The Suzanne Farrell Ballet has become enormously adept at successive approximations. What other ballet company routinely approaches this one’s ability to almost get it, to come quite close, year in and year out?
The familiar surface tension was fully present on Wednesday, the opening night of the troupe’s annual engagement at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. The near-grandeur of a few leading dancers, the fair-to-middling quality of the rest, the reverential atmosphere balanced against the bald fact that the group’s reach exceeds its grasp — here were all the elements to which Farrell’s audience has become accustomed. The hope is that Thursday night was better, and that Friday will be better still, and so on, with the dancers coming closer and closer to the desired level of execution. This, too — waiting for the program to gel — is part of the Farrell experience.
And so is frustration.
That crept in gradually, inexorably. It left an aftertaste in each of the three works, starting with “Mozartiana.” One would expect this ballet to be exceptional; Farrell has deep emotional and practical ties to it. Premiering in 1981, it was George Balanchine’s last masterpiece — he died two years later — and he had created it for her. She has always staged it meticulously, and this was no exception. The sense of meditative spaciousness, as in a peaceful afterlife under an Elysian sun, is so difficult to hold in solution, and yet it was there on Wednesday, like a subtle vibration. Even the littlest cast members exhibited it: The four school-age children who arrayed themselves around leading ballerina Heather Ogden caught the airy, ethereal spirit especially beautifully.
Ogden was lovely in this role, angelic and remote. So why did the ballet ultimately feel flat? The gentle, palpable energy of the opening was never replenished, and it steadily drained out. There were some miscues among the ensemble dancers. Performing Tchaikovsky’s “Mozartiana” suite, the Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Allan Lewis, never rose to a level of excitement; indeed, it sounded underpowered throughout the evening.
And while Ogden floated through her pas de deux with Michael Cook with tender care, there was too much care and too little emotion. No one wants a hair-flipping diva in this role, just a body temperature a few degrees higher, and a shade more allure to draw us in.
This was the highlight of the evening.
And there were two long intermissions.
The remaining works differed in tone — Balanchine’s “Episodes” was odd and sometimes witty, the choreographer poking fun at himself, while Paul Mejia’s cleverly told “Romeo and Juliet,” unspooling backward from the tomb scene, was predominantly somber. Neither was uplifting. Wobbly legs plagued the corps.
The music is “Episodes’ ” strong suit, with Anton von Webern’s mysterious strings and blats of brass like downtown traffic, and his homage to Bach that sounds like something transmitted from outer space. It’s dark, spindly and terrific, and I was doubly grateful for it because it ushered Natalia Magnicaballi onstage, Farrell’s most reliable and interesting dancer. Casting her eyes around like a queen warding off interlopers, she breathed in the strange, shadowbox atmosphere and roared it back out at us. Here was someone fully in charge, at least for a few moments.
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performs this program Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 10 at 1:30 p.m. It presents Balanchine’s “Pas de Dix,” “Duo Concertant,” “Tempo di Valse” and “Agon” Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m. and Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.