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Jack Reed

November 28-30 2014, Kennedy Center Opera House

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The Suzanne Farrell Ballet began its 2014 Kennedy Center season in the Opera House Friday evening, November 28th, with a lovely performance of Balanchine's half-hour distillation of Swan Lake. On the "About" tab for the season, Ms. Farrell quotes Alastair Macaulay's observation that Balanchine's short staging is nevertheless truer to the themes of the original than some others we see. (Her Notes from the Ballet are also worth reading.)

I look forward to his observations about these particular performances, but meanwhile I'll try to say a few things. The very strong cast was led by Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook, and while there were moments when I might have liked stronger attack from him, she made me glad I had made the trip (from Chicago) to see this: Creamy yet large and clear, but sharp and staccato when called for (in the Coda, near the end, with the swans lined up along the sides), and then again large flowing and clear in the same section, she was the multidimensional fantastic and fascinating creature who had stunned Siegfried early on, interposing her own body to protect the evil Rotbart from Siegfried's attempted crossbow shot. Not showing off, but showing off her dances. Beautiful to the point of exciting, quietly exciting.

The swans - 24 of them, the original number, not supplemented as in the early years after Balanchine's passing, when, in black to boot, they clotted the stage less visibly at NYCB - were always visible, individually and in their constantly-changing patterns, and vital, even though the tempos here were a bit easy. Even, speaking of sections, in the old "Four Swans" number, possibly the last whole remainder of Ivanov's work before Balanchine replaced it with his lovely "Valse Bluette": I had seen this number danced stiffly by other companies, and although I prefer to see the "Bluette" I found the individuality and freshness these four brought to it made it the rendition I prefer. Indeed, it's that freshness and presence that helps to make this whole staging such a rewarding experience.

For the record, the "Four Swans" came on as the sixth number, immediately following the "Pas de Deux"; then the "pas de neuf", ably led by Elisabeth Holowchuk; and then, the "Valse Bluette" being omitted, Odette's variation, solo this time, without the four girls I noted in the mid '70s.

After intermission, Monumentum/Movements, which looked if not quite so clear as it needs to - part of this pair of spare ballets is its sense of open spaces between what's there, on stage and in the music we hear - it looked like a very good beginning toward a full realization of those qualities. Holowchuk, rather poker-faced and dry here, nicely contrasted her lovely swan role before.

Then, a company premiere, Allegro Brillante, set to the unfinished first movement of Tchaikovsky's unfinished Third Piano Concerto. Like the music, it gets a little thin after the exposition, but no less allegro nor brillante for that, and except for a couple of stiffly "correct" moments, well energized with enlarging clarity by Paola Hartley and Brett van Sickle and the ensemble of four couples.

After the second intermission, Robbins's The Concert. Some ask why? With such a short season and so many ballets to present. But humor was one of Robbins's fortes - not that Mr. B. couldn't joke - and as someone who saw the ballet when it was new pointed out, the gags still work. And there's a great variety of them - not to omit mention of the "Mistake Waltz" - this ballet is where the term originated. And not least: Performances are not only for us, but for them, the dancers, too. This troupe does have Slaughter on Tenth Avenue in its repertory, but these dancers don't do a lot of comedy, and I can't begrudge them the experience. And I was glad for the experience of Holowchuk in yet another role as the slightly loony music lover originated (I think) by Allegra Kent.*

(The Concert was staged by Kipling Houston.)

*No, in 1956 it was Tanaquil LeClercq, no less. Somebody pretty remarkable, anyway.

Edited by Jack Reed

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Saturday afternoon, November 29, brought Paola Hartley, like Natalia Magnicaballi, of Ballet Arizona, into the role of Odette, with Brett van Sickle as Prince Siegfried; unlike Magnicaballi, who is beautiful standing still, Hartley is less favored physically and must move beautifully, musically, to be a pleasure to watch: She did, and she was!

Magnicaballi led Monumentum/Movements this afternoon, and her luxurious luminosity worked in it, though seeing Holowchuk's more simple, unadorned realization again in the evening, I'm not sure I don't prefer it. (This may be a little troupe but they offer an abundance of riches.)

Audra Johnson, in corps roles otherwise, provided another enjoyable surprise this afternoon, in addition to Hartley's Odette, by stepping into Allegro Brillante and giving a very musical performance of the role, with van Sickle.

The evening's cast was much like Friday evening's, but the performances were even better, Magnicaballi's Odette even more beautiful (and a tad slower, I think), Monumentum/Movements more sure and clear, and The Concert had picked up some details a friend had missed opening night.

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Thanks for posting, Jack. One beautiful detail in particular stood out for me in Magnicaballi's Swan Lake tonight that I don't remember seeing from Hartley this afternoon (I may have missed it), although I enjoyed her performance equally. Right at the end, just before she boureed (if already fading memory serves) backwards away from the Prince and towards von Rothbart, she put her hand on his head and gently pushed it down, as if to say, "I don't want you to have to see me leave," or "you must let me leave," or some such thing. It was a tender moment in a gorgeous performance.

