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Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet

Suzanne Farrell
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!

Suzanne Farrell signiture
Suzanne Farrell

Artistic Advisor for Kennedy Center Ballet and Artistic Director of the Kennedy Center's own ballet company, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

Full Bio

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This Thanksgiving weekend, I invite you to join my company as we open the Kennedy Center's new ballet season with two audience favorites and three company premieres. I've carefully selected each ballet on our program to showcase the vast range of George Balanchine's artistic genius, Jerome Robbins's rich imagination, and the diverse talents of my principal dancers, soloists, and corps.

From the romantic tragedy of Swan Lake and insightful comedy of The Concert, to the beauty of pure dance in Allegro Brillante and electrifying contrast of companion pieces Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, we're eager to share with you such visionary works inspired by the immortal music of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Chopin.

And we return to the Opera House, a great venue to experience these ballets in all their glory and wonder. It's a program to see more than once—from close up and from high up—to delight in all the dynamic patterns, feel the charge of live performance, and discover new things you haven't noticed before. See you at the ballet!

On Balanchine's Swan Lake

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (Nov. 28–30, 2014) | Buy Tickets

When I first joined Balanchine's company in October 1961, 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.

Swan Lake is the classic tale of Princess Odette, who has been transformed into the queen of the swans by the evil sorcerer Rothbart. He has allowed Odette and the swans to regain human form between midnight and dawn, but only the power of eternal love can break the spell forever. Overflowing with passion and drama, 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!

1962 Seattle World's Fair featuring Swan LakeMy playbill from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair featuring Swan Lake

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! (Check out the playbill cover from our performances at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. I'm in there somewhere!)

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—but for my company's premiere of Swan Lake, I'm staging it as close as possible to the version I first learned when I joined Balanchine's company. All of the corps swans will have white, knee-length tulle costumes, which to me heightens all of the ethereal romance and emotion. (Black tutus replaced these costumes in 1986, three years after Mr. B passed.) At one point, Mr. B created a different variation for the Swan Queen, but I'm bringing back the original variation.

We'll also restore the famous pas de quatre for four cygnets, or little swans. Though Balanchine eventually substituted a valse bluette in its place, I remember audiences loving this sequence, an example of "precision dance" in which the cygnets crisscross their arms, hold hands, and perform the same steps in unison. After America saw this dance, similar configurations made their way into vaudeville and, perhaps most famously, The Rockettes!

On Balanchine's Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (Nov. 28–30, 2014) | Buy Tickets

George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky collaboratingGeorge Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky collaborating, photo by Martha Swope

My company hasn't performed these two ballets at the Kennedy Center in more than four years, so it's wonderful to have the opportunity to stage them again. Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra were created independently, but they're now typically performed together. Both works feature the choreography of George Balanchine and the music of Igor Stravinsky. Their pairing has been a part of my company's repertory since 2001, though I first staged them in 1995 for the Kennedy Center's 25th anniversary season. Movements in particular still looks and feels so ahead of its time, even though it was created more than 50 years ago.

On Monumentum Pro Gesualdo

Monumentum Pro Gesualdo: Michael Cook & Elisabeth HolowchukMonumentum Pro Gesualdo: Michael Cook & Elisabeth Holowchuk, photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Balanchine premiered Monumentum in 1960 for a program celebrating the 100th anniversary of Italy's unification. The ballet was originally made on Diana Adams and Conrad Ludlow. Costumed in white practice clothes, Monumentum is danced in three sections and features an ensemble of six couples who frequently echo the lead couple's movements.

For the score, Stravinsky re-orchestrated the madrigals of Italian composer Don Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1560-1613) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth. Stravinsky's music always has so many fascinating layers, but a madrigal is a complex musical form in its own right. Popular during the Renaissance, madrigals are love poems set to vocal music and filled with unexpected harmonies and "word paintings" – musical devices used to convey a word's emotional context, such as love, pain, death, or ecstasy. The purpose of a madrigal was to signify the Renaissance era's core values of true love and living for the sake of others.

Though Stravinsky's score for Monumentum is instrumental, his music still resonates with these emotional meanings – and Balanchine's choreography signifies them visually. There are moments in the ballet where true love shines through, in simple movements and graceful gestures. The boy gently takes the girl's hand and kisses it, for example. But as with all Balanchine ballets, it's beautiful without being overly affected, and without needing to establish any specific relationship story between these two people.

Gesualdo's music – and Stravinsky's interpretation of it – is so heavenly and serene. But the history books tell us that Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover, yet his noble status exempted him from punishment. It shocks me that music this calm could come from the mind of such a dark soul! Or perhaps the music was his penance.

On Movements for Piano and Orchestra

Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl Jacques d'Amboise and I in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl

Though it's the second ballet in the sequence, Movements was the first one I learned and performed. I danced its premiere in April 1963, though that was not the original plan. Balanchine had initially cast Diana Adams in the lead ballerina role, partnered by Jacques d'Amboise.

As I write in my autobiography, two weeks before opening night, Diana had learned she was pregnant and was confined to bed rest. Balanchine was about to cancel the premiere until Jacques suggested that the ballet might be saved if they could teach me Diana's part. I was still only a corps member in the company, but Balanchine acquiesced. So Jacques took me to Diana's apartment one evening to learn the choreography.

Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred FehlJacques d'Amboise and I in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl

The experience left my head spinning; no recording of Stravinsky's atonal score existed, and along with the rest of the world, I had never heard the music before. Jacques and Diana grunted, clapped, and sang to help me "hear" the music and get through the steps. And Diana's living room – complete with couch, coffee table, and slippery parquet floor – was a fraction of the size of a real studio. But after a couple of hours, things started to click, and the next day Balanchine scheduled full rehearsals with me, Jacques, and the six corps girls.

