13 September 2014

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, 8 & 9 (matinee) November 2013: Program B, Tempi/Agon (3/3)

Program B: Pas de dix/Duo Concertant/Tempi de Valse/Agon
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington DC

Friday, 8 November 2013
Orchestra S105

Saturday, 9 November 2013, 1:30 PM matinee
Orchestra Q106

The Waltz of the Flowers stalked me from coast to coast in 2013. I would blame somebody, but it's choreographic catnip and I'm too busy gorging on it to formulate paranoid conspiracy theories.

TSFB presented it as Tempi di Valse, or to be absolutely correct, an excerpt of the same, as only one tempo was given at these performances and four of the five original components in the suite were missing.  The program claims that its unadorned setting makes the viewer more acutely aware of the geometry in Balanchine's vision. To repeat the paltry text thus far, I cheerfully partook of the revisions, but I also spent half of my time missing the traditional setting in an appalling display of orthodoxy.

Tempi presents the Waltz of the Flowers without sets or costumes. We got a stage, some orange lights, and dancers attired in the "modern Balanchine" school of dancewear: minimally decorated leotards attached to wispy skirts, or vice versa. However, the crisscrossing bust detail on everyone reminded me not so much of Allegro Brilliante as much as Amazons waiting to go on stage for some Soviet dramballet.

It's a minor detail, but as with movement 2 of the Brahms-Schoënberg Quartet that TSFB put on in 2008, Waltz doesn't work as well without the triple-tiered poofy dresses . The modern Balanchine skirt is filmy and slices through the choreography when I want weightless froth to float above it, a distraction rather than a complement to the music.

I don't have much to say about the dancing except that the corp danced exuberantly. At the Friday performance, Paola Hartley was competent but does not sufficiently differentiate herself from her companions. In the same role at the Saturday matinee, Heather Ogden suggested full-bodied delight about thirty minutes after cranking out the lead in Pas de Dix, even in (slight) panic as she threw herself at her mark after missing an entrance cue.

The Eisenhower Theater is so small that the corp fills it without allowing for even the imagining of scenery or bigger skirts. At one point, what had been two lines of revolving girls, originally designed to hide Dewdrop's exit behind them, now looked like two panes of a very large and heavy door swinging shut. Yes, program, this production did allow me to more clearly see Mr B's geometry. The increased prominence of the dancers as (womanly) bodies and not flowers also made me fear for my life a little. One flying leap from stage, and there will have been a flattened ex-blogger in row Q.

After almost ten years, I've finally reached the point when I can speak carelessly about a piece of choreography through the years, or even across companies. Like my Ph.D., it is a highly specific—though slightly more useless—sort of expertise.

I first saw the Dance Theater of Harlem perform Agon in 2004. My ears wrestled with Stravinsky and my eyes unsuccessfully tried to uncross themselves at sight of the highly incomprehensible action. TSFB last put on Agon in 2010, and that time I had the good taste to enjoy it.

I'll save readers the agony of reading a summary of the action, and myself the effort of having to write it. TSFB's Agon perpetually looks on the verge of being finished but never achieves that promise, and the impression solidified over the three performances that I have now seen. I had wondered in Duo whether sameness became an issue when I mainlined performances, and the concern reappeared with Agon. Well, I'm about to go see Jewels four times in one weekend in Seattle, so stay tuned for the twitching.

In the first pas de trois, Kirk Henning frivoled languidly, which provided a surprising contrast against the music; Jane Morgan was alertly lissom (I wonder if this combination of words had ever been said before) while Amy Brandt danced well and courteously but occasionally mugged for the cheap seats. In the second pas de trois, Ian Grosh found the dignity that he was looking for in Mozartiana, while Matthew Renko (listed for Friday and Sunday but performed Saturday as well) appropriately restrained his Tigger-ness; I want to use some other word besides competent to describe Paola Hartley, but the synonyms all sound like faint praise when I simply mean that she can do better in this highly excellent company. Fatigue did become an issue at the matinee, as the men nearly dropped her at the end of the Bransle Double.

Michael Cook and Elisabeth Holowchuk danced the central pas de deux in both performances that I saw. Their dancing tended toward adversarial and passionately arctic—I hate you, but we dance well together, so I'll let you live today if you don't miss any steps—which suits the competitive aspect of Agon. Cook was sharper on Saturday afternoon to match his foe.

Agon is Greek for "contest". This is repeated ad nauseum in programs, often without the annotation that the movements are named for French court dances. The cold adversarial competition seems to be a trend, but having received volume 2 of VAI's series of NYCB in Montréal, I think that companies who program this piece have gone too far in pushing that interpretation. Violette Verdy can still smile at both of her partners in acknowledgement in the second pas de trois and wallop them both with her execution of the choreography. Instead of studied disdain, Brandt acknowledged that she was dancing with someone on stage, and I didn't know why it pleased me until I saw Verdy.

As always, I cringed over the finger snaps in the Double Pas-de-Quatre, cringed over my anticipation of that silly moment, and cringed over why Balanchine ever thought the overt mickey mousing of the music was a good idea. The orchestra smeared themselves all over the score on Friday and all but the mandolin and strings redeemed themselves on Saturday.

More whinging about costuming in Mozartiana next.

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