Moves With Mood: Suzanne Farrell's Beautiful Balanchine

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet may not boast the most accomplished dancers -- spotty abilities among the corps continue to plague the little troupe. But, under the sensible direction of the former New York City Ballet star, the company consistently nails something more elusive than ballet technique. It gets the tone right.

Each of the four works on Wednesday's opening program at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- George Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony" and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" and excerpts from his "Concierto de Mozart" and Maurice Bejart's "Romeo and Juliet" -- had its own particular spirit and atmosphere, always underscored with elegant style. Emotional subtleties were as well realized as the lighting and costumes. This is a ballet lover's ballet of the highest order.

A particular boon to followers of the art are Farrell's efforts to bring rarely performed works by Balanchine, her longtime mentor, back to the stage. The Adagio pas de deux from "Concierto de Mozart," which was the pearly centerpiece of Wednesday's program, is part of Farrell's Balanchine Preservation Initiative.

Balanchine's most famous Mozart ballet, "Divertimento No. 15," is also one of his most complex and luminous creations. "Concierto de Mozart" has none of that larger work's brilliant interweaving, but it exists in a similar serene and otherworldly realm.

He created "Concierto de Mozart" in 1942 for Argentina's Ballet of the Teatro Colon, using the composer's Violin Concerto No. 5. It is a quiet, deceptively simple work -- right down to the costumes' restful palette of pale blue and cream -- and that is probably why it has been only rarely performed. The contemplative, contented way two dancers -- Elisabeth Holowchuk and Momchil Mladenov -- stroll around the stage, hip to hip, recalls Balanchine's "Emeralds" section of "Jewels," as well as Paul Taylor's "Eventide," both of which use walking in descriptive ways.

"Concierto" is all the more potent for its quietness. With its steady cadence that bubbles up with surprises -- a high-sweeping leg, a gust of turns -- it focuses your ears intensely on the music. (The Opera House Orchestra turned in an especially fine performance.) Just as noteworthy was the indefinable mood between Holowchuk and Mladenov. They danced as if in tender conversation, deepening their connection through the steps; his eyes never left her, and she regarded him with shy reverence. At one point he gives her the ballet version of a piggyback ride, as she drapes herself over his back like a cape. (Just to show us there can be fun in paradise, too.)

The chemistry between the pair was key here. Mladenov is whisper-thin but grounded, with an air of solidity. Holowchuk, just 23 and a product of Farrell's annual summer training program at the Kennedy Center, dances with a contained coltishness. Her performance was remarkably full and unaffected for such a young dancer.

"Scotch Symphony" also succeeded on the strength of a soft-edged duet, with an ephemeral Bonnie Pickard seemingly just out of reach of Runqiao Du's fingertips. She took her time with every gesture; the way she carried her arms, especially, was all about weightless, silky continuity -- fitting in a role that distills Balanchine's fondness for the romantic-era ballet "La Sylphide." The corps, however, was a bit wan; the dancers sometimes lacked a defined presence. But Farrell has instilled in them a uniform way of moving: They danced at the music's urgings -- Felix Mendelssohn's symphony of the same name -- rather than relying on some counting scheme in their heads. (You can always sense that detachment in a dancer; it shows in the eyes.)

Two more physically free and witty works rounded out the program. Bejart's 1966 "Scene d'Amour" from his "Romeo and Juliet" (music by Berlioz) is more "West Side Story" than Shakespeare, with its frisky sweethearts in contemporary dress and the warring bands who crash their night of luv. Ashley Hubbard and Matthew Prescott seemed to relish the expressive, sometimes quirky use of the body. It is easy to see why Farrell, who danced in Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century for several years, was intrigued by his emphatically dramatic approach.

Of course, Balanchine had his own way with friskiness and drama, and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is a prime example. Lisa Reneau was the comely Strip Tease Girl whose heart of gold saves her beau, the Hoofer (Kurt Froman), from dying at the hands of a gangster (Bannon Puckett) who plunks himself down in the audience to take aim. Balanchine created "Slaughter" as part of the 1936 Richard Rodgers musical, "On Your Toes," and it bursts with the fascination of an emigre for his adopted home. Showgirls -- sexy but sweet. A cold-blooded thug who frets that he isn't dressed right for the theater. Amiable bartenders who'll sling your booze and take care of that inconvenient corpse, too. It's a toast to the bright lights and big city, and Farrell's dancers drank it up.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet program will be repeated tomorrow evening and Sunday afternoon. A second program will be performed tonight, tomorrow afternoon and Sunday evening.

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