Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet
Dear ballet lovers -
Here you will find my ongoing thoughts and observations on ballet performances taking place at the Kennedy Center. I hope you enjoy them!
Artistic Advisor for Kennedy Center Ballet and Artistic Director of the Kennedy Center's own ballet company, The Suzanne Farrell BalletFull Bio
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On Balanchine's Swan LakeProgram A: All-Balanchine, All-Tchaikovsky
Mar. 26 & 27 evenings & Mar. 31 matinee
When I first joined Balanchine's company in the early 1960s, their hallmark program included four ballets: Balanchine's Swan Lake, Firebird, and Western Symphony, along with Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun. It was a very popular program, repeated several times each season. I have fond memories of learning my part as a monster in Firebird and as a sassy saloon girl in Western Symphony—but starting off as one of the swans in Swan Lake holds a special place in my heart.
For starters, it's a ballet that all ballerinas want to dance at some point in their lives. Growing up in Cincinnati, I would dance to Tchaikovsky's wonderful music in one of my conservatory friend's living room. Using reflections from the large windows as our mirror, and two armchairs as our partners, we'd put on our record of Swan Lake and dance for each other, alternating being the Swan Queen until all four acts were over. I think my capacity for endurance was born in those sessions!
Balanchine's one-act version, made on Maria Tallchief in 1951, takes its inspiration from the second act of the full-length ballet by Russian choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. However, he used music from both the second and fourth acts.
Balanchine loved Tchaikovsky and choreographed several ballets to his music. The score for Swan Lake is particularly emotional. As the story reaches its heartbreaking conclusion, the music gets more achingly sad. On stage, all of the swans are swirling and cascading, creating beautiful patterns, crossing through each other and around the central couple. As a young dancer in the corps, it was hard for me not to get swept away by it all!
Three years later, I danced the lead role of the Swan Queen, partnered with Jacques d'Amboise (one of my childhood "armchairs"!). Since then, some of the choreography, costumes, and scenery have changed. Back in the 1960s, all of the corps swans had long, white tulle costumes and wings on their backs. There was also the famous pas de quatre for four cygnets (little swans), which Balanchine eventually replaced with a valse bluette. At one point, he also created a different variation for the Swan Queen. In 1986, new costumes in black were made for the swans; this is the effect you'll see today.
Flash forward to the present: The Suzanne Farrell Ballet recently performed at the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman, and on the way back, I was interrogated by a young customs inspector. He asked what my purpose abroad was. I told him I am the Artistic Director of a ballet company. Out of the blue, he said his favorite composer was Tchaikovsky! Hearing these words made me very happy; it was nice to be reminded that Tchaikovsky's music continues to captivate audiences and listeners of all ages, all over the globe.
On Balanchine's Allegro BrillanteProgram A: All-Balanchine, All-Tchaikovsky
Mar. 26 & 27 evenings & Mar. 31 matinee
Allegro Brillante is a ballet for ten dancers: a central couple and four additional couples. It's only about 15 minutes long, yet it contains nearly all of the classical ballet vocabulary and is virtually non-stop. The four supporting couples begin to dance in a circle even before the curtain goes up. So when the audience first sees them, they're already spinning the world of Allegro Brillante.
For a dancer, Allegro Brillante is a very gratifying ballet to perform—all the women are in chiffon, and the mood is just so exuberant and lovely. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 3 begins with the solo piano, but the full orchestra is right on its heels. The music becomes so passionate that it's truly a challenge to contain one's self on stage!
Just like with Swan Lake, Balanchine made Allegro Brillante on Maria Tallchief, in 1956. I joined New York City Ballet five years later. Soon after, Balanchine divided the company into four sections, as part of an education initiative with the New York State Council on the Arts. I was in the Allegro Brillante group headed by Melissa Hayden and Nicholas Magallanes (who was the ballet's originating male lead).
This meant we traveled to various high schools in upstate New York to perform Allegro Brillante for students. I was one of the supporting girls, and as I write in my autobiography:
"We were in Batavia on the tiny, well-waxed stage of a high school auditorium. There are four couples already moving with fast runs and jumps in a tight circle. Before the curtain was all the way up—crash! I was down, flat on my rump. The audience of high school students broke into loud laughter… I wanted to leave the stage in shame, but I didn't. I heaved myself onto my feet to the sound of whistling eleventh-graders (kids my own age) and finished the ballet. I have never particularly minded falling onstage since. Nothing could ever be as cruel as that first time, and even then I realized that I only Felt destroyed. I wasn't."
I eventually performed the principal ballerina role in Allegro Brillante, including for the company's "Great Performances / Dance in America" television series with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the late 1970s. When you come see the ballet at the Kennedy Center, I'm sure you'll agree it's a joyous and exhilarating work to behold.
On Balanchine's Vienna Waltzes
Program B: Mar. 28 & 29 evenings & Mar. 30 matinee & evening
Read my Notes from the Ballet when New York City Ballet performed Vienna Waltzes at the Kennedy Center in 2009.
The Kennedy Center's Ballet Season is presented with the support of Elizabeth and Michael Kojaian.
Generous support for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is provided by The Ted & Mary Jo Shen Charitable Gift Fund, Emily Williams Kelly, and The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation.