Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet Archive
On Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Happy New Year everyone! I hope you're as excited as I am for all that's in store in 2013.
In January, I'll be traveling to audition young participants for my summer program Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell. And in early February, I'll be taking my company The Suzanne Farrell Ballet to Oman to perform at the beautiful, Royal Opera House Muscat, which opened a little over a year ago. The last time I was in the Middle East was in the 1970s, performing with Maurice Béjart's company in Tehran, Iran. I'm eager to bring a program of George Balanchine's wonderful ballets to new audiences in that corner of the world.
In the meantime, Kennedy Center audiences are in for a treat starting mid-January, when the National Ballet of Canada performs Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, their collaboration with London's Royal Ballet. As you may know, this production is not just for families. I've personally always felt that fairy tales are more for adults—they're all about teaching moral and societal values, while children tend to cherish the fantastical plots and imaginative characters. (Though I have to admit the sharp, black-and-white, crosshatch sketches in my childhood Alice books only added to the ominous nature of Lewis Carroll's tale!)
I've worked with National Ballet of Canada on several projects over the years. In fact, my very first experience with the company was when I was 14. I braved sleet, snow, and ice with another young ballerina and her mother to head from Cincinnati to Louisville, Kentucky, to audition for them. We were nearly late, but we made it! Years later, when I first left Balanchine's company in 1969, I made my National Ballet of Canada debut in another fairy-tale ballet, Swan Lake. Since then, I've staged a variety of Balanchine works for them, starting with Mozartiana and including Serenade and Jewels. We also worked in partnership when I staged Balanchine's Don Quixote for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 2005.
In 2011, I was restaging Mozartiana up at National Ballet of Canada's home in Toronto at the same time they were preparing to premiere Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (It had already enjoyed its world premiere at Royal Ballet.) The backstage hallways were overflowing with set pieces from the production. I remember making my way to the studios and having to serpentine around some of the big, round, blue bulbs that connect to form the Caterpillar. I think there was also an oversized teacup or two! It all looked very magical and clever.
Larger-than-life sets, props, and costumes in a fairy-tale ballet can be quite the unique challenge for a dancer. Though we train all of our lives, these elements add a different dynamic to learning and performing choreography. In rehearsals, the earlier you can start moving in your costume, or at least a close representation of it, the better off you'll be, and there won't be any surprises later. For example, in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the dancer who played Bottom, a donkey, wore his mask (complete with protruding snout) from the start of the choreographic process. It changes your vision and how close you can get to your partner! I'm sure that similar challenges applied to the White Rabbit's ears in Alice.
And as they say in the theater, you just can't compete with animals or children on stage! In Paul Mejia's Cinderella, I found myself performing opposite a hand-puppet squirrel and blooming flower children. And then I also danced in ten episodes of “Sesame Street.” Part of the choreography is reacting to all of the wonders around you, learning how to be as expressive as you can be with every part of your body, not just your face. But remember: there's no upstaging a Muppet!
As for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I can't wait to see how all of the components come together—the colorful sets, the whimsical costumes, the live music, and, of course, Christopher Wheeldon's choreography. It will also be a delight to see two National Ballet of Canada dancers who I've worked with before. Heather Ogden and Sonia Rodriguez shared the Dulcinea role in my staging of Balanchine's Don Quixote, and now they're sharing the role of Alice in January. A small world indeed.
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet: Program B
On Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15
This beautifully elegant tutu ballet is one of the first works my company staged upon forming in 2001. Though we've frequently performed excerpts from it (including the finale for my Kennedy Center Honors tribute in 2005), The Suzanne Farrell Ballet hasn't danced the full Divertimento No. 15 in nearly seven years.
Mozart's Divertimento No. 15, for strings and two horns, was composed when he was only 21 years old. Balanchine very much admired this music and initially choreographed Caracole to it in 1952. Four years later, Lincoln Kirstein announced his plans for a Mozart Festival at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, to mark the bicentennial of the composer's birth. But when Balanchine went to revive Caracole for the celebration, the steps had fallen out of memory. So he choreographed a new ballet to Mozart's score, but using the same configuration of dancers as before: eight principals—five equally prominent ballerinas and three men—plus an ensemble of eight women.
