By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; C02
Among Washington's cultural lights, the modest Suzanne Farrell Ballet is undeniably one of the classiest. Farrell schools her dancers in the kind of understated glamour, alluring reserve and attention to detail that is no longer much in fashion but which can work a slow, captivating spell on an audience. At the troupe's annual Kennedy Center engagement, like the one that opened Wednesday in the Eisenhower Theater, you might very well watch a jewel of a performance that can throw everything you know about ballet into disarray.
On the other hand, you're also likely to see something that falls far short of finished, even as it hints at greatness. Wednesday's program offered both of these experiences: the sublime - surprisingly enough, Maurice Bejart's "Sonate No. 5," and, not so surprisingly, Jerome Robbins's "In Memory 0f . . . " - as well as one left knocking at that door, George Balanchine's "La Source."
Yet noticeable throughout the evening were two elements that lifted the whole undertaking, however unevenly executed, into a heavenly realm. Those were: the utter absence of the affectation, oversell and blunt-force delivery that so often harden ballet, and the responsive musicality that is a Farrell hallmark. If the caliber of her dancers varies, they all seem to hear and move to the music in a remarkably unified way, one that is alert and intuitive rather than rigid and rote.
Music, in fact, was one of the chief attractions of this program, which featured the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra conducted by Emil de Cou. De Cou has worked with Farrell before and has been tapped as Pacific Northwest Ballet's music director; his sensitive attention to the dancers was in evidence throughout the evening. "La Source," accompanied by shimmering excerpts from the Delibes composition of the same name, was a bland affair overall. The corps de ballet was unemphatic, and the three leading dancers - Kendra Mitchell and Matthew Renko, and soloist Violeta Angelova - couldn't always deliver the full-wattage sparkle that the light, effervescent steps required. But from their first moments onstage, when Mitchell and Renko cocked their chins expectantly on the same introductory note, they pulled us into the musical current. You saw it in their bodies, Delibes's rhythms coursing through them like water. These were not the strongest dancers, but they engaged with the audience and they understood the music, its softness and airy lift. They were also helped along by J. Russell Sandifer's violet light, which bathed the dancers in a glowy warmth.
Technical finesse shone in the rest of the program, and I'm not only talking about Farrell's go-to principals Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook (paired in "Sonate No. 5"), as well as Elisabeth Holowchuk and Momchil Mladenov, who teamed with Cook in "In Memory of. . . " The big news of the night was the violinist spotlighted in both works, Corey Cerovsek. His 1728 Stradivarius gets a special mention in his bio, and I'm willing to concede that 300 years of love has imbued it with a certain magic, but it was what the Canadian musician did with it that was so completely transporting.
He and the fine pianist Glenn Sales played the Bach sonata of the title in Bejart's duet, onstage with Magnicaballi and Cook, and creating a musical atmosphere just as nuanced and rich as the dancing. There were not simply broad outlines here, but probing investigations, wistfulness and trails of smoke. Dan Covey's quiet lighting made the Stradivarius glow like a flame, and Cerovsek's tenderness combined with the dancers' clarity and intimacy gave the whole event - and event is not too grand a word - a sense of importance I've never associated with Bejart. In fact, I've never loved his work; to me, he tips too far into the melodramatic and the obvious. But this performance revealed something new.
Farrell has a close, personal link to the French choreographer for whom she danced in Brussels while on hiatus from the New York City Ballet. In fact, she made her debut with Bejart's Ballet du XXe Siecle in "Sonate No. 5" in 1970. Bejart undoubtedly viewed his new star as a great but temporary prize; Magnicaballi, in Farrell's role, in a red-orange dress, was like an exotic bird that Cook could stroke and coax into his arms but could never hold captive. Both dancers were marvelous in this: Cook dances large, expansively, but with a submerged emotional tone to match Magnicaballi's. Each of the performers, musicians as well as dancers, added to an intriguing sense of smoldering fires within.
Speaking of personal links: Robbins created "In Memory of. . . " for Farrell as well, once she returned to New York. Now Cerovsek was in the pit, joining the orchestra for Alban Berg's Violin Concerto "In Memoriam of an Angel." Here was another stirring performance; you could read the otherworldliness in Holowchuk's eyes at the outset. Farrell's dancers always have a focus, which seems like a simple thing but telegraphs to the audience that they're fully committed. This work is light as vapor - its emotions are fragile, its menace is unspecified, it could be destroyed with too much force. The dancers treated it lightly, and the effect was so powerful you could feel the air in the Eisenhower Theater being sucked away at the end, as Holowchuk was raised up between Cook and Mladenov and the violin wept and the audience gasped in awe.
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performs through Sunday evening. This program repeats Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. The company performs a different program Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening.