those simple movements, and in complementing the dancing of the principal couple, it added that much more to the choreography’s visualization of the music. As a point of contrast, there is a moment in “Jewels” – the Balanchine ballet that the Kirov danced in Costa Mesa – in which there is a whole bunch of similar arm movement on the sidelines (notably in the “Emeralds” and “Diamonds” movements). With the Kirov, the arm-waving was just there: functional, yes, but merely ornamental and comparatively lifeless. Simple moments such as arm movements end up making a big difference, as Farrell’s company demonstrates.

The best part of the program was “Apollo.” It brought into focus for me Balanchine’s genius – especially considering that it was the oldest work on the program. “Apollo” abstractly represents the Greek god Apollo and his relationship to the arts and the muses. So there’s not a very direct story line per se, but more an impression of things. The dancers are all still dancing on pointe and the technique is ballet, but they definitely do not look like they are dancing “Swan Lake” -- classically based, but not 19th century Petipa-ism. The results were fantastic. If the rest of Balanchine is anything like what I saw on Friday, it gives a reason for ballet to exist outside of its imperial and aristocratic origins – and especially beyond the confines of “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.”

Peter Boal, a principal with New York City Ballet, was awesome as the title character in “Apollo.” There was athletic strength tempered by classicism; that notion that ballet men prance around like fairies doesn’t coexist with Boal’s interpretation of Apollo. His three muses, Jennifer Fournier, Natalia Magnicaballi, and Chan Hon Goh – especially Chan Hon Goh – sparkled. They added much to the performance’s success on Friday.

The middle part of Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s program – “Variations for Orchestra” and “Tzigane” – was less interesting for me. “Variations for Orchestra” to music by Stravinsky struck me as peculiar and random. A dancer dances with what we think, initially, is her shadow – but it turns out to be another dancer’s shadow behind the curtain. It’s a short and puzzling piece that is pretty pointless, and the music is of the atonal and very, very contemporary kind. There wasn’t much to draw me in on that one, and by the time it started to even be going somewhere it was already over.

"Tzigane” to violin music of the same title by Ravel, was okay; I was more indifferent to this piece than averse to it. It’s more of an oddity than anything else, with gypsy-inspired movements and a lot of saucy stomping around from the dancers. Natalia Magnicaballi was intense and seductive in the lead role though, and that made it somewhat exciting. I was just more interested in “Divertimento No. 15” and “Apollo.”

More or less, I’m coming full circle watching this ballet. I started watching ballet probably the way most people do, with the story productions like “Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake.” More recently, I’m starting to figure out that there is way more to dance that is more interesting than another Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This fall alone has provided plenty of examples: George Piper Dances dancing William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet with Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” and now Farrell’s company in Balanchine classics. I like it. I want to see more.

Edited by Jeff.

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