When Suzanne Farrell danced – for nearly three decades at New York City Ballet, as Balanchine’s last, possibly most inspiring muse – she made the steps faster and vaster, more slippery and more punctuated, but always with a vision of the whole. You could see her – the majesty and extremity – in the ballets she brought to New York last week for her Washington troupe’s first visit since it was established a decade ago. But you could not see her in the dancing.
In Balanchine, the legs and feet and arms and back move in contrapuntal concert from a powerful pelvis. The dancer’s job is not to co-ordinate a gaggle of body parts but to stretch a central impulse into visibility. At the Joyce, the dancing was mainly piecemeal, the ballets only intermittently Balanchinean.
But those moments set the whole Balanchine oeuvre in motion, with Farrell’s interpretative powers lighting up the otherwise docile performers. During Agon – the evening’s most fully embodied work – when Momchil Mladenov gripped Elisabeth Holowchuk’s calf to guide her leg backward, I was reminded of the team of cavaliers in Rubies that hoist the sexy soloist’s leg like a beam at a construction site. Agon’s cubism returns a decade later as cheesecake and comedy.
The rare works that Farrell has reconstructed revealed other family resemblances. Haieff Divertimento from 1947 possesses the courtliness and lonely man of Ballet Imperial, the strenuous off-kilter daring of that other Divertimento, to Mozart, and the zany wit of Danses Concertantes – all from midcentury.
And yet there are passages of unalloyed invention unique to this chamber ballet, such as the central couple’s embrace. Foreheads almost touching, they rested their straight arms on each other’s shoulders and blinked their palms like Broadway lights. The scene was kitschy but also poignantly insular, with the duo so caught up in creating a private language that they forgot about us.
Meditation, the 1963 duet by which Balanchine introduced Farrell to the world at the age of 18, seems to anticipate the gummy raptures of ballet today, except that this woman performs her contortions largely unaided. The man is busy holding his head in his hands. Balanchine proves novel even when maudlin. He is incapable of boring even when the dancers do him no favours.