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Suzanne Farrell Ballet

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

by Jeff Kuo

November 8, 2003 -- Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles

Even its name “The Suzanne Farrell Ballet” might give one pause. Many – if not most – dance companies are named either for a place or for a theater (e.g. “San Francisco Ballet,” “Paris Opera Ballet,” etc) or for a choreographer-director whose artistic vision they serve (e.g. Joffrey Ballet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, etc). Suzanne Farrell is neither place nor choreographer. She was Balanchine’s Muse.

“Divertimento No. 15” (Mozart/Balanchine)

Local ballet goers recently reeling from hammer blows of balletic pyrotechnics, ballerina glam, and Big Ballet with capital “Bs” must find the quiet and restraint of “Divertimento No. 15” a positive relief. This ballet, Mozartean in its equipoise and proportion, finds the dancers in charming rosey hued tutus for the women and cavalier tunics for the men. The exquisite ensemble dances give us a world where grace is, like manners, a given. Somerset Maugham had said that money is like the sixth sense without which you cannot make full use of the other five. “Divertimento’s” beauty is like that sixth sense.

You can sense that “Divertimento” was meant for the smaller stage of the City Center, where it was premiered, rather than the larger stage of the State Theater. On Saturday, it looked just a tad mismatched to the Royce Hall stage. With its virtue of Apollonian restraint it's hard for me not to compare it to Balanchine’s little “Tombeau de Couperin” rather than its sister Mozartean work “Mozartiana.” But even then “Tombeau” isn’t quite right.

“Tombeau” eschews soloists – “Divertimento” glories in them. None for “Tombeau” – eight for “Divertimento.” Yet “Divert’s” beauty is the kind that would be as out of place in the long, high halls of Versailles as at St. Gervais. As did Mozart, Balanchine endowed “Divert” with no lack of invention, no end to its requirements, beauty most of all. I’ll paraphrase John Martin on this ballet – it must be danced beautifully if it is to be danced at all. And it was. In the “Theme and Variations” movement, wonders flash before us and are gone. I especially liked Cheryl Sladkins’ sauciness in the 3rd variation and Jennifer Fournier’s blazing hot pointe-work in the 6th.

Yet for all its technical delights, my favorite moment is at the end of the “Andante” movement. After an entire movement of pas de deuxs of repressed eroticism, the women and the men form in opposing diagonals and after a pause bow to each other. It is a moment of pure grace.

The “Theme and Variations” soloists were as follows: “Theme” Benjamin Lester and Alexander Ritter, 1st var. Frances Katzen, 2nd var. Bonnie Pickard, 3rd var. Cheryl Sladkin, 4th var. April Ball, 5th Momchil Mladenov, and 6th var. Jennifer Fournier.

“Variations for Orchestra” (Stravinsky/Balanchine/) and “Tzigane” (Ravel/Balanchine)

“Variations for Orchestra” came after the intermission. To Stravinsky’s serial score of the same name, a saucy and sassy girl with a pony tail and costumed in a short red dress is alternately playful, prancy, and pensive. Projected behind this Modern Girl is her “shadow” which becomes more independent as the dance proceeds until her solo bow at the end. Shannon Parsley was the "Girl We Could See."

“Tzigane” and its sultry violin solo reeking of gypsy atmosphere and allure brought us the stunning Natalia Magnicaballi in the first role Balanchine created on Suzanne Farrell after her return to New York City Ballet in the '70s. As others have noted, Balanchine, who almost exclusively costumed Farrell in white, gave the audiences a new Farrell in “Tzigane” – married, independent and unattainable – in gypsy red and black. To feel the heat of this probably not-very-politically-correct emblem of exotica and desire is perhaps to understand the impact Fanny Elssler’s “Cachuca” had upon the Parisian balletomanes of 1840s Paris.

After Magnicaballi’s gypsy solo, full of smoldering come hither looks guaranteed to scorch the ecclesiastical hems off of Archdeacon Frollo’s cassock, came Runqiao Du and a corps of eight dancers who had the unenviable task of being coda to Magnicaballi’s opus.

