The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Opera House
Washington, DC

December 7, 2017

Carmel Morgan

So much history was present during the first of the farewell performances of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. To launch the evening, Farrell was honored by Washington Performing Arts with the Pola Nirenska Award for Outstanding and Lifetime Achievements in Dance. Nirenska, “a matriarch of modern dance in Washington, DC,” was a Polish Jew who fled her home country during World War II and eventually came to Washington, DC, where she danced, choreographed, taught, and led a dance company, elevating dance as an art form in the nation’s capital. Certainly Farrell has made many important and lasting contributions to the dance scene in the District, making her an appropriate recipient of this DC dance award. Farrell is well known as a ballet teacher, and her company has kept Balanchine’s masterful choreography alive. Farrell, of course, is in a unique position to help preserve and promote Balanchine’s works. She knew him and his style of dancing intimately. This local award from the DC dance community shows thanks for Farrell’s willingness to translate her special expertise to new generations of dancers and audience members.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, founded by Farrell, in 2001, has been an annual ballet staple at the Kennedy Center, although its dancers performed with the company on a purely part-time basis. From what I understand, although The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will cease operation shortly, Farrell may remain in a resident teaching artist role with the Kennedy Center. One hopes that Washington will continue to benefit from Farrell’s skill and insight, and that the dancers she has trained will use their experiences to keep Balanchine’s legacy going.

Gounod Symphony by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, choreography George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust, Photo by Paul Kolnik

Gounod Symphony by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, choreography © The George Balanchine Trust, Photo by Paul Kolnik

The good-bye performance began with Chaconne, a Balanchine work that premiered in 1976. Chaconne, to music by Christoph Willibald von Gluck (ballet music from Orfeo and Euridice), is plotless and grand. It shows off Balanchine’s flair for moving large numbers of dancers, for seamlessly blending classical ballet with curious modern tidbits — flexed hands, swishing hips. The effect is regal, with surprising playful elements. The dancers are both heavenly and grounded. They soar in lifts, flying like angels. Sprinkles of quirkiness, however, allow the ballet to stay earthly. In pale blues and white (costume design by Holly Hynes), the dancers are wisps of clouds in the sky. Their bare arms stretch and rotate like spokes. There’s something refreshing, simple, soft, and undeniably pretty about everything.

Heather Ogden and Thomas Garrett, a lovely pair, did a fine job as the leads. As the piece progressed, Ogden gradually loosened, visibly brightening and lightening. I did feel that the movement and music hadn’t quite yet settled in the dancers’ bodies. There were moments of messiness. There was also an overly controlled and careful quality that might have dissipated with more rehearsals and additional performances. If only The Suzanne Farrell Ballet had more time! Chaconne is satisfying and worthy of saving from being mothballed.

Tzigane, a Balanchine work from 1975, followed. This ballet is as spicy as Chaconne is calm. The skirts of the women (costumes again by Hynes) look like long pom-poms. Sparkly strips of reds and gold flap like fabric in a carwash. Earrings dangle, as do ribbons around the women’s ponytails. The music, by Maurice Ravel, lends a very sensual air to the dancing. In Tzigane, flexed feet and pointed ones alternate quickly. The dancers appear to engage in a rapid sort of jig. Folk elements are clearly present. Arms cross in front of the dancers, forearms glued from hand to elbow. In contrast to Chaconne’s slow stateliness, Tzigane offers fast sections that are a little naughty, and this provided a pleasant juxtaposition.  

Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in Tzigane, Choreography by George Balanchine, Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in Tzigane, Choreography by George Balanchine, Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Unfortunately, not long after Natalia Magnicaballi took the stage, an extremely loud sneeze made audience members laugh, and a second noisy sneeze was accompanied by even more giggles. Magnicaballi, however, danced undeterred. While her level of passion seemed to wane now and then, she performed adeptly. Like a caboose, she stepped backward and locked into Michael Cook, who had been echoing her movement behind her back, and they ignited a fun flirtation.    

After a pause came Meditation, from 1963, Balanchine’s first work choreographed specifically to star Farrell. She was paired with Jacques d’Amboise for the pas de deux’s premiere. Meditation presumably is a love letter to Farrell, so much so that Balanchine gifted her the rights to it in 1965 and asked her not to let anyone else perform it. After his death, however, Farrell decided to allow the ballet to be seen again and taught it to others. For that, ballet fans should be grateful.

Meditation, at approximately eight minutes long, is brief, but there are a lifetime of emotions wrapped up in it. The duet was the highlight of the evening, I think, because it’s a reflection of a love story, although the story may be open to some interpretation. Tchaikovsky’s music of the same name for violin and piano animates the the roller coaster of the heart that is Meditation. I was reminded of scenes in a few classical ballets in which a male is reunited with his lover, a ghost. Here, although dressed in white with long tresses flowing, the haunting female figure is probably a memory or wish.

Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning danced beautifully. Henning, especially, perfectly channeled his heartsick character. Mediation is melodramatic, but not excessively mushy. There are countless embraces, yet in the hands of Holowchuk and Henning, the desperate grasps were sincere. The nature of Henning’s adoration seemed to be worship. He grabbed Holowchuk’s ankles, took her hand and slid it across his cheek, and completely melted in her arms. At one point the couple held hands in a low huddle, clinging to the time that they knew was ticking away, when their parting would be inevitable. Holowchuk’s backward bourées were smooth and familiar. What ballerina representing a ghost or memory doesn’t daintily slide away? Even better, in a lift, Holowchuk appeared to sail forward, too. The way she was held close, then slipped away, was magical.

Gounod Symphony by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust, Photo by Paul Kolnik

Gounod Symphony by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust, Photo by Paul Kolnik

 The closing piece, Gounod Symphony, originally premiered in 1958, and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet premiered it at the Kennedy Center last year. It was triumph in 2016, and  remained so in 2017. The entire company deserves credit for pulling off such a gorgeous feat. The black and white costumes by Hynes really pop. Architecture is a dominant theme in the fetching costumes with contrasting piping as well as the impressive formations. Lines of dancers elaborately weave in and out like shapes in a kaleidoscope. When the synchronicity between the dancers and music is right, and the unison of the corps is spot on, Gounod Symphony absolutely sings. It was a lovely way to end The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s final season. I hope that DC audiences will be able to get a Balanchine fix elsewhere in the future. I also hope that Farrell’s dedication to supporting Balanchine’s genius will have a far-reaching impact, as dancers she has trained grow and introduce their knowledge to others.