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Suzanne Farrell Ballet tour reviews

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I traveled to Berkeley this weekend to see Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and was the only Seattlite in my hotel there to see the ballet, not to see Cal trounce the Huskies in the football game Saturday afternoon. It took seven hours to get to Zellerbach; unfortunately that made me half hour late to the opening ballet, Divertiment No. 15, one of my all time favorite ballets :wink: But I did get to see The Waltz of the Flowers, named "Tempo de Valse" on the program, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Serenade on Friday, and the whole program on Saturday.

I was surprised when the ushers let me in to see the end of Divertimento No. 15; I came in as the second-to-last pas de deux was ending. I did manage to see Shannon Parsley and Runqiao Du dance the final pas de deux. My general impression was the Zellerbach stage was much smaller than I remembered, and that the performance felt cramped and tight. However, since I was so crabby about my late plane, getting lost on the way from the Ashby BART station, etc., that I tried to get that out of my head and watch the performance of that ballet on Saturday with fresh eyes.

"Tempo de Valse" was performed in dresses that are cut and styled like the standard Serenade dresses, except with soft chiffon instead of several layers of tulle. The corps was in medium pink, the soloist flowers were in pale blue, and Dewdrop was in a very light pink, with her skirt cropped to mid-thigh. At first I thought, "Yay, gone are those awful Karinska Flower dresses and that corset for Dewdrop," yet while Dewdrop's costume was an improvement, what I missed was the volume of skirts for the corps and soloists, especially the way they expanded in the arabesques and went "poof," "poof," "poof," "poof" during the pas du chats.

Both Bonnie Pickard (Friday) and Shannon Parsley (Saturday) danced expansively as Dewdrop. They were similar in their lightness and precision, with long legs making very clear images without being sharp. I was happy to see that Farrell has chosen some big dancers -- tall, with wide, muscular backs, legs, and even breasts -- and they moved big. The corps and soloists filled up the stage. The soloists stood out a bit more in their blue costumes -- the Karinska lilac isn't that big a contrast to the Flowers' pink -- and I was aware for the first time that the soloists end up in the corners at several points. It was disconcerting to hear Nutcracker music when it was nearly 60 degrees outside, a true Southern Hemisphere Christmas experience.

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux followed. Peter Boal performed both nights, and except for a bit of showing off in some very high cabrioles, which knocked him a bit off line, he was strong and elegant throughout. On Friday he partnered Jennifer Fournier. From the start it looked like a bit of a struggle between them, and her performance looked to me like it got smaller in each section in which she was partnered. I don't think she smiled more than once or twice or looked up, eyes or body, to the Balcony. While I didn't think Fournier was doing anything mannered or particularly unusual, there was something missing, and it took me until Saturday to figure out what it was.

Serenade was danced by Chan Hon Goh as the Waltz Girl (with Alexander Ritter), Shannon Parsely in "Scherzo a la Russe," and Natalia Magniacaballi and Momchil Mladenov as the Dark Angel and Elegy Guy. I knew I was in for trouble when Goh started to act; I found it very jarring and put on. I wondered if I was seeing a different version from which I was used to, but Saturday's performance confirmed that I was seeing a distortion of the choreographic line. By contrast, Parsely's performance was a reprise of her Dewdrop: light and clear, with fine, sweeping energy in the first movements and suitable gravity in the Elegy. She reminded me of Kyra Nichols in the part. Natalia Magniacaballi danced with beautiful carriage and legs that never seem to stop stretching in arabesque, even when she was being turned at the thigh, and the way she expanded in all directions when the turning stopped was, in my experience, unsurpassed, without being mannered.

Saturday's performance of Divertimento No. 15 unfortunately confirmed my first impression on Friday, which is that half the dancers -- corps and principals -- tightened up from the waist up when performing it. One dancer who didn't was Alexander Ritter, who in the short role of the Theme gave the most fully shaped and musically danced performance of any of the men both nights; surprisingly I found his dancing more pleasing than Boal's. Ritter took up the right amount of space for each move and phrase, not only in this ballet, but in two performances of the first man in Senerade. Frances Katzen, who was quite lovely as one of the Flowers soloists, and Bonnie Pickard were hard to watch in the First and Second Variations because their upper bodies were so tight; I started to watch only legs. The same was true during their pas de deux. That changed when Cheryl Sladkin took the stage in the Third Variation. While she doesn't have the extension of the first two, she was the first soloist to be fully lifted from her waist and to dance from her sternum. What a difference it made, because while it looks like she takes tension in her lower arms, her arms motions flowed from her open chest and shoulders. Her legwork was very clear, and the steps and shapes really projected. She also drew my eye consistently in the Serenade ensemble.

