The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC

October 21, 2016

Carmel Morgan

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet announced that it will close at the end of the 2017-18 season. Farrell will transition to a resident teaching artist role as the Kennedy Center expands its campus and offers additional educational programming. Under Farrell’s keen guidance, the company, which began performing annually at the Kennedy Center in 2001, has played an important part in keeping works of George Balanchine alive. Of course Farrell, who famously served as a muse for Balanchine at the New York City Ballet and worked intimately with him, knows quite a lot about “Mr. B’s” taste in dance. Given this background, the all-Balanchine program opening the company’s 15th anniversary season, its penultimate, was quite appropriate.    

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet has struck me in the past as being so dedicated to getting things right that sometimes the dancers appeared joyless, as if they were concentrating so hard that they forgot to let their emotions come through. There’s undisputedly a look to mastering Balanchine’s ballet technique, but there’s also a feeling, and the best dancers manage to find the right balance, so rather than seeming robotic their expression of Balanchine’s exacting and beautiful choreography takes flight. In the first piece on the program, Danses Concertantes, which premiered in 1944, I waited and waited for the dancers to collectively reach that magic threshold, where rather than merely dancing they bare their souls. It didn’t happen. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s just to say that there was an uneasiness about it somehow.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Danses Concertantes, choreography by George Balanchine,  © The George Balanchine Trust Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Danses Concertantes, choreography by George Balanchine,
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Danses Concertantes, to the music of the same name by Igor Stravinsky, features four sets of three dancers each, composed of two women and one man, all identified with particular colored costumes (green, blue, purple, and red), and a lead couple in vibrant golden yellow. On opening night the lead couple was Valerie Tellmann-Henning and her husband Kirk Henning. The atmosphere is light — a nod to Vaudeville, maybe, allowing for personalities to shine. Except they didn’t really. The playful shrugs and feet picked up like trotting deer didn’t accurately convey the carefree mood of the piece. Occasionally a dancer or two would get ahead of the music. There were wobbles. The angle of an arm was off. Where the viewer is meant to relish the symmetry, my eyes darted to differences in uniformity. I realize I’m being nitpicky, but the choreography invites this. I wanted to feel uplifted, the feeling the work should impart, and instead I was left feeling a little cheated.

Gounod Symphony, however, marked a divergent turn. This 1958 work is one that’s rarely been seen, and it’s a fantastic example of Balanchine’s genius. The original had Maria Tallchief and Jacques d’Amboise in the lead roles, and in The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s premiere, the leads were Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook. The leads were joined by 30 other dancers. The large cast makes it especially handsome. When the curtain rose to reveal so many dancers assembled together, you could hears gasps of appreciation. The picture was just so stunning! And the stunning beauty continued. Here the dancers didn’t play it safe. They danced with assuredness, but also with artistic joy.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Gounod Symphony, choreography by George Balanchine.  Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Gounod Symphony, choreography by George Balanchine.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Farrell chose to give the dancers different costumes to better show off their legs, and the striking new costume design by Holly Hynes is generally effective. A black and white theme is always classy. The costumes for the women, some wearing black and some white, look rather like retro sundresses. They have a sweetheart neckline and contrasting piping, which emphasizes the three-tiered skirts with a large slit in the front, off to one side. In their hair are sparkly baubles. My quibble concerning the costumes is with the color for the lead couple, which due to the lighting, perhaps, appears to be a dull khaki green, when I suspect it’s meant to read as a rich gold. I also feel that a more defined waistline would be more flattering, and the skirt fabric doesn’t appeal to me. I’d prefer to see something a little more whispery, with more movement and less sheen. And the men look a tad like waiters. Nevertheless, the dancing was glorious.

In Gounod Symphony, the company fared much better in terms of uniformity, which was a surprise given the large number dancers. My eye was seldom drawn to an errant body part. Magnicaballi and Cook performed adeptly, as did the rest of the cast. In long lines, women bourréed, creating criss-cross designs that took my breath away. With the women’s arms up in Vs, the men ducked underneath, spinning their partners and weaving into varying formations. Although the stage was often crowded, the patterns made the dancing soar. The gorgeous music by Charles Gounod (Symphony No. 1 in D major, 1855) was definitely enhanced by the choreography. The repeated group pose at the end reminded me of a garden fountain. The arms of the women extended above their heads in elongated tulip shapes, but stretched and tilted. My heart swelled, which is exactly the feeling I missed in the prior piece.    

Stars and Stripes, also from 1958, and another company premiere, is a much better known Balanchine work. The music by John Philip Sousa that accompanies it is familiar to most American audience members. This ballet is destined to remain a crowd pleaser on programs across the country.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Stars and Stripes, choreography by George Balanchine  Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s Allynne Noelle and Thomas Barrett in Stars and Stripes, choreography by George Balanchine
Photo by Paul Kolnik

There’s a risk, I suppose, that Stars and Stripes could come across as cheesy or obnoxious, with its flag promoting and rah rah USA sentiment. And I admit I wasn’t feeling very patriotic. Instead, I’ve been feeling bogged down by all of this election year’s nastiness. Thankfully, Stars and Stripes is the perfect antidote. I don’t see how one can go around hating immigrants in the face of such an entertaining ballet, choreographed by a Russian immigrant who became an American citizen in 1939, reflecting such pride in the United States. Just as there are love songs and love letters, this is a dazzling love ballet to this country.

The costumes, by Karinska, borrowed from the Milwaukee Ballet, are out of this world — feathered hats, white gloves, tutus, military inspired uniforms, boots, etc., all with impressive red, white and blue flare. Yes, there are stars and stripes in the costumes, in case you wondered.  As in Gounod Symphony, the dancing by the large cast was executed with precision. Again, too, the often crowded stage gave the patterns made by the dancers, sometimes standing almost shoulder to shoulder, more power.  

Stars and Stripes is a rousing good time, full of salutes, Rockette-type high kicks, and bouncy gallops. The Third Campaign, 3rd Regiment: Thunder and Gladiator stood out with Henning at the helm. The jumps and marching steps, and leaps and turns of the male dancers were so energetically produced that at the end of this section, Henning’s hat tipped off his head and rested behind his neck held by an elastic band. The highlight of the night, though, was the duet by Allynne Noelle and Thomas Garrett (Fourth Campaign, Liberty Bell and El Capitan). Wow, they danced with such charm and authority! Each was snappy and strong. Noelle jumped high, splaying her legs out a bit like points of a compass. Garrett, too, jumped high, his legs tucking under him like a frog puppet. The big sounds of the music were matched by their vivacious dancing. I think everyone would agree the evening ended on a high note. Better enjoy The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and its Balanchine works while you can!