Have we had too much Balanchine? Several years back, the dance critic for the Washington Post, Sarah Kauffman, said just that. She won the Pullitzer Prize for Criticism the following year, so people sat up and took notice. However splendid the aesthetic, her basic argument went, his dominant influence, living and posthumous, had skewed ballet towards artsy abstraction and away from deep story-telling and treatments of the human condition. He was all about legs  – "rapid-fire steps and six o’clock extensions" and not enough about the subtleties of feeling.

<i>Stars and Stripes</i>: Allynne Noelle and Thomas Garrett © Paul Kolnik
Stars and Stripes: Allynne Noelle and Thomas Garrett
© Paul Kolnik
Seeing The Suzanne Farrell Ballet tonight at the Kennedy Center, one saw what she meant. Emotionally-light and abstract, the choice of three of his 400 ballets provided a highly stylish, even sleek evening’s divertissement. Did we need more? As the political momentum heats up in the last few weeks before the Election, perhaps something light and fizzy was just what was called for. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet has had its home in the Kennedy Center for twenty years; what began as an invitation to teach master classes spawned into a full-blown residency. The company is now in its penultimate season, with its grand finale scheduled for 2017-18.

The first micro-ballet, Danses Concertantes has had multiple lives, fittingly perhaps, in a work that comes across in many ways as feline. The work is fruit of the Balanchine-Stravinsky partnership, and the score – witty and somewhat spiky – is an apt canvas for the flirtatious ensembles, whether as trio (2:1 female: male ratio), or as a duet showing off the lead couple, Valerie Tellmann-Henning and Kirk Henning. The former had a spirited dance personality, and plenty of jaunty insouciance. The revered critic, Edwin Denby, found the whole reminiscent of ‘commedia dell arte’ – and it does have that feel to it: tongue-in-cheek comedy in a pre-ironic world. And who better to deliver this than these cheery, cheeky dancers? 

Gounod Symphony, a rarely performed work of Balanchine’s, is, in Farrell’s careful revival which received its official première tonight, a triumph of form. She has gone about its restoration with great intentionality, going back to its first filming, and a few weeks ago, performing a public rehearsal in NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. But this is not a tame repeat. One of her strengths, which has made her own career out of preserving Balanchine’s legacy so special, is a willingness to adapt. Indeed, she draws inspiration from her mentor who, when she was fretting over consistency, said that it didn’t matter – that he didn’t want to do the same thing. One of her most powerful statements tonight was her choice of costumes; something she had long wanted to do, and only now was in a position to. The result could not have been more enlightened. Sometimes costumes detract; sometimes they do little either way; in instances like this, they positively add value. Crisp diachronic blacks and whites – those in white had black trims and vice versa; the lead couple in off-gold and old white.

<i>Gounod Symphony</i>: Natalia Magnicaballi, Michael Cook and Ensemble © Paul Kolnik
Gounod Symphony: Natalia Magnicaballi, Michael Cook and Ensemble
© Paul Kolnik
The curtain opened on such a striking tableau of 32 dancers that there was a gasp of pleasure from the audience. Sharp stylistic elegance set the tone for what followed: a highly sophisticated choreography of pattern-making, satisfying our demands in dance that the many appear as one, then disperse into being many again. Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook, were clearly performing their own complicated courtship, she haute with clean lines, he more deferential but insistent. It was very French, all that cool elegance, all that precision of effect; indeed one of the all-time interpreters of the role, Violette Verdy, compared it to the gardens of Versailles, and so it is, like the gardens, a triumph of art over nature.

The French influence gave way to the all-American Balanchine with Stars and Stripes. Mr B, as Farrell still affectionately calls him, had an uncomplicated love for his adopted homeland and Stars and Stripes is a piece of fervent and innocent patriotism, set to the music of John Phillip Sousa. Featuring baton-twirling and bugle-playing, the whole is a gloriously turned-out military parade, with hints of the chorus line – white hats, gloves, socks, and gold épaulettes – a choreography from which anything that hints at the darker side of nationalism is missing. With the dancers' bounding energy and high-speed agility, this was feel-good stuff, and, moreover, clearly welcome – there was a cheer when the American flag rose as the backdrop during the tour de force finale with all 41 dancers on stage. Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the NYCB, talked once of the struggle to ‘impose a native meaning on a recalcitrant alien dance tradition’. Balanchine does so triumphantly here – superficially, it is true – but no less entertaining for that.