“Apollo” (Stravinsky/Balanchine)

No doubt it merely underlines the still ‘unwashed’ state of my ballet tastes but I found “Apollo” looking dated. As Art was saying, to understand ballet is to understand “Apollo's" canonical status and the ways in which Balanchine recapitulated and transformed the academic heritage. In an artistic tradition as old as ballet itself, Balanchine uses the archetypal narratives of classical civilization as his point of departure.

The ballet begins with Leto’s chaste birth of Apollo, a scene later cut by Balanchine but now restored by Farrell. The young god is tended by muses who enculturate him with the gift of the lyre. At the ballet’s core are the variations of the three Muses, Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore and Apollo’s selection of the Muse of dance as his chosen, Balanchine's re-working of the Judgment of Paris. The ballet ends with Apollo leading the Muses up a staircase towards – what … Mount Olympus? … glories to come … a future ennobled by the civilizing arts …?

It’s no longer possible to feel the boldness of its 1928 premiere – the flexed feet, jazzy swings of the butt, the unusual one on three partnering combination; but the symbolism of its key images retains a clarity undiminished by time or repetition – Apollo’s yoking of the three Muses, the ‘troika’ pose of Apollo and his lyre supporting the Muses in arabesque penchee, the ‘sunburst’ silhouette, etc.

The very concept of Musedom itself suggests a certain quaintness. In the contemporary world its hardly possible to use the term “Muse” without a smirk. In the modern world conscious of the discourse gender, art, and power, others have discussed the fortunes of musedom so I won’t belabor the point. In her book, The Lives of the Muses, Francine Prose writes:

Almost no one refers without irony to a living muse except in the world of ballet, with its language, its costumes, its heightened atmosphere so much closer to, and evocative of, an earlier, romantic era.”

She quotes dance critic Arlene Croce from the 90s:

“Muses are passive, therefore passé.”

“The Muse is only a man speaking through a woman, not the woman herself.”

Doubtless, Balanchine and Farrell would disagree, and the Apollonian clarity of the Muses’ variations would be the grounds of their counterargument. The world does seem more civilized when Jennifer Fournier’s Calliope and Natalia Magnicaballi’s (unrecognizable as the priest de-frocking Gypsy girl) Polyhymnia dance. But it is Chan Han Goh’s Terpsichore that is the audience favorite as well as Apollo’s. There is a controlled passion and a mystery.

Peter Boal’s Apollo is certainly noble and restrained but his Apollo never seemed to grow through the work. His too self conscious Apollo reminds me of something Croce (or was it Denby?) wrote – that Balanchine choreographed “Apollo” during the physical fitness craze of '20s and that the original Apollo, Serge Lifar, projected the image of boisterous and handsome youth recently tamed. Saturday, it was as if Boal’s Apollo was born fully mature and only needed a little feminine coaching to reach deityhood.

Final comment: to my eyes, the ballet’s belief in the civilizing mission of art seems somehow … anachronistic. The (post)modern world comes after an older world debunked of moral illusion – a world of weapons of mass destruction; a world of kill ratios, Agent Orange, Sarin, and VX; a world where the image is not unthinkable of SS commandants as familiar with Beethoven late quartets as with Zyklon B.

Instead of Apollo and the Muses, during the Kirov’s recent apperance we saw an alternative master trope for the balletic art: the ballet “Scheherazade” (Rimsky-Korsakoff/Fokine).

Though named after her, Scheherazade never appears in the ballet. Her role is more important. In the “Thousand and One Nights,” Scheherazade is the latest bride of Shah Shahryar who executes his wives after their wedding night. Sheherazade tells a tale each night to captivate her husband and persuade him to prolong her life for yet another night, for just one tale more – tales of love, betrayal, passion – tales of excess, irony, and fate.

Isn’t there a sense that each night the ballet – its companies, dancers, choreographers – are also spinning stories in exchange for their lives? In a sense, isn’t each night at the ballet another one of the “Thousand and One Nights”?

Ah, if only there could have been live music…

Edited by Holly Messitt.

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