Suzanne Farrell Ballet: Big dreams, small scale

October 13, 2011

When Suzanne Farrell arrived in Washington a decade ago to launch a ballet troupe at the Kennedy Center, it was as momentous for the arts as when basketball great Michael Jordan moved here to run the Wizards. The greatest ballerina this country has produced had always been a follower — in her nearly 30 years of dancing with the New York City Ballet she had done what she was told. Now she was moving into a new sphere as a leader.

Farrell’s company — or more accurately, her pickup group of dancers with whom she works for a few weeks a year — grew out of the passions of former World Bank president James Wolfensohn. He had admired Farrell’s thrilling risk-taking as a dancer when he was an investment banker in New York in the 1970s and ’80s. All of her group’s expenses — salaries, rehearsal time, live orchestra, costumes, marketing, you name it — are paid by the Kennedy Center, which has maintained an interest in Farrell since Wolfensohn was its board chairman.

Has the investment paid off? Yes and no. During Wednesday’s opening-night program in the Eisenhower Theater of the group’s 10th-anniversary engagement, Farrell’s risk-taking and leadership were as impressive as ever. Companies the world over dance the same well-known George Balanchine works that the Farrell Ballet performed — “Serenade,” “Concerto Barocco” and the “Diamonds” section of the full-length “Jewels” — but Farrell’s staging put them in a new light.

The risk was in attempting greatness with mostly young, untested dancers, and getting them up to scratch in a short time. As clear and musically satisfying as the evening was, it was not without faults. Most cohesive was “Diamonds,” with Farrell’s group augmented by dancers from the Sarasota Ballet, and luminous performances by Heather Ogden, from the National Ballet of Canada, and Michael Cook, out of Ballet Arizona. Under J. Russell Sandifer’s pearly lighting, Ogden was all spiraling shapes and perpetual motion, maintaining only the most fragile and intriguingly remote rapport with Cook, who was in her thrall.

It is difficult to mar “Serenade” — one of Balanchine’s most beautiful, transporting and deeply mysterious works — but perhaps equally difficult to reveal something new about what probably is his most popular piece. Farrell’s company did both. There were ragged edges in the corps de ballet, and not all the dancers seemed to inhabit the same world. The sensual-romantic tension, so critical to Balanchine’s art, evaporated now and again. But there was also a rare unity with the music — and in that moment when Elisabeth Holowchuk and Momchil Mladenov locked eyes just before she arced back like a waterfall in his arms, there emerged a touch of drama I’d never seen before.

“Concerto Barocco” was less well-served, though here again, the dancers’ musical response was the chief pleasure. Yet, as in “Serenade,” the necessary details of a top-quality performance — beautifully formed feet, arms in alignment throughout the ensemble — were often lacking. Overall, the Farrell Ballet is still stamped with that trying-so-hard, winsome but decidedly “regional” look that it possessed at the outset a decade ago.

Hopes were high when Farrell began her venture here. Audiences and critics alike were anticipating a new locus of Balanchine’s legacy, and were eager to watch an exciting new company develop — one with the potential to become one of the most important artistic organizations in the nation. With her abundant and proven talents, Farrell deserves no less. But in 10 years her troupe has scarcely improved beyond its beginnings, and without the means to work with dancers year-round, she simply can’t achieve much more than we’re seeing now, even given another 10 years. The questions now are: Could Farrell’s talents be better used? And could the center’s money be better spent?

kaufmans@washpost.com

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

At the Kennedy Center through Sunday. Tickets are $29 to $84. For more information and to buy tickets, visit kennedycenter.org.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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