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 George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Pennsylvania Ballet (June 6–8, 2014)
Though William Shakespeare and George Balanchine were born 250 years and worlds apart, they were both great storytellers. Each concerned himself with showing the truth about love in all of its forms. It was as a young child, performing in a Russian production of the play, that Balanchine came to know A Midsummer Night's Dream. He could recite the play from memory, and it stayed with him throughout his life. When you think of the play's themes: love and art, change and constancy, reality and illusion - ideas that had already been crystallized in so many of Balanchine's ballets - it's easy to understand why Midsummer appealed to him.
Balanchine was a wonderful musician - he played the piano, composed, and once even conducted the New York City Ballet Orchestra! He had long known Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for the play, completed in 1842, and once said this: "What really interested me more than Shakespeare's words [was] the music that Mendelssohn wrote to the play. And I think it can be said that the ballet was inspired by the score. Mendelssohn, did not, however, write music for the whole play. To fill out the dance action that developed as the ballet was being made, I selected other scores of Mendelssohn that neatly fitted into the pattern we were making."
Balanchine did such beautiful work with the choreography that, when seeing Midsummer, it truly feels as though Mendelssohn must have created his score specifically for the ballet. The music and the movement are so seamless, such a perfect match. Indeed, the overture - which Mendelssohn composed at the age of 17 - introduces each of the characters with his or her own theme and weaves together all the story lines that get resolved by the end of the first act. From the moment the music begins, you can sense the agitation of the midsummer night bugs - and then you know you are entering this magical world. Balanchine's choreography is genius stagecraft, giving the audience all the information they need to understand the characters and relationships to come. You don't need to see or read the play to know what's going on - it's all made clear through the dance.
Titania's pas de deux with Bottom
In the original cast, I was one of the attendants to Titania, the Queen of the Fairies. It was my first original part - one that hadn't already been made on someone else - and I was 16, so it was all very intriguing. The part of Titania was originally designed for Diana Adams, who became pregnant during rehearsals and then told me that Balanchine wanted me to watch Titania as I was learning my own part. I noted that he asked me to watch it, not learn it. So I approached the process differently than if I were only studying the part directly in front of me. I wanted to observe it in context within the larger world of the ballet going on around us.
As it happened, eight months later I did perform the role of Titania (and again in the 1969 film version of Balanchine's ballet.) But her pas de deux with the character of Bottom was posing a challenge to me. In the story, the mischievous Puck turns Bottom, a mortal, into a donkey. And then Oberon, the King of the Fairies, casts a spell on Titania to fall deeply in love with the creature. In rehearsals, I worked through various challenges of dancing with a partner wearing a donkey mask, such as not having arms long enough to extend beyond its long, protruding snout. But I was also having trouble connecting with the intensity of Titania's love for this creature. Balanchine came up to me on stage and asked, "Don't you have a pet at home that you talk to?" I told him no. And he said matter-of-factly, "You should have an animal."
That night, I took the subway home and stopped by the corner delicatessen in my neighborhood. Every deli in New York seems to have cats, so I asked the owner if I could buy one from him. He said I could actually have one. Their cat had just given birth to kittens. So I picked up a little ball of black-and-white fur, named her Bottom, and started talking to her all the time. For 21 years, she was my best friend - and our relationship helped inspire and inform my dancing with a donkey.
Titania's pas de deux with Bottom, in fact, is one of the most romantic I've known. It's so touching - though it often elicits chuckles from the audience because it looks so outrageous. Balanchine took great satisfaction in quoting, and a particular line from Midsummer meant a lot to him. Upon awakening from his dance with Titania, with his human head restored, Bottom declares, "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was." The point of his remarks - that dreams are beyond human comprehension - is the essence of Titania and Bottom's dance together, and one of the reasons why it's so meaningful.
There are more than two dozen children in Midsummer - how it must feel to play various bugs who help animate the enchanted forest! One of them is a little page who carries Titania's train. But Oberon wants the page to carry his train, so that's where their entire argument begins, leading to all the foibles of the first act.
The Act II pas de deux
Whereas Act I of the ballet follows the misadventures of mortal lovers and fairies in the forest, Act II begins with a grand triple wedding that unites the main characters. As part of the celebration, anonymous couples arrive to perform a divertissement, and this pas de deux is its centerpiece. I don't remember exactly when I also began performing the Act II pas de deux, but I've always loved it, because for all intents and purposes, the anonymous couple could be anyone in the audience.
The music is Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 9, which is very tranquil and hushed – we only hear strings. Balanchine's choreography reflects this; it's long, languorous, and so sustained as to almost be in slow motion. It's as if they're dancing on clouds, and the couple remains in physical contact nearly the entire time. Perhaps this was Balanchine evoking a perfect union, what a marriage ideally should be. That kind of intertwining, of not letting go – the intensity of being so close can be felt in the tautness of Mendelssohn's violins. Balanchine had a way of visualizing things without getting intellectual. There are very few breaks in the music where you can break the connection physically.
You won't find any major overhead lifts or bravado technical feats in this pas de deux. It's just spellbinding in its simplicity, and particularly in Balanchine's contrast to all of the chaos and comedy and danger of Act I. With Act II, the audience can breathe, and the pas de deux brings love's true form into full focus. It's harmonious, beautiful, complete. But then we hear Mendelssohn's beginning overture music once again. The ballroom comes alive with midsummer bugs, and suddenly we're transported back to the forest! It's a final, fleeting moment where all the magic and drama began, before one last good-bye.
And with that, Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream brings the Kennedy Center ballet season to a glorious close. I hope to see you again in the fall when The Suzanne Farrell Ballet opens the 2014–2015 season over Thanksgiving weekend. I'll soon be off to my summer retreat, then back to the Kennedy Center in July to lead my Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell program for young dancers. Have a wonderful summer!
A Midsummer Night's Dream, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photos from top down: Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet; Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson; Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Julie Diana; Suzanne Farrell's cat Bottom; Students of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet & Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet; Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancers Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench; Pennsylvania Ballet Company Member Alexander Peters. All Pennsylvania Ballet photos by Alexander Iziliaev.