Heartfelt Balanchine

A young company performs an old master's work as if it were today's good news

There's a moment in George Balanchine's La Source, as performed by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at Jacob's Pillow's Ted Shawn Theatre, when eight women in identical fluffy pink dresses bend forward and cross their wrists. It's a minor moment on the way to a bigger one, and a ballet cliché at that, but the way those women lean into the movement and regard their wrists induces they same kind of pleasure in me that they appear to feel.

In the six years since the group began operating under the aegis of the Kennedy Center, Farrell, the former great Balanchine ballerina, has begun to rely less on guest artists and cement her small company (seven "featured artists" and a corps de ballet of eight women and five men) into a cohesive and apparently collegial group. Not every dancer operates in the upper echelons of technical prowess, but Farrell has instilled in all of them an attentiveness to musical phrasing, clarity of line, elegant carriage of the arms, and a sense of the three-dimensionality of their movements.

That three-dimensional effect is largely due, I think, to the sensitive way they vary their gaze—now looking up, now down at their busy feet, now toward a colleague, now toward us. They make the space around them a lively place to match their own liveliness. They look wonderful dancing, in part because they look as if they feel wonderful dancing. When, for example, Ashley Hubbard performs the first of six entrancing solo variations that Balanchine choreographed to Mozart's Divertimento No. 15, you see the individual steps as a personal statement—skillfully articulated, clear and unaffected, committed to the choreography without being in the least cautious or reverent.

That's the air the whole company projects. The performers make the many miraculous little complexities with which Balanchine matches Mozart precise, yet breezy. Shannon Parsley tosses off the swift-footed sixth variation as if she were brushing silk with her little finger instead of brushing a wood floor with two normal-sized feet in point shoes. The ensemble dancers treat their passages as agreeable conversation.

The repertory, naturally, includes ballets Balanchine made for Farrell during her years as resident muse at the New York City Ballet. All that could be retrieved of Clarinade, set to Morton Gould's Derivations for Clarinet and Jazz Band, is the bluesy duet originally performed by Farrell and Anthony Blum. The music was composed for Benny Goodman, who played it at the ballet's 1964 premiere. To Balanchine, the clarinet's sinuous interplay with the ensemble spelled sensual heat and a complex relationship. The duet is almost an apache dance, like that in the choreographer's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Erin Mahoney-Du, a wonderfully pliant, voluptuous mover, tangles with Benjamin Lesser, a skinny young corps member who more or less holds his own. This is one of Balanchine's forays into jazz, with swinging, thrusting hips; hunkered-down postures; and jutting chins. The man and woman hold hands to form chains and snares they can clamber over or twist under; she rides him in a position reminiscent of copulating Tibetan deities and they squirm against each other.

Tzigane, set to Maurice Ravel's eponymous piece, was the first ballet Balanchine choreographed for Farrell when she returned to the NYCB after four years in Maurice Béjart's company. The opening solo is a marvel of gypsy sultriness and gawky innocence, shyness and brazenness, and Natalia Magnicaballi performs it magnificently. Teasing us and the music, she seems to be playing alone by herself in the moonlight, trying out strategies, and pausing to reflect on their value. The partner who arrives along with a festive ensemble is Momchil Mladenov; he's a little rough around the edges, but tall and zesty as he attempts to master this wild-legged filly.

After Magnicaballi's riveting peformance in Tzigane, I was surprised to find her slightly brittle and guarded in Divertimento No.15. One striking thing about these dancers is how daring most of them are about extending themselves into space—legs, arms, torso, spirit. They get the flirty point of Balanchine's La Source, set to familiar, pretty ballet music from Léo Delibes's 1866 score. The original ballerina for the first part was Violette Verdy, and Balanchine not only celebrated her wit, charm, and musicality but the pert, self-aware style of the Paris Opera Ballet. A cool but sparkling soubrette, Bonnie Picard dances the solos and duets with a bold delicacy and sweetness. It's refreshing the way she executes her needle-sharp little steps as if they constituted a solitary game as basic as hopscotch. Her partner, Runqiao Du, excels at feathery little beats and soft jumps, but doesn't relate to her very pointedly or warmly. Mahoney-Du leads the second part that Balanchine added almost a year after La Source's 1968 premiere. She flips her legs in and out and joins her eight-woman ensemble in prances that evoke the can-can. There's something very generous about Mahoney-Du's dancing; she moves fully but without apparent strain or effort, as if presenting us with a gift she knows we'll like.

 
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