Theater archives

Woman-Run Worlds


For several years now, George Balanchine’s last muse, Suzanne Farrell, has been polishing his legacy with beautifully directed performances of works she knows well. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which just finished a run at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and will play the Tilles Center in Brookville, Long Island, on Friday and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on October 21, is still a pickup group (most of its performers moonlight from other companies). However, with live music, 25 dancers, increased funding, and an ongoing relationship with the Kennedy Center, Farrell can now attempt more ambitious productions. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (from the 1936 musical On Your Toes) unfolds in the requisite pink and orange nightclub; the partying guests in the 1946 La Sonnambula occupy the necessary castle courtyard (by James Morgan). The guests in this most mysterious of Balanchine ballets seem to feel a trifle cramped on the Eisenhower Theater’s stage, but Farrell draws fine-tuned performing from all.

Interesting choices, these two ballets. Both Slaughter, in Broadway pop terms, and Sonnambula, a gothic tale (it’s like the last act of a ballet whose first acts are lost), invoke the Romantic trope of the unattainable female. The long-stemmed stripper in Slaughter may drape sexily backward off her little platform, but if a guy so much as touches her, her boss shoots to kill. The poet who dallies with Sonnambula‘s night-wandering maiden—gently pushing her into bourrées as if she were a sailboat on a pond—also ends up dead. Chan Hon Goh is marvelously creepy as the seemingly innocent heroine; I don’t think she ever blinks, and Christina Fagundes, as the resident flirt, is a glamorously earthy foil. Farrell actually makes you wonder what the heroine can be dreaming about and what’s going through the poet’s mesmerized mind. Jennifer Fournier plays the stripper in Slaughter with silky panache, bringing professional seductiveness and personal pleasure into an alluring dialogue. Ben Huys plays the hero in both ballets. Neither a flashy dancer nor a heartthrob type, he draws you in with his polished technique and intense characterizations.

The narrative ballets bookend three superb chamber works to late Stravinsky: Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, and Duo Concertante. Farrell knows these intimately; two were made on her. The six insect-like women of Movements—now assertive, now drooping and overcome with lassitude—jab their limbs like darning needles into Stravinsky’s delicately dissonant web. The courtly couples of Monumentum weave their patterns immaculately and with pride. Fournier is superbly cool and bold in Balanchine’s leggy, diamond-hard maneuvers, and Runqiao Du matches her with easy virtuosity and an interesting ardency. Peter Boal, always marvelous, seems especially happy to be performing Duo with Natalia Magnicaballi. No wonder. She treats the steps, the two onstage musicians, and Boal as if they were all features of a lovely playground in which she feels perfectly at home and quietly delighted.

Canada, Australia, Great Britain. The season is rife with imports, including Ginette Laurin’s Montreal-based O Vertigo. Laurin’s latest work, Luna, is less explosive than her earliest pieces; since 1998, she has explored a dreamier world. This moony landscape, eloquently lit by Axel Morgenthaler, is sensual but not erotic. Dancers tangle playfully, but just as often unite in crystalline patterns of big, smooth steps or stand and transmit cryptic hand signals.

The 75-minute work sometimes drags, but it is full of beauties. Light, buoyant. Your eyes are pulled between two separate but similar worlds. Various of the nine splendid dancers flash into view behind a rear scrim, echoing or counterpointing what’s occurring before them. In one lovely moment, two at the front perform a tinier version of actions done fully by three at the back. The music, an assemblage of unearthly pieces ranging from electronic shimmer to unaccompanied cello to medieval chant, enhances the mood of serene exploration. Amplified breathing accentuates the rhythm of the movements.

During the latter part of Luna, Laurin introduces scenic devices. Magnifying lenses, three feet in diameter, are wheeled in on stands; behind them, the dancers’ visages loom enormous on suddenly tiny bodies—moon-faces scrutinizing us. The five women sail about in immense hoop skirts of white china silk draped over frames. Lifted from beneath, Anne Barry becomes a towering lunar goddess. When cradled by these women, the men look suddenly small. In this layered universe, imagination and science embrace.

Two other Québecois choreographers spelled each other at St. Mark’s at September’s end, part of Danspace’s Global Exchange program. In Novembre, Laurence Lemieux investigates the aura of winter—its altering terrain, its isolating chill, and the memories conjured by dark days. None of this is obvious—the piece is intensely personal—but you sense the guiding metaphor.

Anthony de Mare plays evocative piano pieces by Christopher Butterfield. For a long time, tall Bill Coleman and the shorter Mark Shaub—interesting men in everyday clothes—stay close together while Lemieux dances by herself, edging into slow, elongated poses. But when she suddenly infiltrates and falls on them, they’re careful to anticipate her needs. These relationships are not spelled out; we don’t grasp why Daniel Villeneuve should be alone, stepping into shaky balances as if picking his way across uneven ground. We come to know and be fond of these sensitive, watchful people without ever fully understanding them. Lemieux, dancing to rippling music, gets spraddled and flingy, while Coleman prowls. Coleman and Shaub clutch each other, perhaps venturing down an icy path. At the end, Lemieux skids and falls over and over, snowflakes dropping through her fingers.

Like Lemieux’s Novembre, Dominique Porte’s Retard probable 5 mn feels long—what each choreographer has to say could be said in less than an hour. Yet the length promotes interest in the four members of Porte’s Systeme D, who seem obsessed with communication and miscommunication. Changing stools, Sara Hanley plays both roles in a purposefully vague conversation. Gibberish dialogues erupt. The dancers’ movements commune with composer Laurent Maslé at his console. Small wired pads taped to the floor respond to touch: Tap one and drums sound; stroke another and a drone commences.

In this mild battle between logic and usurping illogic, the tall, skinny, bespectacled male, Fabrice Merlen, wears a gray sarong. The beguiling performers (including Porte) thrash about with curious precision—all angles. They totter around on blocks equipped with shoes (Michael Trent takes a fresh red T-shirt from a tiny closet in one of the blocks). They wiggle their fingers, but who can read the message?