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Dance Review

Farrell moves nicely from muse to master of her troupe with her work for 'Balanchine Celebration.'

September 19, 2000|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

WASHINGTON — The Vatican may proclaim that there's only one path to salvation, but the approaches to Balanchine heaven are, happily, more numerous and varied.

In progress at the Kennedy Center, a splashy two-week "Balanchine Celebration" enlists six companies in a millennial tribute to the ongoing vitality and influence of one choreographer's seminal artistic vision.

Members of the Bolshoi Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and San Francisco Ballet grace other "Celebration" programs, but the lineup over the weekend gained extra excitement from the presence of a new-minted classical ensemble--the Suzanne Farrell Ballet--juxtaposed with the familiar excellence of Miami City Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. A contractual conflict kept New York City Ballet--Balanchine's home company--from participating.

But Farrell's presence helped mitigate that lack. At New York City Ballet, she served Balanchine as a glorious dancing instrument and inspiration over a 28-year period ending in 1989.

Moreover, after her performing career ended, she enhanced her reputation by staging his ballets for companies throughout the United States and Europe. However, forming a handpicked chamber ensemble of her own under Kennedy Center auspices has redefined her as a potential force in the ballet world at exactly the time when a leadership shortage has led a number of major international companies to appoint marginal or untested artistic directors.

By itself, the Farrell company's performance of "Divertimento No. 15" twice on Saturday might not have been enough to make search committees in London, Copenhagen or Sydney wish they had looked in her direction. But give her time. The technical sheen, unanimity of style, refined musicality and disarming freshness that her dancers brought to this notoriously challenging, plotless 1956 suite would be remarkable anywhere.

Even if the problematic horn and string tone of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra frequently soured the Mozart score that gives the ballet its title and threatened to undercut the dancing, conductor Ron Matson established a majestic heartbeat for the performance--one especially congenial for Chan Hon Goh, Natalia Magnicaballi, Philip Neal, Eric Lindemer and--in the nearest this ensemble vehicle gets to a prima ballerina role--Christina Fagundes.

Throughout, the choreography negotiated 18th century dance rhythms, 19th century classical steps and the portrait of 20th century American womanhood that Balanchine focused on in work after work: a playoff that Farrell enhanced in her staging and that her dancers delivered with love, pride and care.

*

In its radically modern way, that image of American womanhood also dominates "Agon," a Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration from 1957 full of spectacular inversions of classical technique. Farrell's triumphant staging for Miami City Ballet sharpened the contrasts, deepened the pulse and helped the dancers find the perfect timing for the jokes--the passage, for instance, in which a woman seems to be supported in a balance by her partner but is really supporting herself unaided.

Dancing with maximum stretch and velocity, Jennifer Kronenberg smoldered dangerously in the thorny pas de deux, attended by Eric Quillere but by no means sharing the spotlight with anyone.

Nobody, however, eclipsed Quillere in "The Four Temperaments," the Balanchine-Hindemith masterpiece from 1946 exploring the medieval premise that human behavior stems from four key emotional qualities, or "humors."

Performed by Miami City Ballet in an uneven staging by artistic director Edward Villella and Eve Lawson, it somehow remained generally flat on Saturday, except for its taut, engrossing last third--from Quillere's powerful "Phlegmatic" contortions through the "Choleric" finale led by the long-limbed, authoritative Melanie Atkins. Akira Endo conducted expertly.

Nor did either of the two Joffrey Ballet casts catch the wildness of the 1964 "Tarantella" showpiece to music by Gottschalk. As staged by Victoria Simon and conducted by Allan Lewis, no sense of rising bravura excitement--of each performer daring the other to greater achievement--ever swept the dancers up into something greater than themselves.

Instead, the duet stayed at the same level of forced gaiety, with the ideally saucy and pliant Tracy Julius dominating the technically overtaxed Randy Herrera in the afternoon and the mannered but tireless Calvin Kitten overshadowing the game but limited Maia Wilkins in the evening.

Other "Balanchine Celebration" programs continue through Sept. 24.

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