Balanchine's asymmetry sets the stage for plenty of interesting partnering and group patterns to unfold across the ballet's five movements. For example, in the first-movement allegro, the principals are introduced in a staggered way—two women at first, then the three men, then the three remaining women. And in the second movement's theme and variations, the dancers' solos overlap, entering and exiting one right after the other. Mozart's music never stops throughout.
A minuet, featuring the ensemble women dancing two by two, is quickly followed by the andante, where Balanchine's seamless, fluid choreography continues with five sequential pas de deux, one for each of the principal ballerinas. (Two of the three men dance twice in this movement.) And in the finale, the soloists appear and disappear among the ensemble, until everyone ultimately joins together. What a glorious, dizzying array of mixing, matching, and intermingling throughout all 33 minutes of exquisite music.
I began performing Divertimento No. 15 in the late 60s, in the ballerina role originated by Patricia Wilde. But this was after Balanchine added a separate cadenza, composed for violin and viola by John Colman, to the end of the andante. This new music summons all of the principal dancers into yet another dramatic formation, bringing the pas de deux section to a perfect end. I encourage you to come to the ballet and watch and listen for it!
On Balanchine's Prodigal Son
Set to a score by Sergei Prokofiev specifically commissioned for the ballet, Prodigal Son follows the dramatic fall and redemption of the legendary Biblical character. A 24-year-old George Balanchine first choreographed the work for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes for a 1929 Paris premiere, with scenic design by French expressionist painter Georges Rouault. It was the last ballet produced by Diaghilev before his death, just months after the first performance.
The story goes that Diaghilev, with the premiere close at hand, was getting nervous that Rouault—who was not very familiar with stagecraft—had not yet delivered concepts for the scenic design and costumes. So Diaghilev locked Rouault in his hotel room and had meals sent to him, until the painter produced some sketches. Costumes were still absent from the results, so Diaghilev and Vera Stravinsky (Igor's second wife) were left to create them following Rouault's drawings.
After Ballets Russes disbanded, Prodigal Son was not seen again until Balanchine revived it for City Ballet in 1950, featuring Jerome Robbins in the title role—and, every so often, the choreographer himself as the Father. The ballet mixes classical steps with acrobatics and pantomime, with some movement and imagery evoking the Byzantine icons, such as the pronounced angularity of the dancers' hands and elbows.
When I was with Balanchine's company, I performed the role of the Siren, who lures the Prodigal Son into the depths of greedy sensuality. The Siren was originally made on Mme. Felia Doubrovska, my beloved teacher from when I first began studying at the School of American Ballet. (See her as the Siren in the photo at left.) Critics often referred to her as the first prototypical "Balanchine dancer" because of her statuesque height, long legs, arched feet, and graceful extensions.
Once I made principal at the company, I was curious to explore a darker, earthier character. I asked Balanchine if I could dance the Siren, and he obliged. It was an honor to receive direct insight from Mme. Doubrovska on how cool, calculating, and snake-like the Siren needed to be. The role offered one lovely discovery after the next. As I say in my autobiography:
Before performing one evening, I was warming up with my leg on the barre in arabesque when George walked by. He asked how I was feeling, and I said, "Fine, but my back feels stiff and I can't seem to get a decent arabesque…." Then I realized that the Siren doesn't have any arabesques, which is unusual considering that this is one of ballet's most commonly used positions.
Looking at me with a straight face, Mr. B said, "Yes, she just wasn't an arabesque kind of lady." Indeed, none of her movements is directed behind her; all are in front of her or underneath her where she is in diabolical control.
Some of the elements in Prodigal Son were inspired by a short story from Alexander Pushkin, called "The Station Master." This tragic tale takes place at an inn where travelers rest and change horses. On the inn's walls are four lithographs depicting the Biblical parable. The last picture shows the Prodigal Son returning to his Father on his knees. Balanchine creates a similar tableau at the end of his ballet.
