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A muse affirms a master's relevance

BECKET -- Seldom is the master/muse relationship more observed and analyzed than in the realm of dance. In the case of former New York City Ballet prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell, whose name has long been synonymous with ``George Balanchine muse," wonderful things emerge when the muse becomes the master. Suzanne Farrell Ballet, founded in 2000 and based at the Kennedy Center, made its Jacob Pillow debut on Wednesday night.

The repertoire was all Balanchine and included such oft-revived pieces as ``Divertimento No. 15" alongside even more intriguing, seldom-seen dances such as ``Clarinade." Classic Farrell/Balanchine elements -- broad fourth position landings, swooping penche , chin-in-the-air confidence -- were on view. More important, Farrell's dancers showed every sign of understanding the importance of these signature moves.

The evening began with ``La Source, " set to a lushly romantic score drawn from the 1866 Leo Delibes ballet. A pas de deux by Bonnie Pickard and Runqiao Du wasn't particularly sensual, but it wasn't meant to be. Soloist Erin Mahoney-Du (formerly of the Washington Ballet) led an eight-member corps in complicated maneuvers that kept her between two quartets. It's a rich souffle of a dance, and when one considers its debut date of 1968, ``La Source" emerges as a defiantly giddy and sublimely joyous response to a year of revolution.

Layers of homage can be peeled from the excerpt performed from ``Clarinade" (1965), starting with the music, ``Derivations for Clarinet and Jazz Band." Morton Gould wrote the piece for Benny Goodman , who played live for the ballet's first performance. This brief excerpt, ``Contrapuntal blues pas de deux , " was inspired by the 1930s marathon-dance craze, Farrell explains in her splendid memoir, ``Holding On to the Air."

The performance required enormous control from a gracefully floppy Mahoney-Du, partnered with Benjamin Lester, whose role primarily consists of holding his sagging partner upright. Together they shared an intriguing emotional journey. As the clarinet line softly meandered, the couple's movements were modern, with heel-toe jerkiness.

When the music shifted to a faster tempo, massed quarter- and eighth-notes were projected on a back screen, and suddenly the outstretched arms of the dancers mimicked the flags on the notes. ``Clarinade" still has an experimental flavor, though Farrell notes ``its real importance was as a stepping-stone" for the ``jazzy movement" Balanchine later produced in ``Rubies."

The evening's standout was ``Tzigane" (1975), which features an arresting violin melody by Maurice Ravel and was gorgeously danced by Natalia Magnicaballi , Momchil Mladenov , and the corps. When it was created, New York City Ballet cofounder Lincoln Kirstein described this gypsy dance as having ``nightclub overtones." Here Magnicaballi (wearing a ragged ribbon skirt and burgundy bodice) was magnificently ferocious, and when the violin was suddenly plucked instead of bowed, she whipped off a pair of lightning-quick pas de chats that mirrored the beat.

An occasional lapse of energy emerged in the evening's final ballet, ``Divertimento No. 15," which required dauntingly complex footwork. But overall, Suzanne Farrell Ballet offered a spectacular sense of the emotional and technical depth of the Farrell/Balanchine collaboration, as well as its ongoing relevance in this century. That sharp line delineating master and muse just got a stylish smudging.

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