The evanescence of dance has always been part of its appeal: the jewel-like forms that vanish as soon as they crystallize, fleeting icons of the body’s own mortality, immaterial as the human relationships — whether sexy one-night stands or mythic loves — that dance depicts. However, that very ephemeral nature also presents a dilemma to those who wish that the legacy of great choreography will pass-on to, (rather than pass by) a new generation. Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine’s longtime muse on whom he choreographed many of his most famous ballets, came to Ithaca with her own company of dancers for an all-Balanchine program on Thursday, March 17. Her troupe’s interpretation of Balanchine took a decided turn: “Ballet,” Ms. Farrell announced, is “made for the pas de deux.” It’s no wonder a great prima would take such a view, but Ms. Farrell took this interpretation one step further, presenting a program of excerpts that were all pas de deux.
Between each pas de deux, Farrell came on stage and delivered an introduction, which changed the focus of the evening from enjoying the ballet to studying it as a consecrated museum piece. Rather than attend to the dancers’ movements in the here and now, we were asked to imaginatively reconstruct the historical context of the choreography using the brief excerpts as our guides. Farrell’s curatorial monologues felt heavy-handed, often telling the audience what they should feel instead of letting them adore or damn the spectacle on their own. This resulted in a disjointed evening that resembled a lecture more than a performance, and gave the event the stultifying air of an academic exercise — which many in the audience during midterms probably hoped to escape. Farrell’s tidbits were at their most entertaining when she refrained from analysis and indulged in backstage gossip about beloved Mr. B.
At times, though, Farrell’s emphasis on the pas de deux proved invigorating, such as the excerpt from La Somnambula, which involves a suitor pursuing a sleepwalker whose motions resemble a mechanized doll. The elegant simplicity of the choreography consists mostly of boureés in the unusual sixth position with the feet parallel. Kendra Mitchell gracefully flutters away from the grasp of Ian Grosh even as the rest of her remains stiff and upright. Mitchell holds a candle to guide her, which, eluding the hand of Grosh, becomes a comedic phallic symbol. Parodying ballet’s stiffness, Mitchell remains erect the entire pas de deux while Grosh literally is made to bend over backwards. Despite Mitchell’s impassive mask of sleep, she conveyed a glowing stage presence: The tension between somnolence and showiness is electrifying. The pas de deux has a haunted quality; inspiration is represented as phantasm and evasion. In this fever dream, neither dancer touches the other unless through the medium of the melting candle, enlightened only by their inner visions. Mitchell slips though Grosh’s fingers, an ignis fatuus, and drifts offstage.
In “The Unanswered Question” from Ivesiana, another wonderful stand-alone piece, an eerie spotlight shrouds Elizabeth Holowchuk who is held aloft by four male dancers in black, creating the illusion — on a grander scale than usual for ballet — of a dancer hovering in air. Her body twists around the four supporting, though nearly invisible, male dancers as she tantalizes Andrew Shore Kaminski who trails her from his grounded position. At several points in the dance, Kaminski lies flat on his back while Holowchuk fans her limbs, swooping over his supine form for a fly-by that’s only inches above him. Then, Holowchuk’s flips upward and tumbles headlong amid the seemingly vacant space below her, a floating apparition with supernatural powers. Kaminski’s worshipful posturing issues in an instant of contact in which Holowchuk comes down from her exulted plane and partners with Kaminski in an ironically earthbound lift. After this fleeting contact, however, she returns to her aerial perch to once more cavort on the clouds.
In Agon the dancers are costumed in black-and-white warm-up gear, which makes the pas de deux stark and efficient, much like modern dance. Nonetheless, Balanchine’s neoclassical style reworks traditional forms with touches such as a pirouette with a bent knee and turned-in promenades. The dancers’ limbs were juxtaposed at strong angles, and these shapes comprised the core of the choreography. In Quixote’s pas de deux, on the other hand, the florid costumes and floor-pattern are eye-catching to the point of distraction. At one point the male dancer sits on the floor in a lotus position, observing his partner dancing petite allegro; then she folds her legs beneath herself, undulates her neck in the manner of a snakecharmer and watches her partner’s solo. The dance, originally performed in 1965, strikes a note of Orientalizing pastiche today.
Often, as in the case of a brief excerpt from Apollo, the witty repetitions and the emotive arc of the ballet’s story were sacrificed in favor of what amounted to a short technical demonstration. The program’s finale featured Stars and Stripes characterized with swift pirouettes and frappés with elongated patterns made along the diagonal of the stage. Each dancer had an extended turn in the spotlight to solo, though it struck somewhat of empty athleticism just as the costumes themselves looked a tad gaudy and bellicose.
While the chance to witness first-rate ballerinas and danseurs perform is a rare and fleeting treat in Ithaca, a better method of contextualizing, as well as conserving, Balanchine’s amazing choreography for an audience that has so little opportunity to see full productions may have been to give us less analysis and excerpts and, instead — what I’m sure most in the audience were breathless for at the evening’s end — more ballet.