Other staging choices in Prodigal Son were considered quite innovative for their time. Early in the ballet, for example, the Prodigal Son leaps over his Father's fence as he escapes into the world. Later, that fence is transformed into a table, and then again into a boat, with the Siren's long, flowing cape as the sail. And all of this "creative re-purposing" takes place right before your eyes. As the ballet segues from one scene to the next, without interruption, not a single scenic shift is disguised. It's almost like experiencing an entire three-act "evening-length" ballet—with a beginning, middle, and end—in a seamless 25 minutes. It's one of the many reasons I'm excited to share my company's premiere of the work with you soon.
Photo courtesy of Felia Doubrovska.
On Balanchine's Danses Concertantes
Danses Concertantes is one of several ballets to have enjoyed "multiple lives" with Balanchine. Even so, it's a rarely staged work; hence it's the latest addition to my Balanchine Preservation Initiative. The choreography you'll see my company perform is from the 1972 version, but its evolution actually begins 30 years prior.
In the early 1940s, Balanchine and Stravinsky co-conceived the music for Danses Concertantes for use in the theater. This is clear in the title itself, as well as in the score's five section headings: a cheerful "Marche" that introduces the full cast of nine women and five men; the "Pas d'Action"; the "Thème Varié" featuring four pas de trois; a tender "Pas de Deux" for the central couple; and a short "Marche" that concludes the ballet. However, the score was officially commissioned and first performed as a concert piece for chamber orchestra in 1942.
Two years later, Balanchine became resident choreographer for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He decided to stage Danses Concertantes as his first original work for the company; it became his seventh ballet in the West danced to Stravinsky's music. (The first was The Song of the Nightingale in 1925, followed by Apollo in 1927, The Card Party and Le Baiser de la Fée on the same program in 1937, Balustrade in 1941, Circus Polka for elephants in 1942, and then Danses Concertantes in 1944. Interestingly, Balanchine created a total of 123 ballets between Nightingale and Danses—quite the prolific output!)
The ballet was very popular and remained in Ballet Russe's repertory for a few years beyond Balanchine's time with the company. He and Stravinsky continued to collaborate until the composer's passing in 1971. The following year, Balanchine mounted the Stravinsky Festival to honor his cherished friend. For the celebration, he completely re-imagined Danses Concertantes. It is said that Balanchine made the choreography more intricate, with only the fourth variation—and Eugene Berman's costumes and scenic designs—reminiscent of the 1944 original.
While Balanchine may have perhaps forgotten much of the choreography, he was also known to find repeated inspiration in the same music, especially in the case of Stravinsky's complex scores. In fact, I remember working with him in 1982 on his last ballet—Variations for Orchestra, set to the same Stravinsky music as the 1966 Variations he also made on me. We were in the studio, he was ill, and I was trying so hard to remember the old choreography. "Oh, Suzanne, it doesn't matter," he said. "I don't want to do the same thing. I understand the music better now."
For the genius that Balanchine was, I always thought how wonderful it was for him to tell me this—that he could let go of the "artist's ego" and admit his initial grasp of Stravinsky's music had grown deeper over time.
While I never had the opportunity to perform Danses Concertantes, I look forward to sharing my own understanding of the work with audiences in November. Though the ballet has no story, it does have a brassy, witty, humorous vibe to it. Edwin Denby, a famous dance critic at the time, called Balanchine's ballet "a happy flirtation … a bit commedia dell'arte."
My company is also having costumes made to resemble Berman's designs from the 1940s. And a painted "marquee" curtain—stylized with Balanchine, Stravinsky, and Berman's names soaring over the dancers—will further draw audiences back to a time when this Russian-born threesome first joined forces to make Danses Concertantes such a treasure.
On the Intermezzo from Balanchine's Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet
When performed as a whole, the four movements of Balanchine's Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, first staged in 1966, evoke the sensibilities of old-world Austria. But like Jewels, each of the four movements is also a little world unto itself. Each one can stand as its own independent ballet because once the movement is over, you never see those dancers or that specific visual aesthetic return in any kind of a finale.
