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Kennedy Center Season -- Program II

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The second program given by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at its home theater, the Kennedy Center, was one that had not been taken on tour. Called The Balanchine Couple, it featured duets from nine Balanchine ballets, introduced by Farrell. Except for the closing number, it was strictly chronological (although you couldn't tell this either from the program or from Farrell's onstage comments): Apollo (Jennifer Fournier and Peter Boal, last night), La Sonnambula (Chan Hon Goh and Alexander Ritter), Ivesiana ("The Unanswered Question" with Cheryl Sladkin, Ryan Kelly and four men); intermission; La Valse (Shannon Parsley and Ritter), Agon (Natalia Magnicaballi and Momchil Mladenov), Meditation (Goh and Boal); intermission; Don Quixote (the pas de deux Mauresque with Frances Katzen and Ritter), Chaconne (the opening duet with Goh and Boal), and Stars and Stripes (Bonnie Pickard, Jared Redick, and the finale with a reduced ensemble).

For someone like me who knows the ballets it was pleasant to see a "greatest hits" selection, but I wonder what someone with less knowledge of the Balanchine canon would have gotten out of it. Would they find the decision to excerpt only duets numbing, or would they marvel at the many ways Balanchine found to bring two dancers together? I'm assuming that Farrell's idea was to show the latter, although her comments ranged over all aspects of Balanchine's thought and practice. Her most poignant and revealing remarks were about Meditation, when she closed her script book and spoke directly to the audience, her voice breaking with emotion. She recalled that after she had danced several performances, she said to Balanchine, "There's one step that I keep missing. I've worked on it and I try to do it, but it never comes out right. Do you want to change it?" He replied, "No, it doesn't matter if you fail. Sometimes it's more important to make the attempt than to succeed." (That's a bad paraphrase. Can someone remember it more exactly?) As fate would have it, that night she went out and for the first time danced the step the properly . . . but it just didn't feel right. It was a story that got to the heart of the bond between Balanchine and Farrell, but I wonder how many people in the audience understood what it meant.

The dancing was much more uneven than on Thursday. Goh and Boal were beautiful in Chaconne (and it was a treat to see Boal in this; I don't think he's done it with NYCB), and Mladenov and, especially, Magnicaballi did a truly exciting Agon that made me want to see the whole ballet (heck, Chaconne too). And Meditation scored again. Still no mention of the violin soloist, an Asian man, but at least the conductor, Ron J. Matson, was credited in bold type in the program insert. The Unanswered Question didn't come off well: it seemed that the four men in black were manhandling the ballerina instead of manipulating her so unobtrusively that you are almost unconscious of their presence. And Sladkin is not supple enough for this role, which was made on the boneless-seeming Allegra Kent. Parsley was too robust for La Valse, although Ritter was very effective as the Svengali figure. The pas de deux Mauresque from Don Q lacked the exotic Eastern quality it calls for. And Pickard and Redick were not at all up to the demands of Stars & Stripes.

I suppose Balanchine fans could quibble endlessly about the choice of duets -- why was Agon the only black & white ballet, for instance? For me, no Balanchine survey is complete without something from The Four Temperaments. But if they had been yoked together with commentary that made it clear why Farrell had chosen them and why she thought they were significant to an understanding of Balanchine's work, it would have been fine. As it was, it seemed like a gala program with only two or three stars.

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(Oh good, someone else has posted about Friday night's performance -- I lost the program insert identifying who danced what. :dry:)

I agree, Ari, that Suzanne Farrell's best remarks were when she went off script and spoke so movingly about Meditation, the first ballet Balanchine choreographed on her. As for the quote you don't quite remember, same here: As I recall it, she told Mr. B she felt awkward. was ruining his choreography and would he like to change the step. Mr. B. said, "It's OK to sometimes be awkward" (followed by, and my memory is less clear on this...) when we are in love, or when it comes to love. Then she said, to the audience, how grateful she was to be allowed to learn on stage. Throughout her remarks, I was kicking myself for not bringing my notebook to jot down some notes.

The program, I thought, was a bit problematic -- I don't think Balanchine's ballets lend themselves very well to excerpting. Without context, the Apollo pas de deux, for example, makes almost no sense. You really need to see Apollo in his just-born incarnation, callow and youthful, to get the impact of the entry of the muses into his life. The culminating pas de deux with Terpsichore didn't have its usual power for me without it.

