Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet Archive
Backstage at The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
I hope you had the opportunity to attend our performances June 6-10 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Below, I've compiled some memorable statements overheard during our rehearsals for the engagement. Indeed, bringing ballet to the stage is hard work - but it's also a lot of fun! But first, I've posted a backstage photo album that captures another side of our dancers during the performances. Enjoy your behind-the-scenes tour!
During the scéne d'amour from Romeo and Juliet
"Death isn't convenient"
- Me (Suzanne Farrell) to 'Romeo' as he was trying to not trip over a 'dead Montague'
During Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
"Oh, this is me dead." and "Oh, right!"
- Katelyn Prominski, when told she could not help her partner in lifting her, being that she is still dead at that point.
"You have a week to train your hair."
- Me to the 3 'strippers' who can't seem to keep their hair out of their faces
"It's just as crooked as it was before."
- Neil Marshall referring to his nose after getting hit in it during rehearsal
"Rough him up! Make it look real!"
- Me"I'm nimble, you can rough me up."
- Bannon Puckett, the gangster
Both to Paul Lavrakas, the 'arresting officer'
During Divertimento Brillante
"Well, he's standing there..." and "She starts where it gets harder."
- Ron Matson, to Glen Sales, our piano player during the rehearsal. First when Glen couldn't figure out why he had to keep playing and couldn't stop to turn the page, second when trying to figure out where in the music to pick up from.
"Now I know I have to drink some coffee before."
-Glen Sales referring to the tempo of the music
Other Memorable Moments
"You always watch the conductor."
- Me, in response to a dancer asking who starts the piece, her or the maestro
"You can't be a one-person line."
- Me, quoting Balanchine
"It's just a hairdo!"
-Elisa Holowchuk to a fellow female dancer who was having issues with fly-aways as she was attempting to create a bun.
"A stay is not a stop!" and "You're always dancing, even if you're not moving, you're always dancing."
On Balanchine's Scotch Symphony
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (June 6-10, 2007)
Schedule and Tickets
Scotch Symphony is Balanchine's homage to Scotland, performed to Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 - which in turn was inspired by the composer's visit to the country in the 1800s.
A lovely gesture, the ballet plays out in three movements. The first features the ensemble and a solo girl dancer, followed by the pas de deux accompanied by eight men from the corps de ballet. The finale joyously ends in a choreographic tattoo, which mirrors the colorful Scottish synchronized marching.
Scotch Symphony premiered in 1952; the original cast included Maria Tallchief, André Eglevsky, and Patricia Wilde. I first performed the ballerina role as an 18 year old in 1964, at an arts festival in Germany, when Jacques d'Amboise asked if I would join him in the Munich Ballet's production. I went on to dance Scotch Symphony many other times, including performances with André Prokovsky in the fortress high atop a windy mountain in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia.
On occasion, I caution audiences that Scotch Symphony is not Balanchine's answer to the Romantic La Sylphide of 1832. Balanchine's evokes the mood of elusiveness and reverie in the pas de deux. The ballerina seems like an apparition, as if in the man’s memory. They return in the finale with a harmonious resolution.
One of the many reasons Scotch Symphony is special to me is because it's the first large-scale ballet I ever staged. In December 1988, I flew to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to teach it to the Kirov Ballet. It was the first time I had assumed this responsibility. I only had 10 days to stage the ballet, so I spent weeks preparing detailed, absolutely beautiful notes. When I got to Leningrad, however, my notes didn't seem to make any sense at all. They became irrelevant.
Luckily, the act of writing them down had imprinted the choreography in my mind, and I was successful in teaching it. Divertimento No. 15 was the next large-scale ballet I staged, and again, I made copious notes. But I haven't made many notes since. It requires an enormous amount of writing before you finally get to the essence of what you want. And during rehearsals, if you're constantly referring back to notes, the focus and energy gets scattered. My note-taking days were brief, albeit necessary, so that I could learn to trust my muscle and music memory. In certain instances, I do make pattern and meter notes in the score.
Though the Mariinsky Theatre is where Balanchine got his start, in 1988 the Kirov dancers were not very familiar with his work. I feel my notes became irrelevant because the whole process was therefore entering a different world. For example, they weren't used to the speed of Balanchine's tempos - they wanted them slower. I had to remind them that if you haven't performed to Balanchine's tempos, which follow the conductor, you haven't performed Balanchine.