I'm not sure what Momchil Mladevov's particular draw is: he has very long legs that seem separated from his relatively short torse, his legs seemed a little gangly, like a newborn colt, and he didn't point his feet. His Fifth Variation looked blurred to me. Dancing the Sixth Variation and the lead was Jennifer Fournier. She looked happiest and most expansive when dancing this solo, but seemed to clam up again when being partnered in the centerpiece pas de deux.

I skipped over the Fourth Variation woman deliberately, because April Ball entered and blew me away. She's one of the bigger woman in the company, and she ate up the stage. It was like an infusion of energy from another planet, and, yet, there wasn't a movement she did that looked out of place or proportion or strained. It was as if she there was a magnifying glass in front of her. When she was partnered by Ritter in brief passages in the last movement, it was a match made in heaven, because the were so perfectly modulated and in tune.

Chan Hon Goh danced the Saturday performance of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. I was dreading it a bit, expecting more acting. It wasn't as bad as I expected, although I felt she marred it again with an occasional mannerism. For example, one of my favorite moments in the opening partnered turns down to one knee, repeated, where, usually, the woman looks up with open shoulders. Goh looked down and gave what seemed to be a little bow to her partner. In general she seemed more preoccupied with him than I'm used to in Balanchine ballets. But, on the whole, she seemed happy to be dancing, and was lighter and quicker than Fournier had been on Friday.

Serenade was danced beautifully by all the principals. I think that Parsley swapped roles and danced the Waltz Girl, and that Bonnie Pickard did the Scherzo a la Russe, but I could be mistaken. Both were quite lovely. And it may be shallow, but I love it in the Elegy when their hair is loose, and there's a blonde, redhead, and brunette.

In some of the reviews there's been criticism of the corps. I found the corps to be pretty disciplined. What I didn't expect was that the pairings of corps in the Menuet in Divertimento No. 15 would be so far off; at least two of the pairs were dancing to different tempos. But that was an anomaly. I finally realized what it was about the Company that made some performances, like Fournier's and Goh's, not fit: Farrell has chosen a group of dancers who ride the wave of the music, and when that happens, the ballets look so right. The dancers in the Company dance as if they need to dance, and even after a long tour, there was life and little fatigue, even in the warhorse, Serenade.

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It seems that April Ball has been garnering very positive reviews for her performances with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. To all those who know the hierarchy of this 'ad-hoc' ballet company, does being a soloist with the company mean she only dances soloist roles and no principal ones? From the repertoire and reviews, it seems as if the hierarchy is very strictly adhered to and soloists do not perform in the corps de ballet; neither do they perform the leads in the 'bigger' ballets. Is there any truth in that? I must admit I was more than a little surprised when I saw that Ball had accepted a position as a soloist with the company after having been a popular and well-received principal with Boston Ballet.

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From the repertoire and reviews, it seems as if the hierarchy is very strictly adhered to and soloists do not perform in the corps de ballet; neither do they perform the leads in the 'bigger' ballets. Is there any truth in that?

If this is true, then Divertimento No. 15 has to be an exception, because it requires five principal female parts. Since the original choreography was for Kent, Hayden, Adams, LeClercq (Fourth Variation), and Wilde, those are formidable footsteps in which to follow. (I'm not counting Caracole, because the [/i]Choreography by George Balanchine catalogue said the choreography for it was forgotten, and Divertimento was created anew.)

Looking at the repertoire for this season's tour, only Divertimento (5) and Serenade (3) have more than one female principal, and only Chaconne has extended soloist work. Has anyone seen Program C, the "Balanchine Couple" program? If so, what was the casting like in that program?

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"The Balanchine Couple" program wasn't done on the tour. It's scheduled for the Kennedy Center during the first week in December.

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In past seasons, Farrell has used corps women and soloists in principal parts. I think it's very rare, anywhere, for principals to dance soloist or corps parts.

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I think it's very rare, anywhere, for principals to dance soloist or corps parts.