Agon worked better for me as an isolated pdd, perhaps because there's less back story to miss. Natalia Magnicaballi was quite impressive in all the bend-me, shape-me moves. I also thought Medidation was lovely -- Chan Hon Goh and Peter Boal were very moving. She seemed a little overly tragic to me, though, but I've never seen the ballet so I'm not sure what "air" it generally has. I had the impression from Farrell's autobiography that it was more of a wistful, lost-love sort of ballet, while last night it came off as more despairing.

My biggest disappointment was not seeing more of Peter Boal, or rather, Peter Boal dancing. Because of the nature of the program, he was largely lifting and supporting (not to make him sound like something out of the Victoria's Secret catalog! :thumbsup:). I agree that Unanswered Question was pretty awkward -- Cheryl Sladkin seemed uncomfortable up there in what is undeniably a challenging role. (For those unfamiliar with the ballet: Four men support and pose the ballerina, who never touches the ground, often just holding her up by the ankles or handing her off to one another.) It reminded me of a mosh pit :P where you worry that they're going to drop the poor girl.

After all the excerpts, I really enjoyed Stars and Stripes -- the company did the pas de deux with the male and female variations, plus the finale. As much as I love Balanchine's pdd's, I just adore the way he moves a crowd of dancers on a stage. The company looked sharp and saucy. I kept thinking how only an immigrant would think to choreograph a ballet to Sousa and so happily capture that oh-so-American strut and swagger.

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Thank you, Ari and Scoop, for your reports. Despite your lukewarm responses, I wish I could have seen it.

Goh and Boal were beautiful in Chaconne (and it was a treat to see Boal in this;  I don't think he's done it with NYCB).

Peter Boal has danced Chaconne at City. He partnered Judith Fugate in her debut and has performed it since.

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Friday night, my favorites on the "Balanchine Couples" program were the pas de deux from "Agon" with Magnicaballi and Mladenov, the best I've seen in a long, long time, the one from "Chaconne" with Goh and Boal, really otherworldly, so lovely, soft, light, and clear, and "Meditation", with Goh and Boal, in which Goh especially "turned up the volume," to use one of the phrases Farrell quotes herself in the Bomb Magazine interview using in rehearsal, and made her part really passionate. The "Apollo" pas de deux, with Fournier and Boal, was beautiful, and the one from "La Valse", more about arms than I recalled, got a large, very effective performance from Parsley and Ritter. The pas de deux Mauresque from "Don Quixote" was so striking I felt the music it was set to was better than it really was, and Frances Katzen's and Ritter's vivid performance helped a lot.

Among the less successful IMO was the pas de deux from "La Sonnambula", where Ritter didn't really take us into the Poet's stunned fascination with his ability to manipulate the Sleepwalker's body while being unable to reach her mind, and the audience sometimes laughed at his difficulties. Saturday afternoon, he was more effective, I felt, and the audience - a different one, of course - didn't laugh, either. Also "The Unanswered Question" from "Ivesiana" suffered by poor lighting on Cheryl Sladkin, carried aloft most of the time by four boys in black. Her "partner", Ryan Kelly, had his own follow spot, as well as a more active role, and was quite effective.

Bonnie Pickard's and Jared Redick's "Star and Stripes" pas de deux, with big classical clarity and witty touches, was the last one, and led into the finale of that ballet, with costumes and flag backdrop borrowed from DTH. It's a good, rousing finale, but seeing them all like that without having seen the preceding "campaigns" of that ballet, I felt, for the first and only time, a little deprived, like scoop.

As to the format of the program, I had wondered about a program of pas de deux: Would it be like a ballet gala, with Don Quixotes and Black Swans one after another? But this would be a selection from Balanchine's wide-ranging catalog, with plenty of opportunity for interesting contrasts, and selected by one of the most canny people around. (As it happens, I was quite takenwith the results.) The excerpts would be introduced by Farrell one at a time, and although I had heard an extemporaneous example of how very apt, even brilliant, Farrell could be at finding words about Balanchine as long ago as the early eighties, the worrier in me feared it could be too didactic for an audience which had come to be entertained. But she both complimented the audience's intelligence and amused it, although some people near me did say at the first intermission they'd rather have had that in the program; as though anticipating, Farrell gave one introduction to the following three pas de deux. In lesser hands, it could have been deadly dull, but she's Suzanne Farrell, still taking risks, and making them pay off.