My lead Kirov dancers in Scotch Symphony, Elena Pankova and Yuri Zhukov, were also perplexed by a particular running step in the pas de deux. Balanchine tended to stress the importance of transitions, so this part in the sequence had never been odd to me. Elena and Yuri wanted to do more with it though - add some "real ballet steps" to the run - but to Balanchine, running is the step!
Over 10 days, I came face to face with many other Soviet conventions: not wanting to dance anything in rehearsal until it's polished in private first; perceiving the corps de ballet primarily as scenery vs. Balanchine insisting on its vital importance. But ultimately I brought Scotch Symphony to the Mariinsky stage as part of "An Evening of Balanchine" in February 1989. Elena and Yuri learned to love speed and running and were wonderful in the ballet.
I knew I was going to retire from dancing soon, but I wasn't sure what came after. This experience marked a new path for me.
On Balanchine's Mozartiana
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (June 6-10, 2007)
Schedule and Tickets
I've said before that Mozartiana changed my life more than any other ballet Balanchine made on me. It has an aura about it unlike any other ballet, which partly has to do with Balanchine's fragile health when he choreographed it in 1981. There was this sense that it might be his last ballet. This is one reason why Mozartiana is so profound.
Prior to this version, Balanchine had choreographed two others to Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4, Mozartiana. Each time, he created different choreography to the composer's tribute to Mozart using different configurations of dancers. Our version premiered at New York City Ballet's Tchaikovsky Festival, with me and Ib Andersen in the original cast.
The choreography is divided into five sections. It begins with a Preghiera, or Prayer, in which the ballerina is accompanied by four young girls, performing to Mozart's "Ave Verum." A male soloist then dances a Gigue, and four women dance a Minuet. The ballerina returns with the male principal for multiple complex Variations on the musical Theme and ending with a haunting, sustained pas de deux. The finale is an exultant celebration that only Balanchine could devise.
Balanchine loved having children in his ballets. He always treated them with respect, just like young adults, and never spoke down to them. Mozartiana is a great ballet for children to see. The four girls from the Prayer return for the Finale and perform steps that are very challenging and complicated. They have to do them just like the adults, with the same level of sophistication. I think that shows how much faith Balanchine had in young people.
My costume for Mozartiana went through numerous changes before everyone settled on the final, formal, all-black look. For the premiere only, there was a shorter tutu. In the 1950s, Balanchine had choreographed a ballet called Roma. It featured wonderful costumes - velvet bodices in rich colors, sort of puff-white organza sleeves, and the soft skirts reached to around the mid-thigh. Roma had a short life, but each time Balanchine choreographed a new ballet in the '60s, out these costumes would come. They even appeared in Don Quixote! I loved them, but I never got to dance in one.
Years later, for Mozartiana, I finally got my wish, and a similar costume was made for me. Once I stepped into it, however, I realized it didn't seem right for the ballet. Costumes are extremely important, of course - they add great visual interest, but as a dancer, each one also makes you move so differently. The "weightiness" of Mozartiana's choreography felt like it required a longer dress, but we had no choice at this late time, so the shorter costume stayed for the first performance. I must admit, I felt like one of those 1950s hat-check girls in the movies, who come around selling cigars!
During the June premiere, it turned out, I injured my foot, and with no understudy for me, Mozartiana was cancelled for the rest of the season. By the time I danced it in Saratoga Springs later that summer, the costume was very different. Balanchine also realized the costume was inappropriate; perhaps he had been tied to the costumes from his previous versions of Mozartiana. Once the skirt was longer, all seemed right with the world.
I've staged Mozartiana many times - for my company, for Boston Ballet, and for National Ballet of Canada. I also taught it in Moscow, at the Bolshoi. Every time I stage one of Balanchine's ballets, I see something different. I'm constantly discovering another facet of his genius. Though he was a brilliant man, Balanchine never acted like he knew everything about everything. He was also a very good listener. It was that kind of connection - with his dancers, with the music, and with himself - that made working with him so extraordinary. Mozartiana was Balanchine's last great masterpiece. It was because this ballet existed that I could survive the death of the man who made it.
On the scène d'amour from Béjart's Romeo and Juliet
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (June 6-10, 2007)
Schedule and Tickets
In 1970, Maurice Béjart invited me to join his Belgium-based company Ballet du XXe Siècle ("Ballet of the 20th Century," now based in Switzerland and called Béjart Ballet Lausanne). Though his company was known for its emphasis on male dancing, he said he wanted to do new ballets for me. I accepted the invitation and moved to Brussels for four years. Soon after joining the company, I began portraying Juliet in Béjart's full-length production of Romeo and Juliet, which had premiered to wide acclaim in 1966.
