Pas de deux by Balanchine

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday October 27, 2009
Share this Post:

Two recent shows by two not-quite-real ballet companies gave distinct but mixed pleasures. The "Oakland Ballet Company" did some very beautiful things October 16 on the stage of Holy Names University's little theater, in hopes of keeping community interest alive until they can reconstitute  more solidly. Then, last Saturday night, the pick-up company that performs under the direction of the retired ballerina Suzanne Farrell gave a lecture-demo showing of pas de deux by George Balanchine that was of the greatest interest, at UC   Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. Neither evening added up, each provoked mixed emotions, but both were sincere, generous efforts, and both provided a great deal of pleasure to dance lovers.

Oakland Ballet was a real institution in the 1980s and 90s. They had fans, and they gave them something worth having – the ballet equivalent of the operas of Verdi, which yoked extreme technical demands with a populist, democratic impulse that appealed to the people of a hard-working town. And like the Oakland A's, with whom they had a bond, they were world-class. But the man behind Oakland Ballet, Ronn Guidi, now in failing health, has lost his power to hold it together, and it's hard to say it could ever return to strength. The dancers that night were vivid: Gabriel Williams, Coreen Danaher, Denise Schmalle, Ethan White, Mario Labrador, Aaron Thayer, Paris Wages, and especially Erin Yarborough-Stewart – but many of them are already members of other companies, and were lending their services to the cause. Oakland's ballerina Jenna McClintock curated the evening and also danced, showing beautiful classical demeanor. She is a generous dancer with a great deal to offer before her career is through.

Farrell's company showed superb choreography weakly executed, but danced with very good musicality and feeling. Oakland showed serviceable choreography very well performed. Indeed, Smuin Ballet's Erin Yarborough-Stewart is perhaps a stronger dancer than anybody in Farrell's company, and her appearances that night (in Amy Seiwert's "Revealing the Bridge" and in Michael Lowe's "Double Happiness") remain in my memory more vividly than any particular thing I saw just last night from Farrell's. But Farrell's show added greatly to our understanding of Balanchine and shone a fascinating light on the strangeness of his work.


After Apollo

Balanchine is by common consent the greatest choreographer of the 20th century. His long career began in Russia immediately after the Soviets came into power; he escaped to Paris, where Diaghilev put him to work for the Ballets Russes, and there he choreographed his first masterpiece, "Apollo," with costumes by Coco Chanel and music by Stravinsky. He made it to the USA in the 1930s, became a citizen in 1939, and remained here the rest of his life. After working in Hollywood and on Broadway, he got his real love, a ballet company, established as the New York City Ballet in 1948. Suzanne Farrell came into his life as a scholarship student at age 15, and the story of his obsession with her was on the cover of Life magazine in 1965.

From the first, he'd married his ballerinas, but Farrell would not have him, and she left, and she went to Europe but came back. For two decades he made most of his ballets to feature her. So what she knows about what he wanted is, though not perfect, perhaps the single greatest source of insight into the greatest body of ballets extant.

But she was not able to work at NYCB under Balanchine's successor, her former partner, Peter Martins. Who knows why; ballet is a snake-pit. Michael Kaiser has given her company resident status at the Kennedy Center, and they are no longer the pick-up company they once patently were. But still, she shares her only ballerina with Arizona Ballet. It is increasingly commonplace for excellent dancers to work with many companies. But it is hard to develop company style when the dancers are working under many different aesthetics.

The great thing Farrell got out of her dancers was palpable, mutual respect. Hers is a woman-centered, feminine company, and the partnering was not just first-rate, it was a vision of how beautifully one person can address another. The men are beautiful, like stallions, sensitive as pit bulls, and as attentive to the women as any creature I've ever known. You know how a good dog waits for permission, but understands that you are aware of his desires and his powers. The men were like that.

It was especially thrilling in the Gothic ballets: three of them have very dark emotional currents. "La Valse" (Ravel) even has an apparition who stands like a vampire in the background as the doomed couple meet and greet with elaborate, mysterious arm gestures and negotiate the deepening fascination with each other, until at the last minute he lifts her in huge arcs and bears her swiftly away.

In "Sonnambula" (Rieti's orchestration of Bellini), a poet encounters a sleepwalker, and, realizing that she's unconscious but does know he's there, he begins taking more and more liberties with her. She's floating across the stage holding a lit candle rigidly in front of her, taking those little, nibbling steps on pointe called Bourrees. He detects that she knows where he is, puts a foot out in her way, she steps over it, he wraps his arms around her without actually quite touching her, he pushes her gently, as if she were on a swing, and she glides away and returns.

The program included pas de deux from "Apollo," "Agon," "Don Quixote," "Chaconne," and "Meditation," which Balanchine made for Farrell when she was 18. It will stay with me for a long time. Program two opened too late for review.