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Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet Archive

2008 - 2009

Le Corsaire

To be performed by Bolshoi Ballet
June 16-21, 2009
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Le Corsaire is, perhaps, one of the most revised, reworked, and retooled ballets still performed today. Adolphe Adam, who we know as the composer of Giselle, wrote the score—one which would prove to be his last, performed only months before his death. The choreographer responsible for the original 1856 version, Joseph Mazilier, is not very well known today; probably because all modern-era versions of Le Corsaire follow the better-known Petipa choreography.

New directors added new choreography and music over generations of the work’s revival all across the world, inserting music from 10 composers in all, including Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo and Ludwig Minkus. This piece eventually became the go-to theatrical vehicle that companies reshaped to suit the strengths of their star dancers. So much has been added and dropped that a truly authentic version of Le Corsaire does not exist today. With their upcoming production, however, the Bolshoi Ballet has taken great strides in returning the choreography to Petipa’s full-length version. Regardless of the performer or era, the ballet takes its inspiration from Lord Byron’s 1814 poem, The Corsaire, a story of swashbuckling pirates and adventure on the high seas that promises delights in any interpretation.

I saw this for myself on a trip to Russia in 1962. Acting as artistic ambassadors, The New York City Ballet went to Russia at the end of a long European tour. We were there for 6 weeks in October and November—the start of the cold months—going to Moscow, Leningrad, Tbilisi, Baku, and Kiev.

In Leningrad we were invited to a production of Le Corsaire, and we were amazed at what we saw. To a group of American dancers who had been brought up on Mr. B’s choreography and aspired to that style, something like Le Corsaire was really wild. We were entertained, of course, but almost to the point of laughter, because it seemed to be produced more like a movie than a dance. To our youthful perspective, it struck us as … un-ballet.

To this day I clearly remember the shipwreck at the end. First of all, I had never been in a theater big enough to accommodate that kind of stage theatrics. That wreck was a perfect visual example of the enormous gulf between the traditional direction of Russian dance and the renaissance Mr. B was taking ballet through. Russia was Mr. B’s homeland, after all. He was familiar with those ballets. He performed those ballets, and that was not the course he wanted ballet to follow. With complete respect for his heritage, he would not have been able to accomplish his vision had he remained in Russia.

Looking back at my diary from those days, both my delight in the spectacle of Le Corsaire and my amazement at the differences between this Russian dance and Mr. B’s vision are apparent. But to be sure, if some young Russian dancer had come to America to see New York City Ballet perform in those days, she might possibly write with the same level of astonishment. Surely she would say that our sparse costumes, minimalist staging, and stripped-down style was all just so … un-ballet.

Manon and Mixed Repertoire

To be performed by The Royal Ballet
June 23-28, 2009
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Photo credit: The Royal Ballet's Alexandra Ansanelli in <em>A Month in the Country</em>, photo by Dee Conway.The Kennedy Center once again is pleased to welcome London’s Royal Ballet to the Opera House stage. I personally welcome back Alexandra Ansanelli, a ballerina who has danced in my company and who returns to perform Fredrick Ashton's A Month in the Country. The other ballets on this mixed repertoire program were created specifically for the company and are North American premieres, so audiences are in for exciting discoveries.

For instance, the energetic piece DGV (Danse à grande vitesse) comes to The Royal Ballet via Christopher Wheeldon—a young choreographer whose work audiences will have another opportunity to see up close in next season’s Ballet Across America II, which brings together his Morphosis company, my company, and others from across the country. Then, Chroma, choreographed by Royal’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor offers “luminous” staging and some hip music from the folk rock band White Stripes. And of course, the company’s full length production, Manon, promises both captivating movements and mischief with a ballet well-honed on The Royal Opera House Stage.

I’ve had the pleasure of dancing at The Royal Opera House many times in the past. But most recently, in 2008, I was invited to stage Mr. Balanchine's Tzigane for the Royal Ballet.

Staging a work within an unfamiliar company can be daunting, but Royal’s Artistic Director Monica Mason made the entire process very comfortable. I think the dancers really loved doing Tzigane. Performing this particular Balanchine work was very different for them—they are accustomed to much more tailored choreography. When I offered "go wherever the choreography takes you," they were uncomfortable with that freedom. This was quite a different perspective for them, but one they eventually relished.