Béjart's scène d'amour from the ballet is not the typical balcony sequence in other versions of Romeo and Juliet. It takes place following the Capulet ball, as in the traditional narrative, but Béjart gives the scene a more dramatic edge by choreographing it as an extended pas de deux. This inspired format uniquely encapsulates the core tension of the story and cleverly foreshadows some of the tragedies to come.
In the scene, Romeo and Juliet's feelings for each other ignite, burn bright, and ultimately crystallize as they dance. They know their families are hostile toward each other, yet they pursue their destiny despite this conflict. Béjart not only explores the euphoric potential of their love with his passionate partnering style, he portends the terrible harm their union will bring about. Further increasing the ill-fated mood of the scene is Hector Berlioz's symphony. It's not like Prokofiev's balcony music for Romeo and Juliet, which is very beautiful and harmonious throughout. Berlioz's score for the scène d'amour shifts from loving and dreamlike to more ominous and discordant.
I have many fond memories of dancing Béjart's Romeo and Juliet. He originally choreographed it to be presented in the round - as he did with many of his ballets. We frequently performed in this style of venue. You can never let your guard down, whether you're the lead or in the corps de ballet. And performing in three-dimensions like this offers great possibilities for your character. For example, when Jorge Donn's Romeo was carrying me, I knew I was being seen from all angles, and that sensation was incredibly freeing.
The floor was a canvas painted with a dynamic design, which added even more depth and drama to the story. When we were filming the ballet in Florence, Italy, in the Boboli Gardens, there was an enormous ramp that we ran up and over and down and around during the pas de deux. It expanded the dance into a passionate marathon. I loved it!
This doesn't mean transposing Romeo and Juliet to a proscenium stage, like in the Kennedy Center's Opera House, makes the ballet any less interesting. On the contrary, it challenges you to make your performance even more theatrical - larger, more vibrant, and more vital than ever.
I have staged the scène d'amour at the Kennedy Center twice before. In 1999, prior to the official creation of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, I staged it for the Center's "Masters of 20th Century Ballet" celebration, which in addition to Béjart also featured classics by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. During the engagement, I presented lecture-demonstrations with my dancers to explore how love - its possibilities and also its consequences - can be expressed through ballet in different ways.
I truly enjoyed this aspect of our engagement that year. We used as examples Titania's tender and lighthearted pas de deux with Bottom, the donkey, in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the innocent love in Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, and of course Béjart's Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespeare in Washington festival is the perfect opportunity for me to bring Béjart's masterpiece back again.
On Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (June 6-10, 2007)
Schedule and Tickets
Originally, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was not programmed as part of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet's season. My initial plan was to honor Maurice Béjart and the collaboration we shared through my staging of his Rite of Spring. We had been discussing this idea for a couple of years; I visited him in December for his 80th birthday and he is not well. Travel from Switzerland would have been dangerously difficult for him. It was vital for both of us that he oversee final rehearsals, and now this became impossible.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was a huge success when it premiered in 1968. The work is derived from Rodgers and Hart's musical comedy On Your Toes, which Balanchine originally choreographed in 1936. A parody of Broadway, ballet, and the mob, the full musical follows a Russian danseur who hires a gangster to kill his rival during the premiere of a new ballet. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue focuses on that "story within the story," about a strip tease girl and the tap-dancing hoofer who's in love with her.
Balanchine always loved the movies and the theater, and he choreographed numerous musicals in the 1930s before co-founding New York City Ballet, among them Babes in Arms, Where's Charley?, Cabin in the Sky, and Goldwyn Follies. Back then, Hollywood and Broadway offered prime opportunities for choreographers and musicians, so that's where many of them went - Balanchine, Stravinsky, and others.
In the 1960s, I had seen the movie version of On Your Toes and had adored the music. So I approached Balanchine and told him I really wanted to dance it. (I actually think I said, "If you don't do it, I'll choreograph it myself!"). Balanchine obliged and re-choreographed the "story within the story" to create Slaughter on Tenth Avenue on me.
Arthur Mitchell was also in the original cast - he portrayed the hoofer. The choreography uses a few ballet steps, but it's mostly Broadway and tap-dancing, and definitely not classical. For me, it was intriguing to perform, for example, the exquisite Symphony in C in the first part of a program, and then return after intermission to dance something so comedic and whimsical for sheer entertainment. The music is delightfully infectious. Most audiences have heard it at some point in their lifetime, and they always leave the theater humming.