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And wasn't it neat when she walked to center stage before Stars and Stripes and -- after a bit of technical problems that she wryly noted were the price of live theater -- lifted both arms overhead in time with the rising curtain, crisply executed a quarter-turn and strode off-stage in her red stilletos! :thumbsup:

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(from Washington, D.C.) This afternoon that bit went even better: There was no technical glitch, and when the curtain went up, she turned to the wing, raised her right hand to scoop a semicircle of the air as though to say, "Let's go!" (Maybe we should say, scoop, for those who weren't there, that she wore matching salmon-pink coat and skirt with those red stilettos.)

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Ari, that's an interesting observation about the chronological order of the ballet excerpts on Program II even if it's not quite strict (tsk, tsk!). Here are the premiere dates of the ballets in order of performance, from the program book:

Apollo 1928

La Sonnambula 1946

Ivesiana 1954

La Valse 1951

Agon 1957

Meditation 1963

Don Quixote 1963

Chaconne 1976

Stars and Stripes 1958

But your observation does point to one of Farrell's themes in her remarks, Balanchine's development, and especially the idea of elimination.

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For scoop, who forgot his (her?) notebook, for the poor New Yorkers who got snowed in, and anybody else curious, here's a taste, from my notes, of Farrell's remarks:

People asked Balanchine, What do your ballets mean? They have no story. He said, You don't ask a rose to explain itself; you marvel at its color, texture, perfume, and beauty. Besides, if you put a man and a woman on stage, already it's a story. (audience laughter) The heart, the reason for the ballet is the pas de deux. It's the crystallization of the choreography that came before it, and what comes after is its solution. When we leave the theatre, how we see life is changed. Each ballet has a different view of life.

You must know the rules, and you may break the laws - the ballet laws that is. (I'm not speaking for Mr. B.; these are my observations.) His pas de deux mostly don't follow the rule of the four-part pas de deux... There are three things we can think about, the visual technique - the structure of the choreography; the visual music - the audio architecture of the composer, which infuses the ballet with emotion and spirit; and the visual symbolism - the gesture and movement devised for the particular ballet...

Apollo: ...Are these movements reserved for the deities, or are they so identifiable they should not be repeated? Balanchine said that Stravinsky's music taught him he could eliminate from among the many possibilities to find the one inevitable possibility.

La Sonnambula: Set in a time when strict conventions pretended to be life... The partygoers leave the poet to suffer in poem [sic]... The separations of the Poet and the Sleepwalker are musically calibrated to keep us on edge... The pas de deux is daunting, absurd, and gripping in its pathos... Balanchine had an acute sense of timing, and knew when and how to end the pas de deux and keep us wondering...

Ivesiana (The Unanswered Question): In class, Balanchine liked to ask us which came first, the chicken or the egg? When the discussion was over, we were no nearer the answer, and more confused than ever, especially about what it had to do with our dancing. (audience laughter)... The calculated ambiguity of the Unanswered Question is left to the viewer to unscramble.

La Valse: Eliminating, he gives us more to see and to hear... Two people whose lives have become inextricably entwined by their fate.

Agon is Balanchine at his most reduced... Balanchine decided to follow the usual pas de deux formula.

Meditation: I was ineffective and awkward in one place, so I asked Balanchine if he would like to change the step. He said, No, it's all right, sometimes love is awkward... That night I did the step perfectly, and you know what? It didn't feel right. (audience laughter) (He taught us to live in the moment.)

Don Quixote (pas de deux Mauresque): The man who taught the world to appreciate a ballet for itself broke his own rule... Don Quixote respects Cervantes book. ...charming, whimsical music... gem of a pas de deux..

[As her remarks became shorter and less frequent:] I hope you noticed that I too have been eliminating. (audience laughter)

Chaconne: I asked him why so many important dances were on the diagonal, and he said, Because the distance is longer and we see you (are together) longer. Just as Albert Einstein discovered.

Stars and Stripes: Balanchine arrived here in 1934 and became a citizen in 1939. He gave his country a ballet company and made a repertory that mirrored the melting-pot of people who live here... Stars and Stripes shows genuine pride.

If you were there and think I made a mistake or left out something memorable, let's hear from you! Maybe we can make this a communal project.

