Retracing the Steps of an Artistic Affair

Natalia Magnicaballi (leaping) in rehearsal for the Suzanne Farrelll Ballet program here. Magnicaballi shone in
Natalia Magnicaballi (leaping) in rehearsal for the Suzanne Farrelll Ballet program here. Magnicaballi shone in "Meditation." (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007

A day after the choreographer Maurice Béjart died on Thanksgiving, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet aptly dedicated its Kennedy Center performance to the famed Frenchman who, as an announcer told the Opera House audience, was "a master of 20th-century dance and mentor and friend to Suzanne Farrell." It was the Brussels-based Béjart, after all, who in 1970 hired the ballerina when no one else dared to -- after her rupture with the powerful and possessive George Balanchine, he not having taken kindly to his star's marrying another dancer.

Of such drama was Farrell's performing life shaped. The company she now heads echoes her story, performing the Balanchine works she knows best and, on occasion, one or two by Béjart. And it's not just the repertory but also Farrell's emotional connections to it that make it all the more interesting for us to watch.

Friday's program included three of the earliest works that Balanchine made for Farrell, when his fascination with her was building into the obsession that would take such a painful turn. Two of them, "Meditation" (1963) and "Pithoprakta" (1968), were the standouts of the evening.

The two pieces could not have been more different. Balanchine built the "Meditation" pas de deux on familiar ground for ballet, using music by Tchaikovsky (excerpts for piano and violin from "Souvenir d'un Lieu Cher") and the sweet ache of love found and lost. You know where you are from its first moments, but there is not one hackneyed thing about it. It unspools as if in one unending stream of thought, with a soft naturalness in the dancing between a man who's lost in contemplation and the woman who briefly pulls him out of it.

Natalia Magnicaballi and Runqiao Du were a handsomely contrasted pair. She is an unfailingly interesting dancer, full of secrets and heat, who makes a strong connection to the audience. Du is not as demonstrative, but his natural tendency to underplay served him well here as a man who doesn't quite know what to make of this vision that suddenly fills his arms.

If "Meditation" was the ballet version of comfort food, "Pithoprakta" was a squirt of lemon in the eye. Those who thought William Forsythe, in the '80s, was the first one to yank ballet to pieces and dip them in an acid bath should see this work, accompanied by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis's score of the same name. Its title means "action by probabilities," and it was originally coupled with Balanchine's "Metastaseis," also with music by Xenakis; neither has been performed much.

Of course, as "Pithoprakta" is one of the out-of-circulation Balanchine works that Farrell has reconstructed (she acknowledges in notes on the center's Web site that she had to fill in gaps in the lone film record), it's possible that some of the strikingly modern aspect of the choreography is her doing. The black-and-white costumes and the backdrop -- doodlings of lines and numbers -- are her ideas. It's a stunning look.

What makes "Pithoprakta" work is that, spiky and nonchalant as it is, it has a cohesive aesthetic. The dancers aren't just showing off and glaring at us, as in so many lesser ballet vivisections; they're doing what comes naturally on Mars, or wherever this off-kilter world is. Elisabeth Holowchuk, the leading dancer, is immersed in her variation, legs swinging to the sky, when one by one the other dancers start rolling toward her like logs, as if to bowl her over. She ignores them, keeps on writhing and twisting. Then her partner, Matthew Prescott, rolls over. She's interested for a few beats -- then kicks him out of the way and goes on with her solo.

The music (keenly played, as was all the evening's out-of-the-ordinary music, by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Ron J. Matson) featured strings gone wild, some of them thunking, some whining, one occasionally squeaking out a melody, then giving up. It's not an angry dissonance, however, and neither is the atmosphere onstage aggressive or cold. In her restaging, Farrell, with her astute musicality, got the balance right.

The program also included "Bugaku," given a drier performance than at Tuesday's opening; "Ballade," another rarely performed work, for a leading couple and ensemble, with music by Fauré; and the fourth movement of "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet" -- which Balanchine made in 1966 for a cast including Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise -- accompanied by Schoenberg's orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor.

"Ballade" was a disappointment. There was little rapport between Bonnie Pickard and Du; their dancing had none of the romance or color of the light, fragrant music ("Ballade" for piano and orchestra). Pickard perked up in the hearty, festive "Brahms-Schoenberg," but it was her partner, Momchil Mladenov, who added sparks.

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