Two days before the premiere, however, I was still unnerved and unsure. Everything was happening so fast, and there had been no time for me to absorb the complete world of the ballet. My feelings of inadequacy compelled me to approach Balanchine and say, "I don't think you should let me do this ballet." (Can you imagine?) But he replied, "Oh dear, you let me be the judge." That brief exchange turned out to be a pivotal moment for us, as it marked the beginning of our lifelong trust in each other. I stopped second-guessing myself, put my total faith in his judgment, and performed the ballet opening night in an all-Stravinsky program. Lo and behold, audiences and critics loved Balanchine's latest creation.

Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine rehearsing Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl Balanchine and I rehearsing Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl.

Balanchine's highly charged choreography is the exacting physical counterpart to Stravinsky's complex, landmark score. Indeed, none of us had ever danced to something so electrifyingly charged before. Stravinsky filled his music with split-second rhythms and ever-changing meter, and Balanchine's steps matched that lightning-fast frenzy note-for-note. In fact, Balanchine was once quoted as saying, "Nothing gave me greater pleasure afterwards than Stravinsky's saying the performance ‘was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans, but never explored the result.'"

As difficult as it is to dance, Movements is equally a challenge to teach. If the music were more classical, dancers could hum the melody to help reinforce the steps. However, there are few places in Movements that you can latch on to as anchors. So I teach my dancers the counts I first learned, now ingrained in my body, but I do it very slowly at first. Of course, I warn my dancers that eventually it will be 10 times faster! For all its seemingly wild energy, Stravinsky's music has a very precise structure, and laying that foundation is the key to everything else.

On putting the two ballets together

Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred FehlJacques d'Amboise and I in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl.

I can't say exactly what inspired Balanchine to merge Monumentum and Movements together, other than that they both feature the music of Stravinsky, they're both white costumes, and they're both rather short. But in 1965 he revived Monumentum and had me perform both ballets back-to-back. The two had never been staged in tandem prior to this, but they've been performed as a unit ever since. A brief lowering of the curtain signifies the transition.

Danced together, Monumentum and Movements are a revelation in stylistic contrast: the former is so classical and pure, while the latter is so modern and stark. I found great joy in moving from one style to the other in a matter of seconds. Plus, audiences are treated to completely opposite sides of the Balanchine-Stravinsky spectrum in such a short amount of time. With the dream-like perfume of Monumentum still hanging in the air, Movements charges onto the stage and knocks the wind out of everyone. The juxtaposition is just so palpable and invigorating – just as Balanchine knew it would be.

On Balanchine's Allegro Brillante

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (Nov. 28–30, 2014) | Buy Tickets

Allegro Brillante is a ballet for ten dancers: a central couple and four additional couples. The dancing is virtually non-stop; Balanchine once said the work "contains everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes." 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. The work is danced to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 3, which was composed in 1893, the year of his death. I find it astonishing the music is so vibrant and full of energy at a time Tchaikovsky was so close to the end of his life. It's just so passionate!

As 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."
the choreography score  from Allegro Brillante

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.

Plus, be on the lookout for the very talented pianist Glenn Sales, who has rehearsed and played the music for many of our other ballets. He'll be joining us for this company premiere (and also be directly on stage with my dancers for our first performances of The Concert.) I always enjoy rehearsing with a pianist vs. a recording of the music. Some notations of choreography directly in the score (see Allegro Brillante at right) make our final rehearsals with the orchestra more efficient.

On Robbins's The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody)

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (Nov. 28–30, 2014) | Buy Tickets

The Concert: Michael Cook & Elisabeth Holowchuk, 
photo by Rosalie O'Connor The Concert: Michael Cook & Elisabeth Holowchuk, photo by Rosalie O'Connor

What begins as a cross-section of characters coming together for an onstage pianist's Chopin recital turns into a whimsical and witty reflection on the foibles of human nature in this Jerry Robbins classic, which premiered in 1956 with a cast of 21 dancers that included Todd Bolender and Tanaquil LeClercq.

I become concerned when people make fun of classical ballet—it's such a sensitive and complex profession—but The Concert isn't a parody of any sort. Rather, it's an inspired imitation of people we may know, such as the bashful schoolboy, the slightly-too-serious music aficionado, or the cigar-chomping husband henpecked by his overbearing wife. (For that last example, imagine Danny Kaye and Imogene Coco types.)

Jerry's brilliant ability to help you instantly identify with his characters is further enhanced by his "performance within a performance" motif, which begins with a few audience members sitting with their back to us in front of a curtain. The Chopin recitalist enters the stage to great fanfare, takes a bow, dusts off his piano bench, and begins to play. But then additional audience members arrive one by one, leading to somewhat of a comical ruckus—some are in the wrong seats, some block the view of others, the pianist has to stop and hush the audience, etc.

All the pantomime helps heightens the fun, but Jerry's message is clear: we can all relate to the experience of attending a concert, where strangers unite, live performance takes the spotlight, and virtually anything can happen.

The ballet's ensuing sections zoom in on several individual characters from the audience. As they listen to the recitalist play other Chopin pieces, we enter each of their imaginations and see what they are visualizing or dreaming about, giving us further insight into their worlds. There's a section where the overbearing wife imagines herself trying on different hats in a mirror to the prelude of Les Sylphides. Other sections feature everything from a waltz gone wrong to spinning umbrellas and dancing butterflies. Jerry choreographed to 12 Chopin pieces altogether, and he even used the transitions between them to make you chuckle.

I'm delighted to add The Concert to my company's repertory because it's amusing, well-constructed, and all very theatrical but full of truth. I never danced the ballet, though I have experienced some of the same scenarios that Jerry's "audience members" and "performers" find themselves in. We all have—so come to The Concert to discover what rings true for you!