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I'am impressed Jack. It seems you got her remarks exactly as I remember. I was

there yesterday at the Sunday Matinee. I attended the Tuesday rehearsal but was

reluctant to come off Bull Run Mountain during Thursday's snow and sleet. My loss!

I can't really add too much to the remarks made about the rehearsal or the first program. My favorite's in Program I were "Flowers" and "Serenade". Shannon

Parsley just sparkled as "Dewdrop". "Serenade" was so moving and Bonnie Pickard

was so lovely. Even the rehearsal without costumes moved me to tears a few times.

It was very exciting to see Suzanne Farrell coaching the dancers

in-between pieces. I think it added so much to the performances of Program II to have Farrell explain and illuminate the pas de deuxs for us. The only remark that I don't think you quoted Jack was about Apollo. I believe she said that to her knowledge that Balanchine never did repeat those moves in any other ballets.

What a treat to see the incomparable Peter Boal. I've heard how wonderful he is

but I've never seen him. He could just stand there and it would be art. To me Agon was the most profound piece. I can't imagine a better pair than Magnicaballi and Mladenov dancing it.

The Pas de Deux Mauresque from Don Quixote is so charming. I must see

Balanchine's Don Quixote next time someone does it. Do they?

Other than tape Stars and Stripes was another first for me. Wow! What absolute

fun and cheek. This brought several of us to our feet and also a rousing cheer

for Suzanne Farrell. Long may she wave.

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Bravo, Jack, for your excellent re-cap of Farrell's comments -- I'll never need a notebook if you're in the audience!

And Mary Lynn, you'll be glad to know that Farrell is planning to stage the entire Don Quixote in 2005. It hasn't been performed since the 1970s.

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(Sunday Matinee) Thanks Jack for posting Farrell's commentary! It was wonderful to hear it from Farrell herself; that made it much more personal than just having it printed in a handout.

I really liked the program. An all-pas-de-deux evening in other hands could have turned into a dinner that was all dessert, but not in this case - there was so much variety and interest. Afterwards I realized that there was not a tutu onstage the entire evening; wonder if that was deliberate?

Great verve, and I think excellent preparation, by the dancers. Even "Stars and Stripes" seemed fresh. Among many first-rate performances I'd mention Chan Hon Goh in "Sonnambula" and Ryan Kelly in "Unanswered Question."

Overall a very successful program. How about next year - anybody up for "The Balanchine Solo?"

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Although I did no posting in situ, I saw all seven performances and am back in New York, basking in the glow. The programs have been well-covered by Jack Reed and other posters, so I'll just add some sidelights.

First, boo hiss for the Washington Post, particularly for the headline writer who wrote: "Suzanne Farrell Ballet's Lifts and Stumbles." To make matters worse, when Sarah Kaufman's review was continued on an inside page, the headline was: "Farrell, Undone by The Odd Stumble." Nobody stumbled. I think the phrase this person was looking for is "highs and lows." Following that opening night review, there was no other until today. The review is a good one, too late to do any good. It evoked this from the headline writer: "Let's Duet: Farrell's 'Balanchine Couple'."

Suzanne changed her delivery slightly from one performance to the next. Saturday afternoon she left out the part about how when she finally got the "Meditation" step right, it didn't feel right. And there was no physical business before "Stars and Stripes." By yesterday, she began by holding the closed notebook, and only had recourse to it a couple of minutes later. Two things that didn't change were her salmon-colored dress, and her odd pronunciation of "Terpsichore."

I think Alexander Ritter had a marvelous week.

Saturday night the lady next to me had yellow roses on her lap. I asked who they were for, and she pointed with pride to Shannon Parsley's name in the program. "Our daughter," she and her husband said. We became fast friends when I said how much I'd admired her in "Tempo di Valse," and so I learned that she's married to Jared Redick, who got a bum rap in the opening night review of "Mozartiana." Shannon's been dancing for Suzanne for years now, starting out in the corps of "Suzanne Farrell Stages Balanchine," in 1995. As a girl she spent two summers at Cedar Islands.

After the Saturday matinee, Farrell signed the paperback of her book outside the Eisenhower Theater. I was pleased to see the long line, even though she wasn't wearing that salmon-colored number.

For me this was the highlight of the ballet year, made all the more memorable by the phone call I got from SF herself. Couldn't resist mentioning it.

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