Parting really is sweet sorrow as The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, after 17 years, offers its final performances this week. Its budget and company size have been unsteady, but you’d never know it from Thursday evening’s stirring, polished swansong performances of Balanchine classics.
To call Farrell a Balanchine muse is a radical understatement. Balanchine created 23 dances for the former Roberta Sue Ficker, who came to New York from Cincinnati at 15. He wanted to marry her. But as the journalist Donna Perlmutter wrote after the dancer’s memoir was published in the early 90s, the relationship stayed platonic “despite their constant tete-a-tetes and breakfast rendezvous at Dunkin’ Donuts, of all places.”
Farrell’s marriage to dancer Paul Mejia estranged her from “Mr. B” in the early 1970s, when she and Mejia danced in Europe with Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the 20th Century. She then returned to the New York City Ballet for a productive Balanchine-Farrell Phase Two that lasted until his death in 1983.
Since then, she has helped keep her mentor’s flame alive. As teacher, company director, and repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, for which she helps reconstruct and teach his works to new generations, she has repaid Balanchine’s devotion a thousandfold, if not in all the ways he might have dreamed or imagined.
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Friday, Dec 8 at 7:30pm
Saturday, Dec 9 at 1:30pm and 7:30pm
Kennedy Center Opera House
Details and tickets
This history felt like more than balletomanes’ yesteryear gossip Thursday. It was alive, not in an archival museum sense but in a palpably living, breathing way, as Natalia Magnicaballi danced Tzigane, a Gypsy, folk-inspired work Balanchine created for Farrell in 1975 to music by Ravel. It incorporated a moodier, more dramatic approach she developed under Bejart, acknowledging a mature, seductive, and self-possessed will. Despite two early unscored and powerful sneezes (Were they from an audience or an orchestra member? I’m not sure.), Magnicaballi and her partner, Michael Cook, imbued the piece with heartfelt drama and brio.
The Farrell-Balanchine saga resonated even more deeply in Meditation, Balanchine’s first choreography for Farrell, set in 1965 to music by Tchaikovsky. Here’s Farrell’s own program-notes account:
“At the time I was 18 and had not yet been in love. So creating a pas de deux around the concept of romance was the furthest thing from my mind. Yet it evolved into an evocation of passion, love, and loss. A man – kneeling, his head in his hands – begins and ends the ballet alone. In between he is visited by a young girl in a white, translucent gown and long, flowing hair. … She invites him into a duet, tender at first, but increasingly passionate and reckless as the dance continues.”
Elizabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning sublimely captured the ardent, eerie, and heartsick aspects of that scenario. The dance ends with her, arms outstretched like a departing ghost, backing off slowly into the wings upstage right, leaving him, downstage left, bereft and gazing upward, as if at a beautiful phantom. “Many people have filled in their own story here,” writes Ferrell coyly if sincerely, “and I eventually discovered mine. But I do not believe you need to explain everything in a ballet. A sense of mystery can be very powerful.”
The drama of these two works was bookended by purer movement for movement’s sake, in a distilled neoclassical vein. Chaconne, to music by Gluck, is a multi-section answer to the question, How many alluring moods can you explore in luxurious three-quarter musical measures? Featuring Heather Ogden and Thomas Garrett, the partial answer was: stately, majestic, flirty, competitive, and whimsical. Magnicaballi and Cook starred once more in the finale, Gounod Symphony, which was a lavish illustration of finite budget and rehearsal time very well spent, with 32 dancers in an eye feast of elegant linear, circling, weaving patterns. In both Chaconne and Gounod Symphony, featured couples’ technical craft is expertly incorporated into the choreography’s architecture as a whole, never thrown about as distracting virtuosity for its own sake. That is key to their dignity.
The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the baton of Nathan Fifield, was a little sluggish, especially in the brass, during the Gluck, but otherwise wonderful. Concertmaster Oleg Rylatko’s solos in the Ravel and the Tchaikovsky and principal flutist Adria Foster’s during the Gluck pas de deux were particular pleasures.
To a standing ovation before the performance, Farrell received the Pola Nirenska Award for outstanding and lifetime achievements in dance. Afterward, she joined her dancers for another standing ovation. She said not a word. She didn’t need to. The dance in between and the program title said it all: “Forever Balanchine.”