Dance review

Suzanne Farrell Ballet's 'Haieff Divertimento' whirls between intimacy, tension

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

What a game-changer of a year, 1947: Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Truman Doctrine helped set the Cold War to deep freeze. On the artistic front, George Balanchine was launching his own assault on the status quo, creating three important works: "Theme and Variations," "Symphony in C" (originally called "Le Palais de Cristal") and "Symphonie Concertante."

Now add a fourth. "Haieff Divertimento," which on Wednesday was given its first performance in 17 years, is in no way as showy, musically grandiose or structurally ambitious as the other works Balanchine produced that year. But as danced by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, on a program of four works at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, this 15-minute curio is something rare in any repertoire: charming and spring-fresh.

Balanchine had dubbed it simply "Divertimento"; Siberian composer Alexei Haieff's name was added later -- a name that has drifted into the shadows, although he was a good friend of the dance world. The year before Balanchine tackled his score, Haieff composed a ballet for Merce Cunningham, titled, with a whiff of decadence, "Princess Zondilda and Her Entourage." It included spots for the dancers to add nonsensical vocals of their own. (Wouldn't you just love to see it? I would.)

For unclear reasons, Balanchine let his little Haieff ballet lapse into obscurity. Francisco Moncion, the original male lead, reconstructed it for Kansas City Ballet in 1985, and New York City Ballet performed it in 1993, as part of a series marking 10 years after Balanchine's death. In Farrell's conception -- about which one must be clear, given the great distance from Balanchine himself -- "Haieff Divertimento" is an intimate, appealingly human gem that deserves wider recognition for its clean, modernist score as well as for the sly impact of the dancing.

It feels like cool water from the outset: Standing against a blue backdrop, there are four couples in turquoise; one man in silver stands at the center, alone. The paired dancers beam at each other and exchange courtly bows; they're ready to have a grand time. Kirk Henning, in the role of the odd man out, watches them, fascinated. The others dance to a little trumpet fanfare. After they stop, Henning gestures in a friendly way, urging them on. Then he joins in, dancing with his back to us -- he's new at this game, doesn't know the rules. He swivels around to bow; the others run off, and Elisabeth Holowchuk strides on.

Now we're fully caught up in their moment. Will she be the answer for this nice fellow who longs to fit in? I'm overemphasizing the drama, for in Farrell's wise staging, it is lightly handled, with glances and perfect timing. But the wisps of tension, and the human circumstance they convey, give the ballet its chief charm. The lighting and the music now grow darker as Henning and Holowchuk begin a subtly sexy pas de deux. He holds her upright as she pedals one foot behind her, as if she's trying to kick-start a Harley in an elegant way; they embrace and, standing tall on her pointes, she kneads her feet like a cat. They stare into each other's eyes; their fingers splay. As their dance ends, they hold hands but look away, and then she runs off. Clearly, partnership is not easy to come by.

Busy solos for the men follow, then the couples reunite; in the music, a slippery, stretchy effect for the strings follows the ladies' unfolding legs, which was fun. The mood changes in Holowchuk's solo, which was overly mannered. There is a winsome dewiness about her, but she isn't yet a finished dancer, although the same can be said for many of Farrell's performers. With few touring dates and a part-time schedule, they just don't get enough of her tutelage. Holowchuk's lot improves at the end, though: She swizzle-steps around on her pointes like an exotic bird, and Henning, utterly her captive, bows low to her as she vanishes into the wings. I think he got what he wanted.

I know I did. It was lovely to see an unfamiliar, "new" Balanchine piece, especially one with such sparkle. But good glory: The sense of freshness was also clear in a ballet I've seen a dozen times if I've seen it once: Jerome Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun." I'm not a big fan of this work for two dancers playing "dancers," with the stage meant to be a rehearsal studio; I have always found the playacting to be more pretentious and arty than real. But Michael Cook and Natalia Magnicaballi swept all that aside in a performance that was clean, airy and alive. No phoniness. (Come to think of it, this could be the tag line for Farrell's company.) Its impact was all in the tiniest details, the focus of their eyes, the delicate use of the Debussy score, the simplicity of intention. Similarly, the Act 2 pas de deux from Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with Mendelssohn's Sinfonia IX in C Minor, was a revelation: quiet and tender. It closes with a sigh.

"Apollo," however, was tentative. Cook, in the title role, lacked precision and presence. Here, the flaws in Farrell's organization were most apparent: She doesn't have the cast she needs. Back in 1947, Balanchine didn't yet have a full-time company, either. What a difference it made once he got one.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

performs through Sunday. This program repeats Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. A second program, including "Donizetti Variations" and "Agon" but not "Haieff Divertimento," will be performed Friday, Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening.

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