"Haieff Divertimento," "Diamonds Pas de Deux from Jewels," "Meditation," "Agon"
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 19, 2011
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2011 by Michael Popkin
No Balanchine muse is more renowned than Suzanne Farrell, as great a ballerina as America ever produced. Athough she retired from the stage in 1989, she's promised to deliver some of her old magic through the company she founded, and her first New York performances in over a decade have generated great anticipation and are selling out this week. But the magic wasn't there on opening night as her program of all Balanchine works (all to Russian music) proved stiff and lifeless. "Haieff Divertimento" and "Agon" did the most to justify the evening, "Divertimento" because it's a fine work and seldom seen; and "Agon" as the one piece that truly came alive. But in the middle of the program, "Diamonds Pas de Deux" and "Meditation" seemed more like objects in a museum than live dance and one left the theater questioning the rationale of Farrell's project as a whole. Is she a uniquely qualified caretaker of Balanchine's work, or coach able to stage her own roles or her master's ballets more effectively than anyone else? Balanchine - the man, the trademark and the logo - is virtually an industry these days, with lots of competition. Farrell's program answered neither of these questions satisfactorily.
It was good to see "Haieff Divertimento." It may be a lesser work, but often Balanchine's lesser works are greater than an average choreographer's masterpieces. The ballet dates from 1947, employs a pair of principals backed by a corps of four couples and has the intimacy of a chamber piece. Opening with the couples arranged on the stage in poses of deep reverence to their partners, it anticipates "Square Dance" (1957) in its tableaux and in the costumes (leotards for the men, loosely draped chiffon shifts for the women) used for the current New York City Ballet production, except that here the color scheme is pastel aquamarine, with the leads dressed a shade lighter than the corps. The music by Russian-American émigré composer Alexei Haieff is lyrical, with horn passages recalling Copland more than Stravinsky, to whom Haieff is usually compared. There's a haunting solo for the leading woman, originally danced by Mary Ellen Moylan and then Tanaquil Leclerq, that breathes their elegant, flowing lines; a brilliant introspective pas de deux for the main couple; and all is arranged around a series of entrances (solos and ensembles) for the rest of the cast that reminds you of "Danses Concertantes," the 1944 Balanchine ballet for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The effect of both is chic, sophisticated and inventive; it's Balanchine's early New York phase, the point when he's still innocently exploring the intersection between the academic dance tradition he grew up in and the culture of art deco, jazz age America that he had recently adopted.
"Haieff Divertimento" is well worth reviving, but against this one has to balance a performance by Farrell's company so stiff and careful as to make the ballet look more like something curated rather than danced, as if one was in the presence of an old Limoges porcelain plaque instead of at a live theatrical performance. Principal dancers Elizabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning could not really deliver the piece, you constantly imagined what it would look like on more capable dancers, and meanwhile the women struggled to maintain themselves on pointe in their poses, readjusting themselves nearly every time they came to rest. The men - Andrew Shore Kaminski, Ian Grosh, Ted Seymour and Oliver Swan-Jackson - were a stronger, more experienced group, and gave a much livelier account, physically alive and dancing big, but these are subsidiary roles that can't carry a performance.
The sense of dancers doing canned steps to canned music merely compromised "Divertimento." It sank the middle section of the program, although the idea of programming two pas de deux here before dancing "Agon" at the end of the evening was partly to blame. Presenting pas de deux in a ballet program as if they were independent works - even if they are in fact stand-alone pieces like "Meditation - risks an impression of stiffness or calculation. To succeed, such tidbits have to be danced with a star appeal missing from Violeta Angelova and Momchil Mladenov's "Diamonds" and Holowchuk and Michael Cook's "Meditation." Casting Holowchuk in the latter ballet, a role most associated with Farrell herself (it's the first ballet Balanchine made on her and every extension and singing line in the piece is a portrait of her physical genius in her youth) was a particular mistake; Holowchuk has her virtues (which she showed in "Agon") but is about as unlike Farrell as a woman can be.
Happily "Agon" came alive unexpectedly after the evening's second intermission. The same dancers were employed to similar recorded music. But Holowchuk, dancing the pas de deux with Mladenov, displayed a gravity and ability to draw you into her private, meditative world that was in startling contast to "Meditation." The two pas de trois were also strongly danced, with Cook making an impression in the Sarabande and Angelova at least credible, if still physically slight, in the second, "castanet" variation. Amy Brandt and Lauren Stewart danced a superb Gaillard and Kaminsky and Grosh again impressed. What was the difference, why did "Agon" suddenly come to life after being preceded by an hour and a half of moribund dancing? It's anybody's guess and one hopes Farrell can supply - and harness - the answer for the remainder of the week's run.
Photos courtesy of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the Joyce Theater:
Top - Elizabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning in "Haieff Divertimento" by Carol Pratt
Bottom - Ian Grosh, Andrew Shore Kaminski and Elizabeth Holowchuk, in "Agon" by Paul Kolnik