The power —and responsibility—of interpretive freedom is as much a part of   Mr. B's choreography, particularly in Tzigane, as are the annotated steps. Imparting this philosophy is one reason why I continually enjoy working with dancers; they are a great breed of people who are offering some truly great works to Kennedy Center audiences this June.

Vienna Waltzes

To be performed by New York City Ballet:

  • Wed., March 4 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat., March 7 at 1:30 p.m. (matinee) & 7:30 p.m.

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One thing that always amazes me about Balanchine's Vienna Waltzes is its incredible popularity. In a sense it goes against so many conventional expectations. Audiences frequently like ballets with a story to carry the action along, and many audiences – in 1977 at its premiere, at least – were reluctant to spend an evening in three-four time. But here was a night full of waltzing, without an overriding story, and it was a commercial and critical success.

It's not a complete surprise that the piece remains well-regarded to this day. As with Jewels, there is imagery and romanticism that forms a thread throughout, pulling the audience along its weaving path. Perhaps it was due to the transfixing qualities of the romance, the gentility of the music, or the beauty of the costumes, but that dance woke something up in late-'70s New York, and all of the sudden the city was crazy for waltzing. I happen to love waltzes, so I couldn't have been more pleased when this ballet was an indisputable hit and brought the waltz back to prominence.

My part was in the final movement, Der Rosenkavalier, and it was unlike any other part I ever danced. As I watched Mr. B choreograph the earlier movements, I saw him assign all my usual partners to other ballerinas. One day I finally asked, "Who am I going to dance with?" He replied with a sly, "Oh, you'll see." Eventually it was revealed to me that my partner would be "more-or-less imaginary." That gave me the welcomed challenge of dancing – not always alone – but with a partner that I created through my movements and gestures. I had the freedom to invent my own relationship with this "phantom partner" whom only I knew. Now that is a story—and it's one that allowed the audience to imagine themselves a part.

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet

To be performed by New York City Ballet:

  • Thu., March 5 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sun., March 8 at 1:30 p.m. (matinee)

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For Balanchine the music always came first, and he believed in being obedient to it. As a choreographer he needed to like the music for it to inspire movement. He was fascinated with Schoenberg from previous pieces, so it was natural for him to create a dance for Schoenberg's melodic reworking of Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1. But Mr. B also believed one must work within the music one chooses. That presented a unique challenge with Schoenberg's piece, because it is composed of four completely independent movements with no resolving finale.

He went about choreographing a grand piece with many dancers to match the active, individual quality of the Schoenberg music. However, as with the music, each movement remained independent of the others and there was nothing drawing the dancers together at the end. This was a bold move, which gained Mr. B a small amount of criticism at the time.

But, if Brahms didn't have anything more to say to resolve his work, then Mr. B didn't feel it was necessary to add on some other Brahms piece to mollify anyone's opinion. Sometimes in life there is no resolution, and I think we all need some mystery.

Symphony in Three Movements

To be performed by New York City Ballet:

  • Fri., March 6 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sun., March 8 at 7:30 p.m.

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This ballet came into the repertoire in 1972 during New York City Ballet's encompassing Stravinsky Celebration—a project which premiered 21 ballets, including nine by Balanchine himself. This was a challenge Mr. B undertook out of his enduring admiration for Stravinsky's music, and one that reconfirmed his greatness in the eyes of the world.

I was living in Europe at the time of the festival, but when I came back to the States on vacation in 1973, I was able to see Symphony in Three Movements – already considered a masterpiece – performed by NYCB at their summer stage in Saratoga. Watching that dance I was filled with joy and a sense of pride and gratitude for Mr. B. It opens with a breathtaking diagonal for 16 girls, and the way he alters patterns and brings everyone back together is amazing. The dance has great energy set to powerful music by Stravinsky, whom I adore.

Once while visiting with Balanchine in New York, the legendary composer came by the theater. Mr. B had him sit on a stool and said, "Suzanne, dance for him." I happily performed a piece from Variations, and afterword spoke with him and told him how much I appreciated his work. That was a monumental moment for me and one you can read more about in an interview I gave for the Fall 2003 issue of Bomb Magazine. [Link "Fall, 2003 issue of Bomb Magazine" to: http://www.bombsite.com/issues/85/articles/2603.

