Maybe it was gremlins, arriving a night early to wreak Halloween mischief. Maybe it was just bad luck, or a lack of preparation, or both, that led to the little flaws undermining the Suzanne Farrell Ballet program Friday night at the Kennedy Center.
Farrell’s dancers, assembled from various other troupes for an annual weekend run at the Opera House, typically resemble the earnest members of a regional company. Frustrations and low expectations are standard. Not surprisingly, this was the case Friday. But the opening piece in particular, Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet,” fell short. A 20-minute delay might have been partly to blame. A Kennedy Center official announced to the audience that long lines at the box office’s will-call window necessitated holding the curtain, an unusual move.
I appreciate Farrell’s efforts to bring a seldom-seen work such as “Walpurgisnacht” to the stage, and she directed it with great sensitivity to the music from Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust.” Yet ease is essential to this elegant waltz, and these dancers did not possess it. The ensemble dancers conveyed a studious, polite formality but little joy. Tentativeness crept in, particularly after one dancer fell, but there were other instances of muddled steps throughout.
In their lavender gowns, the young women looked like sophisticated debutantes, but there was little suppleness in their entwining lines. I wished they had rolled their elegant bare shoulders a little, floated their arms a bit at the top of a balance. The atmosphere of “Walpurgisnacht” called for more softness, less rigidity, but that is a subtle quality that takes time to develop. This piece looked as if Farrell had her hands full teaching the choreography and simply had no time to summon the poetry.
All the feeling missing in “Walpurgisnacht” was present in the pas de deux from Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” thanks to the tender yet slightly mysterious performance by Farrell regulars Heather Ogden and Kirk Henning. Yet the ripped hem of Natalia Magnicaballi’s costume was a distraction in Maurice Bejart’s “Romeo and Juliet.” A long strand of satin dangled between her legs like a rat’s tail during this duet, as if she and Michael Cook had rolled around on barn floor beforehand and she’d snagged her dress on a nail. Bejart’s choreography suggested barn-rolling, with its splayed legs and awkward squats. These gave the torn hem ample time in the spotlight.
What a delight to see the evening’s closer, the “Emeralds” section from Balanchine’s “Jewels,” carried off rather well. The Opera House orchestra performed Gabriel Faure’s gossamer French modernism with a light touch. The ensemble dancers still lacked suppleness in the upper body; regrettably, the soft, charming (and very French) give in the shoulders was missing here. But there were no wardrobe issues, no stumbles. Ogden and Magnicaballi seemed to carry their own light with them. Atmosphere, so essential to any ballet, finally emerged.