The Royal used to put principals onstage in what looked to me like ensemble parts. Not the top stars, but the regular principals. The parts were not second swan in the fifth row, but those ballets in which the ensemble was less stratified. It was a practice that always puzzled me, but I put it down to the few opportunities (compared with companies that do not share their home with an opera troupe) the dancers had to get onstage.

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I was there for Friday only, so it's hard to generalize from only one performance. Helene, you haven't said anything I passionately disagree with, although I liked the performance of the corps in Divertimento – they had a lot of spirit even if the steps didn’t seem to be quite all there – hard for me to tell as this is my first viewing of the entire ballet. I'm pressed for time today and will be brief.

There were several moments in Divert that made one uneasy for the dancers, but all performed honorably. I did not care for the costumes, which seemed a trifle loud and a trifle rustic, not qualities I associate with this music or this ballet. Joining the amen chorus in praise of April Ball. Her dancing was clear and pretty and in addition she had that something that catches the eye – ("Who's that girl?" asked someone sitting nearby). I greatly preferred Ritter to Du or Mladenov – he was the only one of the men who looked really comfortable in Divertimento.

Next up was the Waltz of the Flowers. There is something to be said for presenting this out of context as a study in Balanchinian composition, but I missed the context all the same (I'm going by the video of the film). And this choreography definitely needs tutus -- as Helene mentions, the chiffon shifts make you think of "Serenade" and there's no reason to think of "Serenade." (It also made for a rather chiffon-intensive program.)

Gotta go, but echoing Helene yet again, Chan Hon Goh's acting in Serenade was indeed somewhat alarming – in the finale, just as she was about to be raised aloft, her expression seemed a bit I'm-ready-for-my-closeup-Mr. DeMille, if you catch my drift. More later, I hope.

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Correction to my earlier post: On Friday night, Mladenov danced the waltz and Ritter danced the Elegy guy. On Saturday night, Ritter danced the waltz and Du danced the Elegy guy.

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I was in Berkeley, too, on Friday night at Zellerbach and agree with a lot of what dirac and Helene have said, that April Ball was a pleasure to watch and Alexander Ritter was graceful and musical, and that the Serenade-like costumes were a bad choice for Tempo di Valse.

The recorded music was also a bad choice. It was loud, badly balanced and came from high over the stage, rather than from below, from beneath the dancers' feet as it naturally should. It would have been better, perhaps, had the speakers been positioned in horizonal banks in the orchestra pit. An alternative for a company of Suzanne Farrell Ballet's means would be to use reductions for live piano and/or strings, at least on tours. The Divertimento #15 could be effectively played by a string trio, and both Stravinsky and Balanchine tossed off all sorts of piano reductions, often quite brilliant ones, that might be used. (Some of these are described in the recent Charles Joseph book that I'm just starting to read.)

As it was, the recorded music alienated me from the ballets, especially Divertimento, which was simply shouted out from a big black box. It seemed to hold the dancers prisoners to relentless and inelastic tempos. This only added to the difficulty of this very difficult ballet, which everyone struggled against, struggled bravely to fit all the steps into.

Serenade worked beautifully for me, and I thought of how many of the mysterious and ambiguous Balanchinian relationships are already in place in this early ballet: Strange pas de deuxs that smear into pas de trois; elevated ballerina sculptures; inside-out hook-ups of outstretched arms. I'm looking forward to seeing this ballet again this winter at the War Memorial Opera House.

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Quiggin, your description of the music (or lack thereof) is horrifyingly clear!

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Quiggin is spot on about the music. I thought for Divertimento that another recording, the Karajan one for example, would have sounded better and maybe worked better for the dancers. The other pieces on the program had music with beefier orchestrations that didn't suffer quite as much, although the blare factor was ever-present. I agree that Serenade looked better than anything else on the program, but I thought even there the dancers were having difficulties with the tempi and occasionally one had the impression of indeterminate dashing hither and thither as opposed to a continuous flow of movement. (I liked Magnicaballi as the Dark Angel very much.)

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Just a couple of thoughts about amplified music at ballet performances -

After the Jackie Gleason Theatre had for years subjected us in the MCB audience to the sort of boom-and-screech amplification we wouldn't want to have in our living rooms - granted, a theatre is a much bigger room to fill with sound than a living room is - the company hired its own sound engineer, who bought along his own amps, speakers, and skill - or sensibilities - and the sound the past two seasons has been so good I'm sometimes fooled into thinking there's an orchestra in the pit. Only the additional acoustic on the record, and some indistinctness in the bass, give a clue. My point, FWIW, is, in this day and age, theatre sound systems don't have to sound like early-50s phonographs.