Swan Lake

To be performed by American Ballet Theatre:
Feb. 20-22, 2009
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Suzanne Farrell and Hazaros Surmejan in National Ballet of Canada's Swan Lake (1970)I've always loved Swan Lake, ever since I was a child making up choreography to Tchaikovsky's music playing from a full-length record, late into the night with my best friend. We used a picture window as our mirror and fell into the outstretched arms of chairs, imagining them to be our handsome princes. When I finally had my chance to dance Mr. Balanchine's Swan Lake, I found it profoundly moving.

There I was, still a teenager, dancing the ballet that I and every young girl dreamed of dancing, and doing so in a professional ballet company. Of course, I was just one of many swans, and I was tall, so I was in the back line. But still, I was on stage with Jacques d'Amboise and Melissa Hayden, playing part in this historical and profound piece.  I can still feel the music in my veins every time I hear it. It is so powerful, and at the time everything came together to create one very passionate and moving moment. When I came off stage I was overwhelmed with complete and tearful emotion.

While Mr. B's Swan Lake was only the second act, it allowed me to imagine myself a swan and to act and move with the grace of a swan. I did eventually get the opportunity to explore both sides of the swan, dancing as the enchanted White Swan and the deceitful Black Swan in a full-length production with the National Ballet of Canada. Playing both roles was an athletic and mental endeavor. I had to consciously ignore the Balanchine choreography that my muscles knew so well, and instead learn new movements to that familiar music. But as always, Tchaikovsky was there for support.

I so admire and respect Tchaikovsky. Not only is his music so full of life and passion, but he was one of the few composers to write music specifically for ballet, Swan Lake being his first. That original version of Swan Lake, performed in 1877, was incomplete and unsuccessful, but the music was too powerful to simply go away. In 1895 Swan Lake was premiered again with new choreography, and to a large extent this is the dance that we still see today. I love the pas de deux in the second act, and it's interesting to note that this music was actually salvaged from Undine, an otherwise discarded Tchaikovsky opera.

Regardless of the many avenues taken to arrive at today's Swan Lake, it will always have a place in the ballet canon. Its embracing music and captivating story inspires budding ballerinas and seasoned pros alike. Swan Lake serves the dance world well by being the single image that springs to mind when most people hear the word "ballet." It can be seen time and again, each time as if with fresh eyes, and I'm sure American Ballet Theatre is thrilled to present this classic to Kennedy Center audiences.

Don Quixote

To be performed by Mariinsky Ballet:
Jan. 13-18, 2009
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In seeing Mariinsky Ballet perform Don Quixote, you have a tale that has been interpreted through dance for over 250 years, as performed by a company which has been in existence under its former name of Kirov Ballet for nearly as long. These two artistic forces–story and storyteller–occasionally cross paths and each bears influence on the other with the audience as witness. In 1965 it pleased me to be a part of Mr. Balanchine’s vision of Don Quixote. The prospect of seeing Mariinsky Ballet’s staging of this legendary tale piques my curiosity, since it is based on the Petipa-Minkus version that Mr. B first danced as a boy of 12, in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre.

Read my Notes from the 2007 performance of Don Quixote by Bolshoi Ballet.

George Balanchine's Allegro Brillante

To be performed by American Ballet Theatre:
Feb. 17-19, 2009
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Part of American Ballet Theatre's mixed repertory program is a Company premiere of Balanchine's Allegro Brillante, performed to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 3. This ballet remains dear to me both for its beauty and for memories it always brings to mind. The story takes place when I was still new to the New York City Ballet, shortly after the formation of the New York State Council on the Arts. They asked Mr. B to send members of the company into rural regions of the state to promote the Council's pro-art message. From here I will pick up the story, as told in my book Holding On to the Air.

"After the New York winter season, I went on my first company tour of upstate New York. At one point the company split into several concert groups in order to dance in various smaller theaters and schools. I was with the Allegro Brillante group headed by Melissa Hayden and Nicholas Magallanes. We were in Batavia on the tiny, well-waxed stage of a high school auditorium. When the curtain is raised on Allegro Brillante, 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, and my initial physical pain dissolved into humiliation. I wanted to leave the stage in shame, but I didn't. I heaved myself onto my feet to the sounds of whistling eleventh graders (kids my own age) and finished the ballet. I have never particularly minded falling onstage since. Nothing could be as cruel as that first time, and even then I realized that I only felt destroyed. I wasn't. This was just an unpleasant situation that taught me something, and learning something, however small, became my new rule. Balanchine never minded mistakes, even stupid ones, but he did mind repeated ones. From that point on, I planned not to make any."

