In the 20 years since the death of George Balanchine, his unprecedented choreographic legacy has been compromised by inevitable stylistic drift and the contradictory agendas of different artistic directors. For instance, the Kirov Ballet (the company that trained him) tries to dance Balanchine as if he never left Russia, while New York City Ballet (the company he co-founded) currently enforces a hard-driven 21st century efficiency in his works.
Mediating between such extremes, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet tries to preserve and convey the highly specific expressive and dynamic qualities of each piece, refusing to accept that there is any one-size-fits-all "Balanchine style."
Farrell, of course, was one of the greatest Balanchine dancers, and in a four-part program on the UCLA Live series on Friday in Royce Hall, she managed to transmit the unique sense of daring she brought to the New York City Ballet repertory from her debut in 1961 to her retirement in 1989.
Her best women didn't so much assume classical balances as plunge into them a la Farrell, and even if they sometimes lacked technical refinement (especially in the use of hands and arms), they delivered the creative essence of each work with loving care.
However, the most incandescent performance Friday came from a stellar male: New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal in the title role of "Apollo" (1928, music by Stravinsky), a dance drama presented complete rather than in the shortened, abstract version that Balanchine devised in 1979.
A disarmingly coltish, impulsive and fiery young god, Boal mined each moment of the role for its emotional core, partnered with great authority and vanquished every technical challenge except the possibilities for elevation with spectacular surety. The fine-boned Chan Hon Goh deserved pride of place as Terpsichore, but Jennifer Fournier (Calliope) and Natalia Magnicaballi (Polyhymnia) also framed Boal's brilliance with excellence of their own.
Capably led by Shannon Parsley, the performance of the large-scale, plotless "Divertimento No. 15" (1956, music by Mozart) offered the softest, most floating legwork in lyric passages, plus remarkable speed and intricacy in the solos that Balanchine ornamented with Mozartian flair. You could argue that the use of taped music on the program left some of the dancers trapped in unyielding, task-driven conditions antithetical to this work, but everyone coped professionally.
In the contemporary showpiece solo "Variations for Orchestra" (1982, music by Stravinsky), Balanchine separated its very short sections through bold shifts in lighting -- half featuring a shadow with a mind of its own. Understanding that the choreography represented an inspired game, Bonnie Pickard danced as if there was nothing unusual in sudden juxtapositions of turned-out and turned-in placements. Or balances with one foot on pointe and the other flexed. Or alternately pert and saucy attacks.
The quasi-Gypsy stances and florid emotionalism of the plotless "Tzigane" (1975, music by Ravel) found Magnicaballi executing the choreography adroitly but distancing herself from it as if playing a character role. Her partnership with Momchil Mladenov didn't always go smoothly, but, once again, Balanchine's ability to take a familiar choreographic format and transform it from within received a vibrant, informed realization.
An outgrowth of Kennedy Center education programs, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet has developed over the last four years into an ideal introduction to the varied riches of the Balanchine legacy: a way into works created for Farrell, revised for her or stamped by her mastery that gives a new generation of dancers -- and dance audiences -- a powerful immersion in the creative greatness she inspired.