Famed New York City Ballet principal Suzanne Farrell lit up a New York stage once again Wednesday evening, this time with her company’s Joyce Theater debut. Ms. Farrell’s unique relationship with choreographer George Balanchine and beautiful artistry as a dancer made her a legend in the dance world; from this legacy The Suzanne Farrell Ballet was founded.

Ian Grosh, Andrew Shore Kaminski and Violeta Angelova in Agon © Paul Kolnik 2009
Ian Grosh, Andrew Shore Kaminski and Violeta Angelova in Agon
© Paul Kolnik 2009

It is fitting, then, that the company presents a dynamic all Balanchine program with ballets that were created over a span of 20 years. The performance opens with Haieff Divertimento, named for composer Alexei Haieff’s Divertimento for small orchestra, a ballet that Farrell revived after 15 years with the SFB in 2010. Haieff is light hearted as its name suggests, mixing technical elements with moments of pure entertainment. Soloists Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning’s partnership frames the piece; Henning begins alone and ends the same way after Holowchuk leaps offstage. In between, their moves range from small, articulated hand gestures to full body tilts and grand battemans. The four supporting couples’ sharp lines and quick, precise weight changes add another layer of sophistication to the dance.

The Diamonds pas de deux from Jewels, featuring soloist Violeta Angelova and principal Momchil Mladenov, reveals another kind of partnership. While Holowchuk and Henning play out a teasing game of cat and mouse, Angelova and Mladenov represent refined elegance. When Angelova leans back into Mladenov, one leg high in front of her, they create a beautiful, seamless line with their torsos. They dance with a tenderness one might not expect to see developed taken out of context from a longer work. Farrell’s guidance is clear, preserving the nuances in the choreography she originally inspired.

Meditation is the direct opposite of Diamonds, emotional, contemporary, and with a clear narrative. Principal Michael Cook (replacing Mladenov) expresses heartbreak in his first moments on stage. He appears to be wearing pedestrian clothes, white shirt and black pants, and kneeling with his head bowed at center stage the audience already knows his story: he lost the girl. But as he dances with Holowchuk (replacing Courtney Anderson), first only reaching for her then supporting her in a series of graceful lifts, he seems to come back to life. The relationship shifts giving the audience hope, maybe this memory will become reality. Cook rushes downstage with Holowchuk holding herself aloft on his outstretched arms. For a second neither one reacts to the other, creating the illusion that she is only be a figment of his imagination; in terms of the story, this is exactly the case. The first ballet Balanchine choreographed on Farrell (in 1963), Meditation is a great addition to the program.

The final number represents another important partnership in Balanchine’s career, his work with composer Igor Stravinsky. The two artists collaborated from 1953 to 1956 to create Agon, an abstract interpretation of 17th century court dance with complicated rhythmic changes. The piece begins in silence, as if to warn those involved that once the dancing begins there is no break until the curtain falls. Each section demands precision from everyone on stage with sequences of fast beats and high kicks rippling across the stage and repeated in unison, quartets, and individuals. In their second pas de deux of the evening, Holowchuk and Mladenov are put to the test with choreography that was uncharacteristically athletic for its time. Facing each other, Mladenov promenades Holowchuk with her foot resting on his shoulder. Upon coming full circle, she rotates her body away from him, without moving her feet, to end with her leg high in attitude between them. At one point Mladenov holds her high above his head in second position, later he echoes the shape leaping into the air, feet flexed like a marionette. But even when all twelve dancers come out for the finale, their clean lines and efficient movements are easy to watch despite fast steps and complicated timing. Toss in the occasional gesture, shoulder shrug and piercing stare into the audience, and the fourth wall between performer and observer begins to fall.

Farrell presents the full range of her dancers and a primer on one ballet master with this program. One could even mistake The Susan Farrell Ballet’s performance for an education in dance history if it wasn’t so much fun to watch.