When the opening night curtain rose on the final work of an emotional night - the last performances of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet that has been in residence at the Kennedy Center for 15 years - there was applause even before there was any movement.

It was the silhouette of 32 dancers in a striking tableaux for a work that had at first premiered nearly 60 years ago. Then it got even better.

Part of Farrell's peerless work at the Kennedy Center is to administer the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, which preserves for the work of George Balanchine, the father of American ballet, for whom Farrell was for decades the central dancer and muse.

Farrell's role in the initiative is to preserve and revive some of the lesser known of Balanchine's work, one of which is certainly the eye-popping Gounod Symphony.

Farrell's adaptation of the work (which concluded the performances Thursday and Saturday afternoon and began it Friday and Saturday nights) was the most complex of the night. But rather than have the stage overcrowd with dancers, she combined with Balanchine's genius in organizations of intersecting axes and flanking banks. The dazzling interlocking movement were underscored by sophisticated alternating black and white costumes (by Holly Hynes).

So kaleidoscopic was the ensemble movement that the pas de deux by Argentinian company principal Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook seemed underwhelming by contrast (perhaps because she was clashing with the color scheme by wearing gold).

But getting the most out of a company often dominated by pick-up dancers, who'd only get together briefly for rehearsals, may have been Farrell's highest skill. So it's natural the ensembles would shine the most.

The other selections for an evening titled Forever Balanchine: Farewell Performances were pieces close to Farrell's heart. The fluid and gliding Chaconne that opened Thursday with music from Orfeo ed Euridice by von Gluck was one Balanchine had created for her. This time it was Canadian company principal Heather Ogden featured with the tall and stately Thomas Garrett.

Like the other pieces of the evening that highlighted Balanchine pieces Farrell has revived this century, they were unshowy pieces that concentrated instead on grace and nuance.

If Chaconne was smooth and seamless, the gypsy fantasy Tzigane, with music by Ravel, was fiery, languid and dynamic, with Magnicaballi and Cook once again featured.

Tzigane is one of three Balanchine ballets created for Farrell to which she has has exclusive rights. One other is the rarely-performed Meditation, the first ballet Balanchine created specifically for Farrell, one extended pas de duex, danced by Elisabeth Holowchuk and Kirk Henning, on grief and love, with music by Tchaikovsky and a violin solo so distinct the soloist took a bow on stage as well.

Concertmaster Oleg Rylatko also began the Ravel piece with a long violin solo. The Opera House Orchestra was conducted by Nathan Fifield.

Before Thursday's performance, Farrell was awarded the Pola Nirenska Award, named after a matriarch of modern dance in D.C. (She can put it alongside her Kennedy Center Honor and National Medal of Arts).

But there would seem no need for retirement for Farrell at 72. She's talked about continuing to be involved in teaching programs when the Kennedy Center is expanded. The company may be gone, but she has shown with her work there that a future for the Balanchine works needs to be continued.

Running time: Two hours with two 15 minute intermissions.

Photo credit: Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in the Suzanne Farrell Ballet's Gounod Symphony. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

"Forever Balanchine: Farewell Performances" ran from Thursday to Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Information on the Kennedy Center online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin