Farrell to the Rescue; Wheeldon as Impresario

With some kind of unlikely synchronicity,  two important and ambitious figures in the dance world have, in successive weeks, shown us “companies” that aren’t really companies. Here in New York, at the City Center, Christopher Wheeldon installed for a second year his group “Morphoses,” named after one of his finest ballets. And at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Suzanne Farrell presented perhaps the most ambitious of her brave reconstitutions of the Balanchine repertory.

Neither Morphoses nor the Suzanne Farrell Ballet has a body of dancers who train together, rehearse together and perform together over an extended period of time. ABT is a company, City Ballet is a company; so are San Francisco, Pacific Northwest, Miami, Boston, the Joffrey, Houston and a raft of others of varying size, ability and approach. What both Wheeldon and Farrell have at their command are essentially glorified pickup groups.

Wheeldon, who was until recently City Ballet’s resident choreographer, has access to many of today’s leading performers—10 members of his cast are now, or have been, with City Ballet, generously released to him by Peter Martins. Wendy Whelan, for instance, repeated her central role in Polyphonia, the Wheeldon ballet that confirmed her stardom. Now seven years old—and looking wonderful on the City Center stage—it remains Wheeldon’s most impressive creation: an homage to, and extension of, Balanchine’s great Agon. If you have Whelan, Maria Kowroski, Teresa Reichlen and more than half a dozen other City Ballet stalwarts, you have a formidable group of dancers—in fact, you have a mini-City Ballet.

Farrell has no comparable access to a major pool of talent. Her leading dancers are not much more than respectable, and her current alliance with Ballet Austin has given her adequate but unexciting support. Nevertheless, under highly difficult conditions—limited money, limited performance possibilities, limited rehearsal conditions—she’s performing an important service. The backing of the Kennedy Center has made it possible for her to pursue her mission of resuscitating forgotten bits of the Balanchine repertory—as we saw recently at Fall for Dance, when she presented his Pithoprakta, and again this past week in Washington, when she restored the jazzy and amusing Ragtime, with 11 musicians up on the stage having fun with Stravinsky’s 1918 score. Not that she always focuses on minor works: Several years ago she achieved the impossible by reconstructing the ambitious and daunting Don Quixote. And this season she brought to Washington one of Balanchine’s greatest ballets, Liebeslieder Walzer, which had never been danced there before.

To people who had never seen it—and it’s rarely seen outside New York—it was a revelation. To those of us who know it and love it almost beyond reason, the four couples who perform this hour-long meditation on the nature of the waltz, of love, of humanity simply lacked the personality and imagination to do it justice. In addition, the stage of the Eisenhower Theater seemed cramped; the four singers of Brahms’ ravishing lieder were undistinguished; and the two pianists were inadequate. And yet … there was Liebeslieder, available to an entirely new audience, and moving them.

Another Balanchine masterpiece, the 1959 Episodes, fared better. This is one of his starkest black-and-white works, spiky, mysterious, thrilling. Although it’s often linked to Agon, to me it more obviously looks back to The Four Temperaments and forward to Symphony in Three Movements. (Oddly enough, it comes exactly 13 years after the former and 13 years before the latter.) I was at City Center for the premiere of Episodes, which seemed to me the most modern dance piece I’d ever seen, and nothing has come along since to challenge it. Episodes is far less dependant on personality or star power than Liebeslieder, and the capable dancers from Austin, together with several Farrell regulars, put it over forcefully.

I wish Farrell had managed to restore the almost-lost solo Balanchine created for Paul Taylor—now that would have been a major “Balanchine Preservation Initiative.” And I wish she had a more authoritative dancer than Natalia Magnicaballi to lead the Webern-orchestrated Bach Ricercata that brings the ballet to its moving and redemptive close. Ironically, Magnicaballi is the most talented of Farrell’s dancers, but she’s lyrical rather than commanding.

The second Washington program was a group of nine Balanchine pas de deux or duets, introduced and commented on by Farrell herself with modesty, charm and acuity. Speaking about Meditation, the first ballet Balanchine made for her, she recalled telling him that she had never been in love—she was 18—and felt awkward in a certain love passage. “That’s all right, dear,” he replied; “Sometimes love is awkward.”

Farrell to the Rescue; Wheeldon as Impresario