"Bugaku," "Pas Classique Espagnol," and "Chaconne"
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
November 20, 2007
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2007 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Watching George Balanchine's "Bugaku," created more than 40 years ago (1963), one sees not only an exquisite evocation of Toshiro Maysuzumi's spare, serene score, but, especially in the central pas de deux, every step and pose that today's young choreographers use — and overuse — and that are applauded as contemporary inventions. It's all there: the turned-in steps; the limp, squiggly twitches of the leg; the splayed crotch; the coital imagery; and — the most treasured and daring of all — a woman, on point, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s, planting her other leg on her partner's shoulder and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s some more. The difference, of course, is that Balanchine wasn't trying to be novel for the sake of being novel, but to adapt ballet's vocabulary in a way that matched the music.
If "Bugaku" could be a primer for post-post-balletmodern, it's also (more importantly) a fascinating evocation of ritual and ceremony. The first two sections are reminiscent of Nijinska's "Les Noces" in their formality: first, the ballerina and her four ladies-in-waiting enter and dance what could be a benediction of the bride; they exit, and the bridegroom and his four male attendants enter and perform a militaristic dance. Unlike Nijinska's ceremonly, though, this isn't a peasant wedding. The bride is an aristocrat and the groom is a warrior, and what they're dancing is a modern version of a court ballet. The women re-enter, and the bride and groom are undressed; they're left alone to perform a ritualistic pas de deux before the attendants return. It's all very formal, which makes the eroticism of the pas de deux all the more daring — like a lily blooming into an orchid, then becoming a lily again.
Farrell's staging shows the ballet with a beautiful, soft clarity; all its eccentricities are presented without being overly vulgar. The woman's feet sometimes turn in because Japanese women turn in, for modesty; the shivering limbs match the same effect in the music. Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook danced the roles created by Allegra Kent and Edward Villella. Magnicaballi, a very strong dancer who's all long legs and arms, seems born to be twisted into ungainly positions and make them look beautiful. Cook was a strong partner, the legs always grounded, pressing into the earth.
"Bugaku" was a company premiere, as was the "Pas Classique Espagnol," a divertissement for a leading couple and 12 women from Balanchine's "Don Quixote" (although the company omitted it when presenting that evening-length work last season). As this was a first performance, allowances might be made for the over-careful dancing, but the ballet hadn't yet jelled. The leading dancers (Ashley Hubbard and Momchil Mladenov) made a case for the ballet whenever they took the stage, but the extended corps sections were not particularly interesting. Mladenov is a terrific character dancer, with a commanding stage presence and 1,000 watts of panache, and Hubbard was the news of the evening. She began dancing — again, rather carefully — a la Farrell, with off-center balances taken religiously; one could almost see Farrell the Coach showing her the steps. About halfway through the ballet, she took a bad spill, got up, and danced like a demon.
The opening night program ended with 'Chaconne," that most heavenly of ballets, made for Farrell and Peter Martins, and danced here by this company very beautifully by Chan-Han Goh and Peter Boal in the not too distant past. Here, the company's Achilles heel — the lack of star dancers — was most obvious. Farrell presents a truncated "Chaconne" that looks based on the "Dance in America" version. A pas de deux and a pas de trois, as well as some corps segments, are cut, and so the focus is even more on the two leading dancers. Bonnie Pickard is a very good dancer, and there were some beautiful things in her performance, especially the pirouettes, which seemed spun out of glass, but her dancing is so imitative of Farrell's that watching her is like watching a mini-Farrell, but without the starpower. Rungiao Du (long-time principal with the Washington Ballet) is also a very good dancer, with a warm stage persona, but he doesn't have the "speedy leg" Balanchine once complained that most male dancers lack, and in a role built on beats — and on long legs that were powerful as well as speedy — this matters if the ballet is to be seen clearly.
Members of the Cincinnati Ballet joined the corps in and two CB principals (Kristi Capps and Anthony Krutzkamp) danced the leading roles November 21 and 25; I was sorry to have missed their performances.