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Balanchine's Lady Madonna
Farrell Ballet Keeps 'Mozartiana' Aglow

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

You left the Suzanne Farrell Ballet performances over the weekend humming Richard Rodgers's slinky jazz tune from George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," but that was only the last of a raft of attention-grabbing musical choices. An extra dividend from the company's enlightening second program of its five-day run at the Kennedy Center Opera House was the engaging musical variety, including Glinka's "Divertimento Brillante," which accompanied a short work of the same name.

This piece, a pas de deux from a larger ballet Balanchine called "Glinkiana" (reflecting his fondness for the Russian composer), is part of Farrell's Balanchine Preservation Initiative, an effort to revive rarely performed works by the choreographer for whom she was an enduring inspiration at the New York City Ballet. The "Divertimento Brillante" section, created for City Ballet luminaries Patricia McBride and Edward Villella in 1955, is a modest showpiece of technical finesse, the kind of merry, winning bauble Balanchine could toss off in his sleep. It might dazzle in the proper setting, but on Saturday afternoon most of the sparkle was supplied by Shannon Parsley's tiara. One searched in vain for such brilliance in the dancing.

Parsley's chief assets are her natural charm and gaiety, but her fetching emerald tutu showed off underpowered legs. Momchil Mladenov, a regal presence, made a stronger impression as her partner than in his solo variation.

Glinka's music, however, got the balance right -- warmth, drive and complexity in equal measure. Based on themes from Bellini's opera "La Sonnambula" (a work that inspired another Balanchine ballet), it is a jolly, agile score, filled with color, and was handily anchored by solo pianist Glenn Sales.

If you didn't fall in love with the dancing, the music worked its own enchantment.

"Mozartiana" was a more complete performance, with Tchaikovsky's reverence for Mozart (in his Fourth Suite for Orchestra) matched by Balanchine's for Farrell. As a tribute to her, in 1981 Balanchine revised the ballet that he had first created in 1933. What's remarkable in this work is how the choreographer continued to innovate up to the end of his career (he died two years after completing "Mozartiana"). He offers us the restorative image first -- in the opening "Preghiera" section, the ballerina is as steady and quietly luminous as candle glow, a serene Madonna sustaining four little girls who gather round her like devotional moths.

After this understated but emotionally charged opening, the stage is cleared for four women who dance a stately "Menuet," as if they are the grown-up versions of the girls and have matured in confidence under the leading ballerina's tutelage. In this way, we see her effect on others before even getting to know her. It's a strikingly indirect way of showcasing a star. Balanchine allows the audience to take its time in appreciating her, from a refracted and even spiritual vantage point, rather than wowing us with her physical strengths from the start.

Those strengths were revealed soon enough. Bonnie Pickard, an especially mindful dancer, interpreted the Farrell role with the meticulous attention to detail she displayed in last week's opening program. Her footwork was bright, the carriage of her arms natural but well defined, and her turns -- a central motif so crucial to the ballet's ethereal and consoling air -- betrayed no more effort than fluff sailing on a breeze. She could unspool a series of turns with rhythmic precision or downshift a pirouette from a blur of motion into a slow, sustained sigh.

This program also reprised Maurice Bejart's "Scene d'Amour" from "Romeo and Juliet," featuring Berlioz's ardent score, and a "Slaughter" even swankier than on opening night, led by Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kurt Froman.

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