Giselle

To be performed by San Francisco Ballet:
Nov. 28-30
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I never danced the role of the doomed Giselle but I encountered it at an early age when a film of the Bolshoi's Giselle came through town. My mother took my two sisters and myself. Seeing the ballet so large up on screen made quite an impression on me. Keep in mind, in a Midwestern town during the '50s, there were not very many opportunities for exposure to the arts. A touring ballet company would visit perhaps once a year. To see Giselle produced with grandeur in this larger than life way fed my imagination.

Giselle is probably the oldest ballet that remains largely intact and untouched by later choreographers since its first production in 1841. Ballets in those days were usually about a romantic ideal and interspersed with a healthy dose of magic and spirits. Romantic ballet is very much about seeing who you are and wishing for something entirely different—and that requires magic and a character who can make that magic happen. Because of its legacy, Giselle holds a revered place in the canon of dance and often is an introduction for young and aspiring dancers into the realm of ballet.

The Four Temperaments

To be performed by San Francisco Ballet:
Nov. 25 & 26
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During Mr. Balanchine's Broadway and Hollywood days in the late '30s he managed to save $500 and commissioned Paul Hindemith, at the time in exile and teaching composition at Yale, to compose the music. What he received was 30 minutes of stunning music for a string orchestra and piano in the form of a theme with four extended variations. The composition originally had a different name and scenario, but what Balanchine eventually called The Four Temperaments was something entirely ahead of its day.

The title is based on the Greek belief that the body could be cured by effecting its four humors, or temperaments: Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric. However, this idea was only a departure point for the piece. It was not meant to be a deep exploration of the humors and the original cumbersome costumes were quickly discarded for a more "stripped down" style. Mr. B. did not want the audience thinking, "Oh, so that's what melancholy looks like." With The Four Temperaments he could leave behind the entire idea that ballet has to have a narrative and focus on the pure emotion through the dance itself.

Occasionally, I still hear people say that they don't go to the ballet because they don't know what to see. But you don't HAVE to see anything. You just see what you see. Let your mind form its own connections and interpretations, which can be different with each viewing. This idea can act as a canvas for the audience's emotions.

The Nutcracker

To be danced by The Joffrey Ballet:
Dec. 11-14
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Of course there are many different Nutcracker productions in many cities, but the constant element is Tchaikovsky's enchanting music. In some ways this piece is overexposed and underappreciated. Everyone has heard the music, but when you REALLY listen, it is full of whimsy, passion and complexity.

As a dancer, I found the music provided seemingly limitless ways to dance. The Nutcracker exists today as a holiday tradition, and it has a power and place in that role. However, I don't see any reason that it necessarily has to be performed around Christmas. In fact, Mr. B. scheduled The Nutcracker once in the middle of summer in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was refreshing to put everyone in a winter state of mind on a hot day.

I had a chance when I was eight to play the role of the well-behaved Clara in the second act of a touring Ballet Russe production. The role didn't entail much. In fact, no dancing at all. My sole responsibility was to sit on a red velvet bench on the side of the stage and clap politely after each divertissement. Naturally, being a budding performer, I found a unique way to applaud each time. I really got into the role and felt I was contributing to the enjoyment of the performance. Needless to say, they had a little blond girl in every town they played, but this was my night, and it ignited my dreams.

Liebeslieder Walzer

To be performed by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet:
Oct. 8, 9, 11 eve., 12 mat.
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Liebeslieder Walzer, set to music by Brahms with two pianists and four vocalists on stage, is in two parts. The first part is performed in period costumes. After a brief pause, the women return in flowing gowns and toe shoes.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a performer for me is getting to “live” in a past age, if only for an hour on the stage. Liebeslieder Walzer takes us back to the genteel era of elegant gowns, whirling dances, and proper manners. I know it’s a romanticized vision of the past but like a whiff of perfume it evokes so many wonderful sensations.

The piece is of course based on the 3/4 meter of the waltz. The classical ballet vocabulary is still there but it takes on a different “world” and time period.

Liebeslieder is German for “love songs.” Although Mr. B did not want translations of the lyrics in the program (he felt they would influence audiences to look for a literal interpretation), the emotions being expressed can certainly be felt. In the dance, the four couples could perhaps represent the different stages of love, from young passion to bittersweet reflection, tempered by the grace of social behavior.

I began learning Liebeslieder Walzer one year after I joined the company, while we were on tour in Europe. After returning to New York, Diana Adams suffered an injury and I took over her role.

