Those who are old enough to have seen her may remember a slender, blonde wisp of a girl with a beautiful smile and lightening bolts in her toe shoes. Suzanne Farrell, for 25 years something of an icon in the world of dance, hung up those shoes in 1989 and moved on.
Characterized as a Balanchine “muse” ad nauseum, she has nevertheless happily accepted the label and devoted her subsequent career to staging the works of her late mentor (and lover), George Balanchine, for dance companies around the world as one of a handful of repetiteurs approved by the Balanchine Trust. Three years ago, she went into business for herself.
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, resident at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, made its first visit to the West Coast this week on a current national tour. From the way things looked Friday night at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, the legacy is in good hands. Farrell’s company of 34 dancers, many of them with the company since its inception, several of them principals of other prestigious dance troupes, did Mr. B’s ballets proud. And, if there was a certain repetition to the choreography – as well as the music, which was three-quarters Tchaikovsky, you often do get what you pay for. The Berkeley opening was a red-letter event for Farrell in a way that went far beyond the enthusiastic audience applause. Two days earlier it was announced that she was one of the recipients of the coveted National Medal of Arts awards for 2003.
The program opened with Balanchine’s 1956 Divertimento No. 15, set to the Mozart work of the same name (K. 287). This was an exercise in not judging a book by its cover. It began inauspiciously, to say the least, with three men partnering a gaggle of girls in pink tutus, twirling like so many figurines atop a music box. All very pretty but decidedly lacking in edge. The choreography becomes more interesting after this full-company Allegro. Two men (Momchil Mladenov and Alexander Ritter) state the theme, ushering in a series of six solo variations, each wholly original in a way that made the music seem visible. Outstanding among these were Frances Katzen’s first variation and the fifth, performed by danseur Runquiao Du. After a brief minuet by those tutu girls again, we segue into the Andante, which becomes a kind of pas de six, with three couples taking turns in a melting and ultimately mesmerizing duet. The ballet concluded with a sprightly finale that had the company skipping and hopping like kids at play.
Tempo di Valse (1954) is done to the "Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker and those familiar Tchaikovsky strains are a reminder that the season of grumbling Scrooges and dancing dolls is nearly upon us. The music, however, is just about all this ballet has in common with the ubiquitous holiday classic. It’s really about time, as the title suggests, with the corps in diaphanous pink (again) interacting with three soloists, Bonnie Pickard in white and Katzen and Cheryl Sladkin in blue, in circle dances and joyous jetes. It was a thing of gossamer beauty.
It was worth the ticket just to see Jennifer Fournier and Peter Boal in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, the brief piece that followed. Fournier is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada and Boal is a principal with New York City Ballet. Both are in their third season of collaboration with the Farrell troupe. Boal was dazzling in his effortless elevation and electrifying entrechats. Fournier was his match with quicksilver footwork and dizzying turns. If the audience needed a shot in the arm after all that pink prettiness, this was it.
But the best was saved for the last. After a full feast of Balanchine, there could be no better dessert than the 1934 Serenade to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. This superb ballet certainly doesn’t show its age and one can only wonder how it struck audiences almost 70 years ago. The curtain rises on a darkened stage with the corps in filmy white that turns out to be pale blue when the lights come up. These are no swans or sylphs, however. The movement is vaguely elegiac and the arms extremely evident, sometimes the only thing moving. Groups form and re-form with one or two dancers breaking away in interesting patterns. Eventually, a hint of a plot is thrown out as a couple (Chan Hon Goh and Natalia Magnicaballi) dance a love duet. Then there is mystery. He leaves and she falls in a faint and unbinds her long hair. He returns, his eyes covered by another woman in unbound hair and eventually they are joined by a third. He partners them all, as if trying to choose between them and then is escorted, sightless, out again. His first love grieves and is borne off the stage by some men. Did she die or was she abandoned? Is it a re-telling of the Orpheus legend? It matters little. The dancing was all.