On a Small Stage, Big Lessons about Balanchine: Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s New York Debut at the Joyce Theater

When presenting a ballet company to New York for the first time, it takes courage to mount an all-Balanchine program that includes Agon and the pas de deux from Diamonds. It’s even more brazen — financial considerations aside — to transpose Balanchine’s choreography to the Joyce Theater’s diminutive stage, and to have his musical ballets danced not to the usual live orchestra but taped recordings.

Yet these were the obstacles happily met by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the Kennedy Center-based company founded a decade ago by Balanchine’s last great muse. Whether you consider their experiment a success hinges on your expectations. If you hoped for an experience like one you’d have at Lincoln Center, I’m sure you were disappointed. If you were open to learning about Balanchine and glimpsing two seldom-seen ballets (Haieff Divertimiento and Meditation) — and didn’t mind a few falls — the Joyce was the place to be.

Haieff Divertimiento premiered in January 1947, less than two months after The Four Temperaments. I hadn’t seen it before, and for good reason: It hasn’t been performed regularly here since the 1950s. I’m not sure why, since it’s a real gem: sweet, energetic, and engrossing. It moves between exuberance and introspection, following four happy couples and a lonely man who finds his own mate. Balanchine was often encouraged to revive the ballet but refused, claiming he’d forgotten it. (He said that even if he could remember it, he’d never remount it because every step had been used in other works.) Haieff is more unique than its creator would have you believe; the pas de deux, in particular, brims with simple innovation. Supported by her cavalier, the ballerina stands on point and, with her working leg, repeats an elevated rond de jambe, caressing the air behind her. The couple later faces each other with outstretched arms to create a rigid cocoon, opening and closing their fists on the beat while the woman bourrées in place. Kirk Henning and Courtney Anderson had excellent chemistry as the leading couple. There were more than a few missteps in Haieff from the soloists on Thursday, but by Saturday the quality of dancing — and the dancers’ spirits — had noticeably lifted.

Agon, on the other hand, was a ballet I thought I knew. (Correction: I didn’t.) The tension in Farrell’s dancers — particularly the men — is put to good use here, capturing Agon‘s nervous, precarious mood. (Nowhere is this clearer than in the pas de deux. As Momchil Mladenov lies flat on the ground pivoting Elisabeth Holowchuk while she stands on point in arabesque penchée, we want to cover our eyes, so close does she seem to falling.) Farrell’s dancers don’t have the technique required to show the full extent of Agon‘s formal beauty, but they work wonders in revealing its complex and bizarre musicality. Their timing differs from what you see at New York City Ballet. I think it’s better, even. The women’s claps in the “Gailliarde” are loud and aggressive. The sudden changes in rhythm are seismic. This Agon pulses with energy, alternatively frightening, funny, and sexy. It’s now easier than ever for me to recall the steps.

Sandwiched between these ballets were two vastly different works both set to Tchaikovsky. Meditation, a 1963 ballet choreographed on Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise to the first movement of Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, is a study in grief. A man buries his head in his hands in mourning as a mysterious woman with her hair down emerges from the wings and forces him to chase her. Their partnering is marked by the off-balance turns Farrell made so moving, and Holowchuk and Courtney Anderson throw themselves into the woman’s role with exciting abandon. Far less successful was the pas de deux from Diamonds, which was dwarfed almost beyond recognition by the small stage. When the couple enters from opposite corners, they should seem isolated from one another and the audience. Instead, they met with a few easy strides. The more obvious obstacle is that Violeta Angelova doesn’t have the strength or line to pull off the ballerina role. (Few dancers do, in her defense.) She wobbled endlessly on Thursday and often appeared to be in anguish. She was replaced Saturday by Heather Ogden, a guest artist from the National Ballet of Canada.

There have been grumblings (some from established critics) that the Farrell Ballet wasn’t ready for this New York season. I understand that opinion — I’ve admittedly never seen more missteps in a ballet performance — but I’m very glad they came. “Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery,” Martha Graham once famously said, and that was happening almost constantly at the Joyce for both the company and its audience. In her selection of the program, Farrell honors Balanchine’s legacy and gives us ample food for thought. (Agon continues to haunt me, and I lament that I won’t see Haieff again anytime soon.) Even to a relative novice like myself, her gifts as a teacher and interpreter of Balanchine are clear, and it was a pleasure to look on as her dancers unlocked his magic. To watch them was a privilege and a thrill.