The Suzanne Farrell Ballet hit its stride Friday evening, dancing George Balanchine's celestial "Chaconne" with an infectious joy. Maybe the dancers were happy that Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser had won this year's Capezio Award (presented at the beginning of the evening by Farrell and Anthony Giacoio of the Capezio Foundation). Maybe they were just happy to have such beautiful steps to dance.
Whatever the reason, this little Brigadoon troupe that lives for only a few weeks each year was dancing on such a high level that one heard over and over, at intermission and as people were leaving the Eisenhower Theater, "It's such a privilege to see this" and "It's such a privilege to be here." Among her other accomplishments, Farrell is bringing fans -- people frightened away by years of "Dracula," pop ballet and undistinguished productions of under-rehearsed "classics" -- back to ballet.
"Chaconne" is Balanchine's update of an 18th-century court ballet set to music by Gluck, originally composed for the opera "Orfeo ed Euridice." There are the vaguest references to the Orpheus legend, especially a dreamy, sweetly plaintive pas de deux for the two lovers before they get to dance together forever in Heaven to some of the fastest, danciest music ever written.
This "Chaconne" -- shown here in a shortened version -- was even more amazing because it's indelibly associated with Farrell and Peter Martins, who created the central roles. They were both big, strong, golden dancers, and Friday's cast (Chan Hon Goh and Peter Boal) are smaller and softer.
It didn't matter for a minute. Goh is fleet and delicate, and her dancing found the giggles in the music. Boal's brilliant beats and quick jumps were exciting enough, but the landings from those jumps were as silent as if the floor were a sponge, and gave the illusion that he was bounding from cloud to cloud.
"Tzigane," the first ballet that Balanchine made for Farrell after she returned to the New York City Ballet following her years with Maurice Bejart, was a one-woman show, despite a partner and a small corps. What mattered was watching the long, supple body dance to Ravel's "Gypsy" violin, the dancer and music so intertwined that Farrell seemed to be that violin's very soul.
Who would have thought "Tzigane" was also a show-stopping, stamping, seething Gypsy pas de deux? Natalia Magnicaballi and Momchil Mladenov had an absolute triumph in the ballet; the audience would not stop clapping. Magnicaballi, who neither looks nor dances a bit like Farrell -- she's short, dark and fast -- emphasized the Gypsy elements in the music. Mladenov turned the usually placid partner into an ardent, and jealous, lover. The interplay between the two made the ballet sizzle, and it was fun.
Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15," which opened the program, is another of his celestial works, this one to music of Mozart. It's a formal, tutu ballet that echoes the 19th-century creations of Marius Petipa. With its five ballerinas in lavender tutus, their three cavaliers and a small ensemble, "Divertimento" could be the Lilac Fairy's tea party.
Friday night's performance was a bit loose (it was tightened by Saturday afternoon), but the soloists were lovely, especially Jennifer Fournier in the sixth variation and Gavin Larsen in the third. (Larsen, a very young soloist, also stood out in Anthony Morgan's "A Farewell to Music.") One of the most interesting things about this surprisingly classical Balanchine season is how polished the dancing has been. The fingers, heads and shoulders dance as well as the legs. As a dancer, Farrell was known -- and loved -- for being wayward, often disregarding ballet's niceties, but as a ballet mistress, she (and Victoria Simon, who assists her) are very strict indeed.
Friday, the company hit the same high mark Farrell had achieved in her work eight years ago with the Washington Ballet and a dozen ballet stars from around the world, which culminated in one of the most exciting weeks of ballet in the Kennedy Center's history. That she could do this after only three years, and with only a few weeks' rehearsal, is remarkable. She's working with schoolgirls and soloists from all over the map, and she's melded them into an ensemble that tackles difficult ballets with a fearless zest and makes them seem fresh and alive.