All-Balanchine Program Challenges Farrell’s Dancers

Suzanne Farrell’s revival of Balanchine’s Don Quixote some months ago was a big (and successful) event, resurrecting that problematic full-evening

Suzanne Farrell’s revival of Balanchine’s Don Quixote some months ago was a big (and successful) event, resurrecting that problematic full-evening work when everyone assumed it was dead and gone.

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Now, again at the Kennedy Center in Washington, her home base, she’s back with another “lost” work of Balanchine’s, or at least part of another work—the “Contrapuntal Blues” pas de deux from Clarinade, which Balanchine made to a Morton Gould score and which featured Benny Goodman on his clarinet. It’s what we call a “novelty,” and like most novelties, it came and went fast. Did it survive the spring 1964 season? If so, not for long.

Balanchine had always incorporated jazz elements in his work—ballets like Concerto Barocco were far more jazz-inflected in their youth than they are today—but Clarinade was an official Jazz Ballet. What Farrell remembers of it and has re-created here is the central pas de deux that she danced back then with Anthony Blum. There were other principals and a corps, but it’s clear from what we see now that there was only one point to Clarinade, and that was Farrell herself. The choreography, except for a few astonishing moments, isn’t particularly interesting: It’s elevated pastiche jazziness with a few echoes of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which he would revive for her four years later.

No, the subject of Clarinade isn’t really jazz; it’s the young Farrell. This ballet, Balanchine’s first after the company’s move from the City Center to the State Theater, was only the second work he made on her—less than five months after Meditation and a year before Don Quixote. He isn’t “using” Farrell here, he’s both inventing and defining her. If you saw this pas de deux on any stage anywhere, mounted without her input, you’d still know within seconds that it was a Farrell role: Her unique amplitude and daring—and her unique quirks—are unmistakable. Clarinade is an anthology of Farrellisms—far more important as a missing link in her story than as a lost link in his.

And in Erin Mahoney-Du, she’s found a dancer who makes the connection confidently and convincingly. Mahoney-Du doesn’t hold back (an essential Farrell quality), and she moves—in fact, one of the things this all-Balanchine program reveals is what Farrell is looking for in her dancers, and moving is clearly a high priority. You see it in a young soloist, Matthew Prescott, who was entrusted with the Peter Martins role in Duo Concertant—he’s a charmer with a bouncing blond mop of curls, but what matters about him is that he loves to go, go, go. (He’s at it again in La Valse.) And in La Source, Shannon Parsley, an open and appealing dancer, doesn’t come into her own until her last solo, when she can take off and fly; up till then, she’s constricted and ill at ease.

I’m not sure why Farrell chose to mount La Source, which I don’t remember seeing her in, and which could never have been an obvious vehicle for her talents. Violette Verdy, for whom it was created in 1968, has said, “Clearly it is not Balanchine’s greatest, but it is a moment of incredibly refined French dancing—ornamented, very detailed, with a lot of subtle nuances of charm, femininity, coquetry.” Does that sound like Farrell? No, it sounds like Verdy, and like Gelsey Kirkland, who was also wonderful in it. Farrell’s company approaches it nervously, as if it’s foreign territory. Maybe that was the idea; maybe Farrell, following Balanchine’s lead, is deliberately stretching her dancers by pushing them (and herself) in unlikely directions. But as of now, La Source is dead on the stage, a fallen soufflé.

Duo Concertant, on the other hand, was a brilliant success. Natalia Magnicaballi is a highly finished dancer—she has style, musicality, and she easily takes charge of the stage. (As a bonus, she has beautiful, highly arched feet.) Duo has a casual look, but it isn’t simple; it needs both dash and tenderness; it can’t be solemn. Magnicaballi and Prescott brought home to me more forcefully than any performance I can remember the relationship between Duo and the central pas de deux of Apollo—the playful and touching quality of the young god’s relation to Terpsichore. Farrell herself was glorious in Duo (made for Kay Mazzo), but she hasn’t asked Magnicaballi to imitate her; she’s just made it clear what the ballet is all about.

Finally, the big closer: La Valse. It’s not an easy ballet to stage, partly because the mood of 1951, when it was made, is not easy for young dancers to retrieve today. Ravel’s doom-laden music is always effective, as are Karinska’s famous “New Look” costumes, but the romantic morbidity of the ballet’s story and atmosphere are alien to a postmodern world, in which technique is stressed above everything else. The corps and the demi-soloists attacked the job bravely, but for me, the big question was whether Farrell, who’s so effective at helping good dancers to a higher level, would manage to make something of Alexandra Ansanelli, that perplexing principal from City Ballet, who didn’t fulfilled her promise there and has recently left the company for England’s Royal Ballet. Perhaps given time, the La Valse experiment might work, but as of now it’s a failure.

Ansanelli has based her career on her prettiness and charm, flirting sweetly with the audience. Fine in Susan Stroman, say, and plausible in Coppélia and Harlequinade, but nowhere near enough for core Balanchine.

In La Valse, Ansanelli is totally out of her depth (if she has any). Bright red lipstick and flirtatiousness don’t begin to illuminate this very complicated role, perhaps of all Balanchine roles the one most associated with a particular dancer: No one who saw Tanaquil LeClercq has ever forgotten her—the combination of glamour, danger, elegance, haughtiness; the way she made you understand the death-driven heroine’s complicity in her horrible fate. Other dancers have succeeded in this role, Farrell among them, but it’s not within Ansanelli’s range. She looked like a kid playing at tragedy dressed up in Mommy’s ball gown, even though, ironically, she’s older than LeClercq was in 1951—only 21. But LeClercq was a woman, not a kid, and a great, distinctive dancer. Ansanelli, although she can give pleasing performances, hasn’t lived up to her substantial talent and intelligence, and a few weeks under the influence of Farrell hasn’t made the difference.

Ansanelli, though, isn’t the story of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, although she’s a symptom of the company’s need for star presences—the estimable Magnicaballi is the closest they come. Farrell is deploying her limited resources carefully and sensibly, but they are limited.

Like Balanchine, she knows how to make do with what she has—patiently developing her current dancers while seizing opportunities as they present themselves. What she needs is time (including more rehearsal time). Meanwhile, it’s fitting that Farrell has given us this all-Balanchine program just a couple of weeks before she’s to be celebrated as one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees.

All-Balanchine Program  Challenges Farrell’s Dancers