Farrell Ballet's Fresh Steps on Old Territory

Dancers of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, above, in a rehearsal of Balanchine's
Dancers of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, above, in a rehearsal of Balanchine's "Chaconne," with Runqiao Du, center, and Bonnie Pickard. Pickard, below with Du, danced inspiringly to Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice." (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet never fails to show us something new. Farrell coaches her dancers with care, but she pushes them, too, and her dancers respond with such appetite that even familiar repertory takes on sharp new contours.

Take Tuesday's opening program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the first of two rafts of all-George Balanchine works that the company will perform this week. The evening was riddled with surprises: There was "Bugaku," the creepy-kitschy Japanese-themed wedding-night ritual, reawakened here as deliciously odd B-movie material, with a very go-go, slightly porno take on the classic grand pas de deux.

In contrast to "Bugaku's" earthiness, "Chaconne" was a glimpse of heaven, a spin among the stars that left you gasping at the unruffled, wholehearted command of Farrell's leading protege, Bonnie Pickard.

Risks were taken all through the evening, but never more so than midway into "Pas Classique Espagnol": Ashley Hubbard, in the central role, had been somewhat blandly perfecting her steps until she missed her mark in a turn, crashed to the stage like felled timber and, after scrambling back to her feet before the rest of us could exhale, went on to give the performance of her life.

Even the best dancers slip and fall periodically, but this time you feared bloodshed. I haven't seen such a spectacular face-plant since I witnessed a gentleman fall unconscious and plummet with dead weight onto a subway platform. Adrenaline must have gotten poor Hubbard back up and into the role, but also, I suspect, a blazing sense of duty. If anyone should think ballerinas to be delicate and fussy, think again: This one reacted like it was fourth-and-goal with six seconds on the clock and not a damn thing was going to stand in her way.

The point is, it looked as if she fell because she put a little too much juice into that turn -- something, in fact, you could have seen Farrell herself do in her performing years. The boldness that lifted "Bugaku" and "Chaconne" also shot through "Pas Classique." It's a trademark of the Farrell dancers, and it's why her company's engagements always rank among the most anticipated events of the dance season.

In its construction, however, "Pas Classique," which the company performed as part of Farrell's "Balanchine Preservation Initiative," was charming but not extraordinary. Balanchine inserted this upbeat Spanish-inspired ensemble work into his full-length "Don Quixote" in 1972 -- seven years after its New York City Ballet premiere, in one of his continuing and none-too-successful efforts to improve that problematic production. Like "Don Quixote," the "Pas Classique" divertissement eventually fell out of active performance.

It has been Farrell's special interest to revive such "lost" works by her mentor, and she pieced this one together from various sources, digging into the City Ballet archives to find the sheet music for Nicolas Nabokov's somewhat tuneless score. It gained dimension largely through Hubbard's crisp, reinvigorated technique and brilliant smile -- neither glazed nor forced, a smile that said, Hot dang, I've got nothing to lose.

Not a foot stepped out of place in "Chaconne," though it, too, had a heart-stopping moment. The opening duet is beautifully slow, with Pickard seeming to float like smoke with only the lightest touch from her partner, Runqiao Du. Then suddenly, in the middle of a turn, she slips from view -- drops entirely from your field of vision -- but then you find her, just inches above the ground, still serenely revolving, almost sitting on the one pointed toe that supports her. This swift descent has always been there, but I've never seen it handled with such suddenness.

In this and other ways, Pickard's dancing was full of life -- in the little movements of her fingers, and the way you could see her fill with breath in the moments when she was not dancing, but was still immersed in Gluck's wondrous music (from "Orfeo ed Euridice"). This ballet was cast from strength throughout -- Du was at his elegant, buoyant best, and the soloist and corps dancers, filled out with members of the Cincinnati Ballet, danced as though this were their sharpest taste of joy.

"Bugaku" didn't arouse such elevated thoughts, though it certainly kept you interested. I've never particularly liked this work, with its slow, ominous buildup to an unsexy bridal deflowering -- gongs crashing all the while -- and then, poof, it's over. So what? Its spare, minimal set -- a low red railing framing the ceremonial site, with columns of ropes soaring to the rafters -- looks like something Isamu Noguchi might have designed for Martha Graham. Was Balanchine, in 1963, reaching for some of that stylish modern-dance mojo? But when the ballerinas pick their way out, in their pretty pink tutus -- delicate as grandma's teacups -- the look is just all wrong, or at least, all mixed up.

This performance didn't take itself too seriously, and that was what saved it. Natalia Magnicaballi's dancing wasn't exactly camp, but neither was she was living some dream of high art. She made it clear she was as much a player in this game of conquest as her mate, Michael Cook.

As stylized as it is, tucked into the work are references to the wedding duet in that pinnacle of classical ballet, "Sleeping Beauty." You see the echoes of it in Magnicaballi's flicking steps and sharp, high extended legs, and the courtly formality between her and Cook. And then, wink wink, Balanchine has his dancers strip to their skivvies and show us what happens after the coda. So clever! So uninhibited-'60s! So Farrell, to go beyond the ordinary.

This program repeats Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. A second program will be performed tomorrow evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening.

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