Suzanne Farrell Ballet at The Kennedy Center by Carolyn Kelemen


Farrell gets good times rolling at The Kennedy Center

Hold onto your hat and step lively. The ballet season at The Kennedy Center finally gets into the gusty days of fall with a whirlwind of activity. Last week the Washington Ballet treated us to its haunting version of Giselle, and next Tuesday evening, British choreographer Matthew Bourne offers the latest in his trilogy of gender-bending ballets, Sleeping Beauty with a Gothic touch.

Heather Ogden Michael Cook and company in 'Mozartiana.' Photo by Linda Spillers.

Heather Ogden Michael Cook and company in ‘Mozartiana.’ Photo by Linda Spillers.

Let the fun begin!

It’s not too late to buy a dance subscription for the 2013-14 season at The Kennedy Center – best way to see Bourne as it’s a near sell-out. The ballet series includes visits by eight international companies, starting with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Eisenhower Theater through the weekend. Her expanded 30-member SFB performs two distinct programs with six of the seven works by George Balanchine, all accompanied by The Kennedy Center Orchestra – a rare treat, indeed.

With her intimate experience in Balanchine’s works, Farrell caries forth the master’s legacy via her company’s annual performances and workshops. Farrell’s personal and professional story encompasses her complex relationship with “Mr B,” as he was known to the world, and reminds us how she inspired him to create some of the world’s great ballets.

Mozartiana changed my life more than any other ballet Balanchine made on me,” she writes in the program notes. “There was this sense that it might be his last ballet…which is why it is so profound.”

According to the dancer-turned-director, Balanchine loved having children in his works, so that might explain why Program A features young dancers from the Maryland Youth Balletcoached by Michelle Lees. A darling little redhead caught our attention during the prayer-like opening of Mozartiana, an intimate, elegant ballet that serves as a prelude of what’s to come.

Dressed in a pale grey, almost silver in some lights, Heather Ogden bourees (quick steps performed on point) downstage, while her sweet little sisters (in soft shoes) follow her every move. The four girls return at the end performing difficult combinations just like the big girls. Midway Ian Grosh dances the Gigue, a fast-moving variation that includes beats of the feet and turns over and over again.

Later in the ballet, set to Suite No. 4 Mozartiana, Op. 61, the ballerina pulled off with partner Michael Cook those sweeping lifts, turns, and waltzes that Farrell herself executed to perfection back when she was performing with the New York City Ballet. At times the couple reminded this writer of a young Farrell dancing with Peter Martins.

She definitely likes tall men in her company.

Farrell’s troupe draws upon both the softer side as well as the strong, severe, neoclassical style of Balanchine’s art. His pioneering vision came to dominate and revolutionize classical ballet in the last half of the 20th Century, and dancers worldwide continue to embrace and exalt in his creations.

Balanchine had a gift for taking a simple movement and filling it with unexpected character. In Episodes, the second work in Program A (my favorite ballet of the evening), the nymph-like ballerina Paola Hartley thrusts her shoulders forward, glances over her shoulder as she balances on point and finally melts with a liquid shimmer. There’s a bit of humor, too, when Jordyn Richter turns a dancer upside-down, her legs acting like a swan fluttering in the wind. The severe, striking dance falls into the category of Balanchine’s black-and-white ballets, among them the classic Agon which closes the second program.

While I suspect that the audience came to see Farrell present Balanchine and enjoyed the intelligent interpretation in the first two dances presented, I had this lingering feeling that newcomers preferred the wilder ending of the program. The audience cheered Romeo & Juliet, a ballet choreographed by Paul Mejia in 1978 for Ballet De Guatemala and here for the first time.

Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo by Linda Spillers.

Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Photo by Linda Spillers.

Set to the familiar (but condensed) Tchaikovsky score, this isn’t your grandmother’s gushy, Romeo & Juliet. Instead it’s a bleak portrayal of the tragic tale told through flashbacks after Juliet finds Romeo dead in the tomb. Juliet (Elisabeth Holowchuk) and Romeo (Kirk Henning) were dressed in white, while their large corps de ballet (representing both the Montagues and Capulets) were in black. It’s heavy on the drama and light on the chemistry.

The fascinating ending (my editor won’t let me give it away) was something Maurice Bejart could have created for Mejia and Farrell when they both danced in his Ballet of the 20th Century in Belgium. It made me long for Bejart’s sexy, sensual ballets like Bolero. Thanks Paul Mejia for bring back some of these memories. And, thanks Suzanne Farrell for carrying the torch of your mentor.  

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with two 15-minute intermissions.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performs through Sunday, November 10, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington DC. Program A repeats tonight, Thursday, November 7th at 7:30 p.m. Saturday evening, November 9th, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, November 10th at 1:30 p.m. For tickets, call (800) 444-1324 or 202-467-4600, or purchase them online.

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