In the meantime, what can audience members do? Besides complain, that is. My way of coping is to use EAR "Grande" ear plugs (available in drug stores), which reduce sound - but do not eliminate it - pretty evenly across the spectrum from low to high, instead of muffling it like many kinds of earplugs do. For example, I used these to great advantage last year at the Joffrey Ballet's performances of "Les Noces" when they actually did have musicians in the pit of the acoustically-excellent Auditorium Theatre but amplified them anyway. (Some people sitting near me remarked that it hurt their ears.)

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I just saw the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Santa Fe this weekend. From my vantage point, both nights looked sold out.

The first night was: Divertimento No. 15, Waltz of the Flowers, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Serenade.

The second night was: Div. again, Variations for Orchestra, Tzigane, and Apollo.

The first night the audience absolutely loved Waltz of the Flowers. I thought the chiffon skirts were gorgeous and especially effective at the end of the number when most of the corps are bouree-ing around and around in place. Wonderful effect.

I did not like the way the dancers used their arms in Div. the first night (arms flying without any connection to the back) but strangely, I didn't have that criticism the second night.

One thing about touring performances in Santa Fe -- most companies think that they'll be "ok" with the 7000 ft. altitude and don't come early enough to acclimate. I was glad to see that, with very few exceptions, the dancers looked full of energy. (I believe it was Fournier who danced the Pas de Deux on the first night and didn't quite make it off stage before slumping...)

Serenade was gorgeous. Unfortunately, the stage in Santa Fe is a bit small for the large sections of Serenade. The girls stayed in formation but on occasion had to dance in the wings.

I was mostly excited about seeing Apollo. I hadn't seen the version with the birth of Apollo in the beginning, and the climbing of the stairs at the end. I have to say, I do prefer the shortened version. I just adore the pose of Apollo and the three Muses legs at different levels at the end and I didn't get it with this version. But, it is always good to expand your horizons, right? The three Muses were absolutely fantastic, easily the best dancers in the company, again with the blond, redhead and brunette. Peter Boal as Apollo was great and I have videos of Peter Martins and Baryshikov doing the role.

A very exciting company to watch.

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Hearing about the use of taped music upsets me greatly - mostly because I am a musician and secondly because her company is funded by the Kennedy Center - home of the NSO! Isn't there a way they could hire recent graduates (who haven't quite made the transition to pro musician like myself), who don't have many financial obligation...on an intern basis...and form a small travelling orchestra. Sure, it will cost a bit more, but by hiring eager, hungry young musicians ... with support of the NSO...the ballet wins, the musicians win, the dancers win...and the audience wins. Damn...if only I was rich enough to be in management.

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gatto, there might be union problems. A company using a non-union orchestra might have trouble getitng booked into a union theater, etc. (Note: the company will perform to live music at the Kennedy Center, according to the Center's web site.) I think traveling with an orchestra is prohibitively expensive these days -- almost no one does it. Companies come with a conductor, who has to rehearse the resident orchestray, and when you're doing one night stands, this just isn't possible. And with all due respect to the young and hungry, a tape might be better than underrehearsed, green players, as many companies have found when they've tried to use a local youth orchestra for Nutcracker. (Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.)

Piccolo, thanks for your review!

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Unfortunately the problem with all aspects of ART in our CAPITALIST society is the damn Union. Thats why so many of my fellow musicians have quit...and the death of culture is sure to follow.

It could work if someone just gave a damn about art - not their own pocket book.

And...musicians in their mid twenties are not some HS youth orchestra...trust me...I was in Philly Youth 10 years ago...I know all about the difference between HS 13-22 youth group compared to a conservatory level grad program. I've played in both...and yes, both have their problems - mostly due to the lack of mismanagment by faculty (not the music director but some talentless bumpkin above him) Unfortunately it is this sort of injustice that has led to the abandonment of art by many of my peers.

I wish Suzanne Farrell luck...but in about 50 years...if the virus that is American Culture ala Britany Spears and other loosely clad "talent" continues to spread worldwide...all the beauty of true art will be nothing more than a relic.

Thats why I've quit music all together and will become a chemical engineer...its all about the money. At least now I could afford tickets to the BSO...if I gave a damn.

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