The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Liebeslieder Walzer, Ragtime and Episodes
October 9, 2008 and
The Balanchine Couple
October 10, 2008
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2008 by Alexandra Tomalonis
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet's short Kennedy Center seasons always show how sophisticated and pleasurable ballet can be. This year, the first program (which I caught at its second outing) paired two of George Balanchine's most astonishing ballets — the sumptuous Liebeslieder Walzer, set to the Brahms waltz cycles of the same name, and the astringent Episodes, set to the music of Anton Webern — and the second presented nine excerpted pas de deux that showed his range. (Ragtime, a pleasant bagatelle to Stravinsky, shared the bill with Liebeslieder and Episodes.)
Both Liebeslieder and Episodes were considered avant-garde at their premieres, and while it's still clear why Episodes, with its relentlessly exposed bodies and unsentimental manipulations, raised the hairs on the backs of necks (and some hackles) in 1960, Liebeslieder, a ballet of atmosphere that's totally devoid of technical tricks, seems at once old-fashioned and forward looking. It is hard to imagine a work more totally out of sync with today's media-conscious, pop-culture driven society than Liebeslieder, which lets us peek at a world in which the line between public and private was as stark as the divide in the ballet between the first half, with the women in ball gowns and heeled shoes, and the second, where they return to dance out their dreams in pointe shoes and Romantic-esque tutus.
Nothing is private now, and the time when married couples could blatantly flirt at a party because it was absolutely safe to do so is long gone. No one took the flirtations seriously, because, even if they were so intended, divorce was practically impossible. Parties, and waltzing, was the release in a closed world. They were like mini-Beltane Fires, where such flirtations would burn out — must burn out — at the end of the evening. How do today's dancers, who live in a world where diaries are printed on the front pages of newspapers, people rush to make public confessions, and cameras follow celebrities from party to party, hoping to catch something that will be shocking enough to bring in money, cope with a ballet that contrasts public and private worlds?
That such a ballet can hold the stage for nearly an hour is testament enough to its strength. The work is constructed of steel-reinforced whalebone, the four couples swirling in simple patterns that change constantly, broken by pas de deux or pas de trois that flow out of the music as seamlessly as dreams. The four couples (Natalia Magnicaballi with Matthew Prescott, Bonnie Pickard with Michael Cook, Erin Mahoney-Du with Momchil Mladenow, and Ashley Hubbard with Runqiao Du) danced with conviction, but, as yet, at least, hesitant imaginations. None of these dancers have particularly strong stage personalities and the waltzers were not individualized: just eight nice young people at a cotillion.
This was the first time Liebeslieder has been danced here. It was scheduled years ago, when Balanchine was still alive, but he pulled it, supposedly because of problems with the music. The work requires four singers (Melissa Coombs, Shelley Waite, Thomas Poole and Tad Czyzewsi) and two pianists (Ron J. Mason and Glenn Sales). The pianists were to the side of the stage, the four singers in front of them, with their backs to the piano, singing to the audience rather than the dancers, which disturbed the illusion that we were in someone's parlor. Like the dancing, the singing was able, but a bit thin. The company showed the work clearly, though, and that is no small achievement.
Episodes has been picked nearly dry by its imitators, but it doesn't take too much imagination to picture how revolutionary the ballet would have seemed in 1959. It was Balanchine's contribution to the famous collaboration between New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company, for which Graham made a programmatic work about Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, and Balanchine dissected a piece of difficult music, deconstructed it before deconstructionism was cool, and sweetly reassembled it in the final Ricercata (which looks and sounds demurely neoclassical today). Episodes is the work that made Balanchine his era's great Modernist. An aesthetic changed (expressionism ended and abstractionism began, something that was commented upon by several reviewers at the time). The ballet still works today. Here the company (in a very different collaboration: members of Ballet Austin danced with the Farrell troupe) looked cool, and in command, and fiercely committed, and the work was so beautifully rehearsed that its clarity burned.
The second evening, the night of pas de deux, was not quite as successful. One isn't accustomed to seeing the pas de deux from works like Apollo or La Sonnambula, or even Diamonds, standing on their own, and you would need very experienced stars (with an audience remembering them in their great roles) to pull off such a night of programs. The nine excerpts, including La Valse, Meditation and Agon, certainly showed Balanchine's extraordinary range, but some of the dancers were not quite up to their tasks, and some seemed miscast. This is one of the mysteries of Farrell as a director. Give her a gifted dancer, and she will work magic. She's a gifted regisseur as well as ballet master. One may quibble over whether her stagings are choreographically accurate (and some do) but what she puts on stage is solid; you can see the ballet. Nothing is more important to preserving work than that. But to bring the audience along, and especially to let newcomers FEEL the works' power as well as see it, putting the right dancer in the role is just as important. Some of Farrell's casting was dead on — Kirk Henning as the Poet in La Sonnambula, for example — but some of the casting seemed governed by alphabetical order, or an attempt to give everyone something to do (which is not the same thing as trying out a dancer for which s/he MAY be suitable).
Of the nine works, La Sonnambula (with Henning and Bonnie Pickard, as the Sleepwalker) and "The Unanswered Question" from Ivesiana (Elisabeth Holowchu, ever out of reach to the questing Michael Cook), were the most fuly realizedl. In Diamonds, Natalia Magnicaballi (with Mladenow) danced beautifully, but is so light that both the coloration and the character of the piece was diminished. Bonnie Pickard seemed off in the Liberty Bell pas de deux from Stars and Stripes. Her partner, Michael Cook, is a spirited dancer, but he simply doesn't have the legs for this vein of Balanchine, which is something that could be said of several of the company's men in the past few years. Farrell is working on a shoestring and against calendar and budgetary constraints that would fell a lesser woman. Her goals are ambitious — and they need to be. If she wants to preserve Balanchine's works, and their spirit, she needs to be able to work at the highest level. It's difficult to do that in only a few weeks a year.
Photos, all by Carol Pratt:
Elisabeth Holowchuk in Ragtime.
Bonnie Pickard and Michael Cook in Liebeslieder Walzer.
Bonnie Pickard and Kirk Henning in Episodes.
Bonnie Pickard and Kirk Henning in the pas de deux from La Sonnambula.
Natalia Magnicaballi and Momchil Mladenow in the pas de deux from Diamonds.