The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is ending much as it began nearly 20 years ago, with a simplicity of purpose and quiet grandeur.
In an artistic climate where noble and serious endeavors compete with noisier blips for audience attention, these are rare attributes. All the more reason to savor this company and its farewell appearance, titled "Forever Balanchine," a fine program of works by Farrell's mentor and New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine. The engagement opened Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where performances continue through Saturday.
Given the turmoil going on at New York City Ballet, where Farrell once reigned as its most famous ballerina, her company was an even more welcome sight. Thursday night, the NYCB board voted to grant a temporary leave of absence to its embattled director, Peter Martins, in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and violent acts. The leave coincides with an independent investigation into the allegations, launched by NYCB and its training arm, the School of American Ballet.
Farrell has her own stormy history with Martins, her onetime dance partner. She taught and coached NYCB dancers after retiring from the stage in 1989, until Martins fired her four years later. That dismissal, following pointed comments she made in the New Yorker about her Balanchine know-how, fits a pattern. Few of the principal dancers who knew Balanchine most closely continue on as coaches or teachers under Martins.
New York's loss has been Washington's gain. Farrell's Kennedy Center roots go back to weekend ballet classes that she started teaching there in the mid-'90s, which grew into a summer training program, and then the occasional performances of (mostly) Balanchine ballets that she would stage. Her company — in reality an annual, short-term gathering of dancers — began yearly outings in 2001.
The Kennedy Center decided a year ago to pull the plug, for vague reasons. President Deborah Rutter said at the time she wants Farrell to continue as "an artistic partner," and Farrell said that she and Rutter discussed her return to teaching. Farrell has declined to comment further. I've written many a time that the center's funding of the Farrell Ballet has been halfhearted, just enough for dancers to rehearse a couple weeks a year, and the lack of greater commitment has shown. You can't expect Opera House excellence with a civic center budget. You get what you pay for.
Yet the company finishes its life in triumph. Simply put, Farrell draws out the best in people.
The program featured "Chaconne," a pure-dance reverie accompanied by music from Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice"; "Tzigane," with its gypsy sass; "Meditation," an older man's reflection on young love, and "Gounod Symphony," a garden party that cleverly masks its devilish technical demands. ("Serenade" replaces "Chaconne" in some performances.) These are all by Balanchine, all are attractive, none is a masterpiece. Yet they showcased Farrell's superb skill in animating her dancers and tuning them to subtleties of musical phrasing and warmth of presence. Clearly, she takes her time with her dancers. Rather than blunt displays of technique and physical range, she elicits their natural and harmonious coordination, musical responsiveness and breath.
This was evident in the ensemble of "Chaconne," where the dancers looked especially alive to the sweetly singing, sighing and transporting quality of the music — especially in the full use of the upper body and arms. Heather Ogden brought a calm, centered quality to the leading role.
Natalia Magnicaballi, who has danced with Farrell since the beginning, gave the most interesting ballerina performance of the night in "Tzigane." In her opening solo she seemed to be arguing and flirting with some unseen spirit, finally flipping up her heel and tossing her head in a supreme dust-off.
Nathan Fifield conducted the Opera House Orchestra. Violin solos by the marvelous concertmaster Oleg Rylatko were highlights of "Tzigane" (music by Ravel) and "Meditation" (Tchaikovsky).
Before the curtain opened, Farrell was presented with the Pola Nirenska Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, an annual honor named for the Polish-born dancer, choreographer and teacher who helped establish modern dance in Washington in the 1950s. With the single-minded focus that was to color the program to come, Farrell graciously accepted the award, without a word, and swiftly left the stage to her dancers.
At the evening's end, Farrell reappeared onstage with her company. Tall and slim in black pants, heels and a flowing print top, she looked elegant and happy, but eager to stride back into the wings. She is obviously more comfortable keeping her influence behind the scenes, another reason to admire this woman and her devotion to good, hard work. I hope she finds a way to continue it.
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performs "Forever Balanchine" at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Saturday. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.