From principals to apprentices, the company, in our opinion, looked just wonderful - as good or better than ever.

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I am so glad to hear the appreciations of Paola Hartley. I went to see Ballet Arizona in 2004 for the first time to see Magnicaballi, whom I had seen with Suzanne Farrell Ballet on tour in Berkeley. (Peter Boal also guested in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux."( Hartley stole my attention about two phrases into "Theme and Variation" during that trip.

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Thanks for recalling that detail, kfw. I don't think it was in Hartley's performance. Magnicaballi is quite capable of filling things like that in; I remember in Slaughter how during the police raid of the speakeasy, she's run downstage left, glancing around at the action she's about to leave, with movement that says, "We've got to get out of here!" With her intelligence, she can point up some drama without overdoing. Wonderful.

Yes, we all agree the company looks to be at a high point. (Too bad there's no Millennium Stage video to share with a wider audience.)

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Sarah Kaufman gives opening night a mixed review: Suzanne Farrell Ballet Soars in 'The Concert," Stumbles in 'Swan Lake'.

Helene wrote:

I went to see Ballet Arizona in 2004 for the first time to see Magnicaballi, whom I had seen with Suzanne Farrell Ballet on tour in Berkeley. (Peter Boal also guested in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.")

That must have been something! That's one ballet Farrell's never brought to D.C.

Jack wrote:

Magnicaballi led Monumentum/Movements this afternoon, and her luxurious luminosity worked in it, though seeing Holowchuk's more simple, unadorned realization again in the evening, I'm not sure I don't prefer it.

I'm a little surprised Holowchuk's still listed at First Soloist level, given that she has danced more lead roles than anyone else in the company with the possible exception of Magnicaballi, and many more than some other company principals.

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Speaking of Holowchuk's many roles, she had three of them all in the evening programs, which was the cast again this afternoon (Sunday November 30), as Brett van Sickle was out: She led the "pas de neuf" so clearly again that, thanks also in part to the fine playing of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under Scott Speck, I heard rhythmic complications in her music there I didn't remember hearing attending previous stagings, elsewhere, of this Swan Lake; she danced Monumentum/Movements very ably again, like it was just right for her; and she was a third, totally different figure yet again in the loony female lead in The Concert. I can't speak to Ms. Farrell's rankings; she goes her way with everything, and that's fine with me. No, that's great with me. Power to her.

The run is over now, leaving me wanting four more performances - well, maybe not of The Concert, seeing which has left me uncertain whether I will ever again be able to attend a piano recital, and actually, not of Monumentum/Movements - I want eight more of that, because while there are things going on there you can hardly miss, there are things you can hardly get, and I'd like to try some more. Places where I don't hear it well enough to see how the dancing relates, or something.

So, for the record, Michael Cook substituted for Ian Grosh in Monumentum/Movements this afternoon, having previously performed it with Natalia Magnicaballi, and Ian Grosh, originally cast in it, took over for Brett van Sickle in Allegro Brillante, with Paolo Hartley reprising her very fine and "complete" performance in this, only suffering in one or two instants apparently by difficulties in the partnering, likely owing to the short notice for the shuffling of the casting.

And with Hartley so cast, Magnicaballi treated us to a third performance of her beautiful Odette, with Michael Cook.

Remember that old show biz maxim? "Leave 'em wanting more!"

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The run is over now, leaving me wanting four more performances - well, maybe not of The Concert, seeing which has left me uncertain whether I will ever again be able to attend a piano recital,

I have a hard time not laughing in a certain scene in "Giselle" because my mind goes to a drunk Amelia (Leslie Browne) in "The Turning Point." I've never been able to shut that thought down.

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I can't speak to Ms. Farrell's rankings; she goes her way with everything, and that's fine with me. No, that's great with me. Power to her.

Yeah, I'm sure she has her reasons, I just wonder if they're financial or artistic or both. Holowchuk has been such a vital part of the company, someone to look forward to seeing again every year, that I'd love to see her awarded that highest ranking.

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I ended up going to both the Nov. 28 and Nov. 29 performances. There were 4 works in this very long show, Balanchine's Swan Lake, Monumento Pro Gesualdo/Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Allegro Brillante, and Jerome Robbins' The Concert. I was a little disappointed. They seemed to be a few rehearsals shy of performance-ready.

The opener, Balanchine's Swan Lake, was probably the weakest. In Friday's show, the swan corps just wasn't together and the dancer playing Siefgried seemed a little low on energy. During Saturday's show, I thought that they were doing better, until one unfortunate ballerina tripped over another ballerina's foot and ended up on the floor. There were still some spacing issues, so that on several occasions ballerinas' feet came nervously close to bumping into the next ballerina.

I thought that The Concert was a poor choice. It's cute and funny for about 15 minutes, and then after that it just goes over the top with predictable and rather unintelligent comedy.

.

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