Suzanne Farrell Ballet

'Divertimento No. 15,' 'Tempo di Valse' from 'Nutcracker,' 'Tschaikovsky Pas De Deux,' 'Serenade'

by Toba Singer

November 15, 2003 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is not yet a company; it is a company in embryo. Ms. Farrell has assembled some fine principals and soloists, who dance and partner, each according to his or her training and performance history, and then there is a corps de ballet, whose skill level is neither uniform, nor necessarily attentive to much more than mimicking the Balanchine “look,” which here reads as disembodied, the very opposite of the meaning of the word “corps.”

In “Divertimiento No. 15,” it looked as if the dancers hadn’t warmed up sufficiently before taking the stage. The allegro movement was performed nervously, with wobbly penchées from the women, and something short of working feet, or polished finishes from the male dancers, and related technique difficulties that seemed to issue from poor placement. Still, we had a nice first male solo. Perhaps the beginning choreography just isn’t very dancer-friendly, but as it became more executable, the dancers seemed to instantly show improved articulation and musicality. As the piece moved into “Theme and Variations,” where the costumes turned to simpler, (plain, unadorned lavender tutus) and the Mozart seemed less fussy as well, the dancers warmed up, seemed less nervous, and little raptures emerged. There were no head shot photos in the program, nor in the lobby, nor with a press handler on duty, and so I can only identify dancers I recognized, and take a few educated guesses at who some of the others might have been. The male duet by Ryan Kelly and Alexander Ritter looked clean and bright, with showy ronds de jambs en l’aire and reveltades finishing in strong, held positions.

As the piece proceeded, the partnering added lilt, with discernible accents and a certain charm that came from the chemistry between, for example, Jennifer Fournier and her partner, who I think was Momchil Mladenov. April Ball, who last danced with Boston Ballet, shone in her determined technique, strength and stylish artistry. The quality of the technique in the finale made it seem as though perhaps the earlier parts may have been under-rehearsed. Still, the overall 1960s “bandbox,” “Down with Love” veneer, with the women dancers looking like Farrell looked then, darkly doe-eyed and all in pink or some derivative color, gave it the ungainly retro vibe of cars and furniture reissues from that era that seem wholly inauthentic. It makes you flash on a bevy of School of American Ballet apprentices padding haltingly down Broadway, wearing that makeup and the requisite white textured hose and t-strap suede Capezio or Pappagallo shoes, topped by the pea-coats or dark capes that were the street clothes uniform of the period. It doesn’t work in this post-ingenue era.

In “Tempo di Valse” from “The Nutcracker,” to music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” the corps ladies’ costumes (pink and blue pastels with no adornments to suggest that those who wear them are flowers) are gathered at the skirt and make every single dancer look 15 pounds heavier than she is. There are too many dancers in billowy skirts on Zellerbach’s narrow stage. With angular arms that seem to dart out like electric eels in every direction, chests upturned toward some overhead gel, and hyperextended derrières dragged truculently behind them, something is always getting in the way of the line of the corps. Macy’s Basement at Christmas would appear to offer a more hospitable Christmas ambience than this scene. Still, Shannon Parsley gave us a warm, confident Sugar Plum Fairy, redolent of holiday hope and promise.

The “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” was danced magnificently by Chan Hon Goh and Peter Boal. These veteran principal dancers glistened. He’s airy, and a master of ballon, yet attentive to his stellar partner. She exhibits a pristine line, still maintaining a gentle, generous mien. Boal’s brisée volés are quick, yet airborne, a treat to behold. Goh gives us a women’s variation that is fluid, musically perfect, delivering sautés back on one foot that are technically and musically flawless, stepping adeptly on time into a whirl of seamless piqué turns. Boal’s two reveltades are exemplars, and when we’re done cheering those, we notice that we can’t take our eyes off of Goh’s wrists. She seems to conduct the music and her feet with her delicate hands. The “Tchai Pas” is a showcase piece for great technicians, and these two dancers meet the challenge, but their interpretation goes far beyond what’s required.

“Serenade” opens with the dancers standing in croisée, left arm extended, hand flexed upward, costumed in white tulle. A port de bras combination invites the audience into a moon world of stunning and yet hypnotic choreography. On the whole, this was danced well by the company, and certainly by principal dancers, Natalia Magnicaballi (whose last name is in complete concordance with her splendid dancing), Shannon Parsley, Bonnie Pickard, Runqiao Du and Alexander Ritter. The corps runs into some of the same problems that inhabited “Divertimento No. 15.” Everyone has different arms in the turns, most of them the foreshortened “Balanchine arms,” taken to excess. Some dancers who should have started their preparation in the wings, don’t get going until they were four counts onto the stage, and everyone is rushing so much that you’re tempted to ask “Where’s the fire?” and mean it in more ways than one. The rushers are usually rushing because they’re off the music and trying to catch up. If it’s your first “Serenade,” you probably don’t notice or care, because you are beguiled by the mood. If not, you might once again wonder about number of times rehearsed.

Ms. Farrell is going to be judged in ways that other artistic directors won’t be. Her company is only three years old. Though it is receiving much more money than most toddler-aged companies do, it is nonetheless still at the stage of imitating the company it aspires to be, but is not yet. I remember that when my son was two, he could swing a bat like a real champ. However, he could not yet hit most balls that came his way. Maybe this company is trying to walk before it crawls, and maybe having all that cash is forcing it into a level of expected artistry that is prematurely unrealistic. These are speculations, of course, but it seems that it has skipped something fundamental in its development, and unless it goes back and figures out what that is and captures it, it could lose its way. Right now, it is a showcase that buoyantly extends the careers of some very talented principals and soloists, but it needs a corps that is equal to the task of the corps de ballet’s singular mission: togetherness.

Edited by Jeff.

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