In 2007, my company added the Fourth Movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet to our repertoire—the one that Balanchine made on Jacques d'Amboise and me. But I also always liked the second movement, the Intermezzo. It's the perfect title: with its dancers constantly weaving in and out, and no true pas de deux or set of variations, the ballet seems to float in the world of "in between."
Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 1 is rife with passion, and the Intermezzo in particular has such a majestic, effortless fluidity to it—the dancing just sweeps all over the stage. The ballet begins with a corps of three women, who ignite the romantic mood of the piece and then summon forth the lead ballerina and her male partner. The women come and go throughout the couple's exchanges, lacing every moment together into one continuous flow. There's never a real break in the music. The five dancers' dynamics also give audiences the chance to piece together their own personal story for the ballet.
Whereas the original ballet's costumes were longer, more heavy-looking tulle, my dancers will be wearing much lighter pink chiffon. I think this approach puts new emphasis on the Intermezzo's grand, gliding movements, which seem to almost never touch the ground.
On Balanchine's Valse-Fantaisie
Like Danses Concertantes on the same program, Valse-Fantaisie also underwent several permutations. In 1931, Balanchine choreographed Waltz Fantasy in Blue to Glinka's Valse-Fantaisie in B minor, featuring a single ballerina and corps. He revisited the Russian-born composer's lovely, whirling waltz in 1953, but this time on a quartet: three ballerinas, each given equal emphasis, and one male partner who dances with all of them.
Then in 1967, Balanchine staged Glinkiana, a "full-evening" ballet in four sections, each choreographed to a different Glinka composition. The second section was Valse-Fantaisie, but Balanchine was inspired to create new choreography for it a third time. He made this final version on a central couple and four ensemble women. This is the version I've danced before, and I'm excited to present my company's premiere of the work this fall.
The tempo and choreography are brisk and full of energy. Balanchine paired plenty of leaps, runs, and virtuoso concert dancing to Glinka's fast-moving waltz rhythms. The score has been referred to as a perpetuum mobile, which literally translates to "constant motion." And Balanchine, always in service to the music, makes sure that the dancing never stops, from the first note to the last. It's a tour de force in that sense; there are very few places for the dancers to rest.
Our costumes for Valse-Fantaisie will be knee-length tulle—and a different color palette than the original purple from 1967. It recently occurred to me that, while some audiences may consider Balanchine's signature look to be "black and white leotard ballets," my company's two programs this November are all fully costumed in a range of colors. All the more reason to come to the ballet and see how Balanchine continued to defy category with each of his creations!
As for the four-part Glinkiana, Valse-Fantaisie is only one of two sections still in existence. The other is Divertimento Brilliante, which I added to my company's repertoire in 2007 as part of the Balanchine Preservation Initiative. No record exists of Glinkiana's first or third sections, a polka and Spanish jota respectively. The jota is a section I also danced. I don't remember much of it, though I do recall it contained many fouettés en tournant. It's one of the few times that Balanchine added this long sequence of whip-like turns en pointe to a ballet. He used to tell me that "all people do is count" when they see them—though they're still quite a feat for any dancer!
On Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue—a ballet first featured in Richard Rodgers's musical On Your Toes—concludes both of my company's programs in November. Read my Notes on the ballet from the last time we performed it at the Kennedy Center, in June 2007.
Though I have yet to see Alexei Ratmansky's version of Cinderella for the Mariinsky, I have danced the role to Profokiev's exquisite score before, in a production first choreographed by Paul Mejia in 1981 for Chicago City Ballet. As I say in my autobiography, Holding On to the Air :
"Having always felt that fairy tales were for adults as well as children, I relished the opportunity to play the title role with all its transitions—from humble, barefoot poverty by the hearth to slippered glory at the ball. I adored dancing Cinderella."
Many choreographers have staged this classic story ballet over the years, interpreting the music to dance in their own unique way. I invite you to experience what Ratmansky has in store with his version, the official opening of the Kennedy Center's 2012-2013 ballet season. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet follows in early November with two all-Balanchine programs.
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.