This work has had several stagings over the years. The original 1960 production had dreamy scenery that just suggested a ballroom. After Mr. B’s death, Liebeslieder Walzer was restaged with a very elaborate and literal recreation of a Viennese ballroom. Walking out onto that marble floor under the palatial set was a little overwhelming!

For my company, I have chosen to return to the simpler staging. I feel a whisper can ignite the imagination. The audience is free to be provoked into re-creating their views on life. And for me, this is one role of the arts, to remind us what life could—and should—be like.

Ragtime

To be performed by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet:
Oct. 8, 9, 11 eve., 12 mat.
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Ragtime ProgramBalanchine first used this music in 1922. And then again as a dance for Diana Adams and Bill Carter. Six years later, in 1966, he reworked it completely for Arthur Mitchell and me. This jazz-inspired version was completely different although they share the same music. It was for the occasion of a Stravinsky Festival at the new Philharmonic Hall and, along with the orchestral selections, Balanchine was asked to create a pair of dances. Mr. B admired Stravinsky immensely (he set ballets to his music many times over the years) and appreciated this opportunity to pay tribute to his mentor. Stravinsky attended the concert so it was a very special evening for us all.

Stravinsky’s music for Ragtime suggests the quick and lively syncopated rhythms of that style without being a literal imitation. It was written in 1918 so he was certainly influenced by the compositions of Scott Joplin and those other great ragtime musicians. The work is a lively pas de deux and having the 11 musicians on stage adds an extra dimension to the work. For me, it felt like going back in time and stepping out onto the dance floor.

After the dance concert, Ragtime was put into the repertory in 1967 but it only remained there for a year. Arthur Mitchell was beginning to start his own company (which became of course Dance Theatre of Harlem) and was not around as much to perform it with me, so the piece eventually fell out of the company’s offerings. Mr. B frequently did not have understudies for his ballets, so when those who danced them left the company the works were unfortunately lost to the past.

When I was thinking back on work that would be appropriate projects for the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, Ragtime came to mind. It was a delightful piece that few people had the chance to experience. When it came to the task of restoring this “lost” work, all I had was my memory and a short film clip that my sister had taken with an 8 mm camera when the company was on tour in Saratoga Springs, NY. It was taken from the back of the audience and I’m afraid my sister was not an expert cinematographer for I am frequently dancing out of the frame! On top of that, there was no audio, since this was well before the days of video cameras. Therefore, I relied heavily on my memory.

Certainly this was a greater challenge than some of my past reconstructions since I had fewer fragments to work with but I find that often the fragments can be very revealing. With Ragtime, it’s almost as if Mr. B is re-choreographing for my dancers since they have no visual memory of the piece. Of course, neither do the audiences so they will be discovering it as if it was the first time.

This restaging also includes new costumes. The dance-concert performance in 1966 was done in practice clothes and the piece in the repertoire had a green costume. Our resident designer, Holly Hynes, has created ensembles for the dancers that are a reflection of the music’s period. Click here to read an interview with Holly and see two of the sketches. Once I saw the dancers in their costumes, I adjusted a few of the movements I created to work better with the flow of the fabric.

I enjoyed making Ragtime come together and I know my dancers will have a special treat performing it for a new generation of audiences.

Episodes

To be performed by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet:
Oct. 8, 9, 11 eve., 12 mat.
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Episodes was created in 1959 and was unique in that the first half of the piece was choreographed by Martha Graham and the second half by Balanchine. They did not collaborate on its creation and over the years only the second section remained in active repertoire. We will be performing Mr. Balanchine’s section. I am also pleased that this engagement marks The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s second Artistic Partnership with the Ballet Austin under the Artistic Direction of Stephen Mills.

Episodes is set to the music of Anton Webern, whose music was introduced to Mr. B by his friend Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine said that this dance is about the music.

You can see this clearly in the Third Movement pas de deux. The way the man partners the woman is the same way the conductor has the musician work the instrument.

The last movement is Webern’s tribute to Bach whose liturgical music is well loved. It is a musical offering, a serene canon that conveys a sense of peace. When you see it, it seems as if everything in the world is as it should be.

The work is performed in black and white practice clothes, which enable the audience to see the pure line and movement. Some like to group these as “leotard ballets” but I feel their only connection is a similarity of costume. The movements from Agon are as unique to that work as the movements of Episodes are to it. You could not mistake one for the other.