Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning in Danses Concertantes, Suzanne Farrell Ballet (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, we learned last month, will disband next year. The Kennedy Center's resident ballet company has never come under review before at Ionarts. As critic Sarah Kaufman put it, it is a company composed of different members for each performance, who do not work together for more than a few weeks. The first program of their fifteenth season, seen on Friday evening at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, was devoted to three choreographies by George Balanchine.
Farrell was Balanchine's "muse" at New York City Ballet in the 1960s and early 1970s, known especially known as the Dulcinea in his Don Quixote. For the last decade and a half she has led the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, attempting to use her own knowledge of the choreographer's work, among other resources, to ensure that Balanchine's work can be appreciated by future generations. This installment brings together three works that were new to me live, two of them extraordinary and well worth saving. The third one, Stars and Stripes, seems hopelessly outdated, especially in the current political climate.
Balanchine was the first to choreograph Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes, composed in 1942 for the Werner Janssen Orchestra of Los Angeles. In the composer's neoclassical style, it was one of the projects done entirely during Stravinsky's time in California. Although it was conceived as a ballet score, the music was not made for any particular choreography. Balanchine began with the central part of the score, a theme with four variations, each one given to a set of three dancers costumed in bright costumes of green, blue, violet, and red -- "like a box of crayons," as Miss Ionarts described it (costumes designed by Holly Hynes, inspired by the work of Eugene Bermann).
Associations from the commedia dell'arte (à la Pulcinella) permeate the costumes and the comic movements of the dancers, with more serious counterparts in the paired principal dancers, costumed in bright yellow. In the opening Marche, the whole company moved across the stage, shortened by a colorful backdrop, which was raised to reveal a larger space for the main action. The violet variation, here danced by Jane Morgan, the tall and graceful Leah Slavens, and Ted Seymore, was especially beautiful, as the three wove intricate patterns of interlaced arms and extended poses, the latter especially during the lush string coda that ends this section of music. Valerie Tellmann-Henning had light, skittish movements to go with the flute solo in the Pas de Deux.
Charles Gounod's first symphony (D major, 1855) was rediscovered in the 1950s and is still largely unknown, except perhaps as the basis of study for Gounod's student Georges Bizet as he prepared his own Symphony in C. Balanchine, who more famously set that Bizet work to choreography, premiered his Gounod Symphony with the New York City Ballet in 1958, and it has not been revived by a professional company since 1993. It features a large corps, twenty women alternately paired with ten men, lit in silhouette as the curtain is raised. The black and white costumes (Holly Hynes) enhance the sense of an abstract painting set in motion: tea dresses for the women, black for ten dancers and white for the other ten, with the men in white tops and black leggings. The company's corps work is not its strength, as evidenced by the lack of unity among the dancers here and elsewhere, but Natalia Magnicaballi stood out in the gold-costumed principal pair, tall but seeming weightless in the air. Balanchine gave the second movement to the soloists, with the little fugato passage played out by pairs of women.
The evening closed with Balanchine's Stars and Stripes, a display of American patriotism that borders on the grotesque in the era of "Make America Great Again." Premiered in 1958, at the end of the McCarthy era, the work has enough military salutes, baton twirling, and drill corps marching to turn my stomach. Hershy Kay's adaptation of Sousa marches is bombastic, large enough in scoring that the orchestra's percussion and brass had to be piped onto the stage from another location. (A bizarre cadenza for French horn at the end of the "Fourth Campaign" was only the tip of iceberg when it came to strange orchestration.) Conductor Nathan Fifield, who had struggled keeping the Stravinsky score together earlier, could not always coordinate the two halves of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, as the sound from the speakers and from the pit did not always line up.
This program repeats today, in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.