Monday, September 21, 2009

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet-The Kennedy Center

Technology has been a true gift to the performing arts. With the emergence of audio, visual and computer innovation comes unlimited possibilities. There are now opportunities to record choreography and teaching techniques like never before. Previously, this was limited to a few obscure and uncommon notation systems. Yes, these methods, like Labanotation, allow dances to be logged. However, few dancers and choreographers know how to write or read these practices' hieroglyphics. So, their true usefulness is dubious. Video and other technological advances are clearly more accessible and user-friendly. Nevertheless, many gifts are also curses. Dance companies, to their detriment, now rely too heavily on technology and have moved away from primary choreographic sources when staging older works. Rather than looking for someone to help reconstruct a piece, a substandard video becomes the mediocre substitution. So, when you see a troupe that has a direct lineage with the original choreographer, the difference is clear. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet illustrates that technological tools are no match for personal first-hand experience.

The true Balanchine spirit in Pas d'Action from Divertimento No. 15, Agon's infamous duet, and the pas de deux from Stars and Stripes could have only been staged by one of his dancers. Of course, the choreography was amazing; it was Balanchine. But, what was most incredible was the extent to which Farrell has imparted her vast knowledge of this choreographer's style and technique. He was alive on the stage; both in the grandeur and in the quietest moments.

The opening of Divertimento No. 15 showcased Balanchine's love of movement. He celebrated dance and music, without creating false illusion on the stage. One of the ways he accomplished this was having the onstage dancers watch the soloist being featured. So often, the corps faces directly forward and pays no attention to what is happening center stage. In this excerpt, when the others watch the soloist, everyone's focus is on those steps at that moment, nothing fake or artificial, just movement. The Agon pas de deux is an incredibly difficult and intricate work that Farrell staged brilliantly. The two dancers were able to complete partnering that is both awkward and fluid at the same time, a testament to both theirs and Farrell's talent. My favorite moment was right before the final pose, when the ballerina, who has been contorted, bent and twisted through the whole duet, passes through a clear and defined first position. Other artistic directors miss that opportunity, and it is so important. In that brief second, we are reminded where all choreography and movement in ballet comes from: the first position of the feet. All the brilliant supports and lifts can be traced back to that place and moment of stability. The Stars and Stripes pas de deux was also well-coached; however, the female lead was a bit off on Saturday night. Her developpe in 2nd looked labored and noticeably dropped during the partnered promenade. Her en dedans turns and fouettes were technically sound, but she had difficulty sticking the landing on one of her variations and had some shaky moments on pointe. I need to see this company perform that piece again to get a real sense of the Balanchinian moments that were so beautifully clear in Divertimento No. 15 and Agon. I have seen these works staged on more advanced dancers, but they did not have the magic that was present with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. That goes to show that technique only takes you so far; artistry is everything and Farrell is doing something with her company that others should emulate.

Video is a wonderful choreographic tool, but it cannot capture everything. It can miss the intricate 'isms' and true essence of the work. Technology will continue to advance and hopefully, the quality of archival videos will improve and reflect that progress. I still think that re-staging of dance is more authentic and genuine when passed from person to person rather than from a machine.

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