Suzanne Farrell is a woman of many talents, not the least of which is bringing out talents in other women. If your image of the prima ballerina is a preening creature with claws out to defend her turf, consider Farrell. Her generosity to other ballerinas in passing on the roles she used to dance -- and her acute teaching skills -- extends beyond those in her young troupe. Her coaching has, on memorable occasions, transformed international stars such as Susan Jaffe and Nina Ananiashvili.
Tuesday night, the opening of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet's five-day run of works by George Balanchine at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, the audience witnessed the thrilling metamorphosis of a local dancer under Farrell's guidance.
Erin Mahoney-Du, a longtime member of the Washington Ballet, is known for her commanding height and a stage presence to match, but she seemed to suddenly grow up onstage in an excerpt from Balanchine's "Clarinade." Balanchine created the work for the New York City Ballet's first season at Lincoln Center in 1964. It was accompanied by Morton Gould's "Derivations for Clarinet and Jazz Band," a work he wrote for Benny Goodman. Goodman played the first performances, with Farrell dancing the central "Contrapuntal Blues pas de deux," which is all that is left of the ballet.
That jazzy duet -- really a long, uninterrupted ballerina solo, while the man serves as little-noticed support -- is a gem. Farrell's reconstruction marks the first time it has been seen in 40 years.
The clarinet (played onstage by David Jones, backed by members of the Opera House Orchestra, which accompanied the program) snaked and meandered like a raindrop oozing down a windowpane. Mahoney-Du, in a short ruffly skirt and long ponytail, sauntered and drooped, unfurling her long legs with insouciant sophistication. She was part adolescent, part seductress, with a touch of alluring snootiness.
The unraveled ballet steps -- the forward-thrusting hips, turned-in angles and a showgirl's use of the legs -- show up in other Balanchine works, such as "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" and the "Rubies" section of "Jewels." Mahoney-Du tossed them off with throwaway ease, with the elegant aid of her self-effacing partner, Momchil Mladenov. She looked at once softer and more coolly authoritative than she ever has in Washington Ballet performances, where she is often cast in strident, dominatrix roles. "Clarinade" fit her like a glove.
A performance like that is what audiences have come to expect from Farrell's troupe. She may not have the world's best dancers, but she works magic with them. So inviting is the prospect of seeing what she can do with Balanchine's choreography that several New York dance critics were at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, passing up a gala opening of the New York City Ballet.
Like "Clarinade," "Duo Concertant" was splendidly cast: Natalia Magnicaballi, vulnerable yet inner-directed, and Matthew Prescott in the youthful flush of first love. Everything deepens in this work. The dancing becomes more and more artfully woven; it's like a bird's nest, an impossibly delicate balance of whispers and air spiraling around into a temple.
"La Valse" and "La Source," which rounded out the program, were interesting for the ways in which they didn't quite succeed. "La Valse" once again displayed the newly honed grace and wit of Mahoney-Du, setting the tone for decadence and vanity at the ballet's outset; she had a kind of Audrey Hepburn elan, nose in the air, gloved hands just so. All of the demi-soloists were lovely, conveying the perfect mix of '50s frolics (Balanchine created it in 1951) and a romantic-era hauteur to match Ravel's feverish music.
It was leading ballerina Alexandra Ansanelli who was not of a piece with the rest of this work. Ansanelli, the young, much-hailed principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who recently left that company, danced the leading role of the woman in white who is sucked in by Death and finally succumbs to him. She will likely not appear with Farrell after this run; she has been offered a contract with the Royal Ballet. It is a pity: here is a ballerina who could profit so much from Farrell's ability to cut away the mannerisms and fluff.
Ansanelli possesses great technical ability as well as a lean, pliant physique. But her Bambi-eyed eagerness and rubbery flexibility were too much here. Where everyone else was pulled up, elongated, seething with unspoken desires, she looked like a kitten who had wandered into a lion's den. The role calls for vulnerability and fragility, but we ought to be haunted by what happens to this lovely young innocent, and there was nothing haunting about Ansanelli.
There is always a strong emotional component in Farrell's programs. The abiding devotion she feels to so many of Balanchine's works -- having danced in so many of them herself -- is clear. The juices still flow in "La Valse," "Duo Concertant" and the "Clarinade" pas de deux. But the same is not true for "La Source." It is not one of Balanchine's well-known ballets, and certainly not a Farrell-type ballet, with its powder-puff-pink tutus and bubbly good cheer. Its leading roles are for soubrettes, requiring a delicate touch with the devilish footwork and quick, light jumps.
The ballet is simply not a good fit for Farrell's company; she employs no soubrettes. Shannon Parsley made a game attempt in the principal role. She moved well, skimming the stage, and had pleasantness to spare. But the footwork at times confounded her. This is a role for fast, flexible, beautifully worked feet. Parsley's charm was all above the waist. Both her partner, Runqiao Du, and the female soloist, Bonnie Pickard, danced cleanly, but they, too, were humbled by their roles. Yet the ensemble looked happily inspired. They come to Farrell's table hungry and they leave it on a high.
There is no performance tonight, but the program repeats through Sunday night, with cast changes.