Portraying the strip tease girl brought about many firsts for me. It was my first opportunity to play overtly seductive, sexy, and worldly in performance. It was my first time dancing in high heels - my character wears them throughout the story, which brought back childhood memories of my backyard carnival days. And it was also my first time dying on stage, all in tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue once again proved to audiences and critics that Balanchine wasn't just a master of so-called "plotless leotard ballets." He knew how to tell a story through multiple dance forms and styles. This work appeals to audiences of all ages and shows another side of Balanchine, another category of his craft. I personally believe every ballet he created is a category unto itself.
On the Balanchine Preservation Initiative
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (June 6-10, 2007)
Schedule and Tickets
Since its formation, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet has been committed to carrying forth the legacy of George Balanchine through performances of his classic ballets. With my new project called the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, I hope to further our mission by sharing some of his rarely seen or "lost" works with audiences who have never experienced them before. I also plan to document their re-creation so that they don't fall out of performance again. Incredibly, most of these works haven't been staged in nearly 40 years!
Ballets are generally passed down from one dancer to another - and with so many roles to learn, steps can certainly slip from a dancer's memory over time. Perhaps the choreography or music is extremely unique or unusual. Perhaps the absence of certain elements, players, or resources makes it impractical to produce a ballet again. Or perhaps some parts of a ballet continue to be performed while others do not. Whatever the case, sometimes even real gems get forgotten along the way.
The Balanchine Preservation Initiative aims to breathe new life into some of these glittering gems. As part of our Opera House program in June, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will perform the Adagio from Concierto de Mozart, featuring the composer's Violin Concerto No. 5, and Divertimento Brillante, featuring music by Mikhail Glinka. Next season, in November, we'll continue with Pithoprakta, meaning "action by probabilities" and danced to music by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, plus various "lost" divertissements from Balanchine's Don Quixote.
Because of my closeness to George Balanchine, I had always considered seeking out some of his rare works to help build a unique repertoire for my company. In 2001, I began this process by re-working Variations for Orchestra, a solo that he originally made on me in 1967. The pas de deux from Clarinade soon followed - it was another ballet I had originated in the 1960s, and one that Balanchine had always wanted us to do again but never got the chance. In 2005, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performed Don Quixote, which Balanchine bequeathed to me, but which hadn't been performed in more than 25 years.
Reaching deep into my memories and personal archives, and working closely with the Balanchine Trust, I began to uncover other "lost" ballets recorded on film, which was quite uncommon back then. The quality of this footage runs the gamut - from a polished BBC video of Divertimento Brillante, to a dark, shaky version of Ragtime (II), shot by my sister with an 8-mm camera. Filmed from the audience, Arthur Mitchell and I are practically dots, dancers jump in and out of the frame, and there's no music!
Regardless of what I've had to start with, the process of reviving these works has been a fascinating one. As I aspire to remain as true as possible to Balanchine's original vision, I know that some of these puzzles have missing pieces. But that's no reason to let these ballets completely disappear. The fragments that remain are still very much enlightening - they're windows into the evolution of Balanchine's craft. The 1960s was filled with Stravinsky, jazz, and eclectic elements. It was also the era of going to the moon and thinking about space. Many of these lost works reflect how Balanchine was exploring new ways of using, filling, and transforming space during that time.
Of course, with this project come many personal choices for how to "fill in the gaps" between surviving sequences of choreography. Balanchine did it with Petipa, and I frequently did it with Balanchine at my side. For example, during rehearsals for Tzigane, he'd say, "Suzi, you know what I want, so fill it in somehow!" It's all part of how ballet gets passed down. But I have to admit, it will be interesting to see if balletomanes can de-code what is Balanchine's and what is mine!
Enthusiasm for the Balanchine Preservation Initiative has spilled over into my dancers - they're thrilled to be a part of the process. In rehearsals, they continue to comment on how wonderful these works are, wondering how any of them got lost in the first place.
As for Concierto de Mozart, its world premiere was performed in 1942 by Argentina's Ballet of the Teatro Colon. Tulsa Ballet gave its American premiere in 1987, but to my knowledge, no other company has performed it since. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is performing the pas de deux featuring only the solo couple, as opposed to the extended version surrounded by an ensemble. Though I never performed in the ballet myself, I was attracted to it because Balanchine did not choreograph many works to Mozart's music. So the pas de deux is unlike any other he created. The score is so exquisite and soothing, and the dance has the serene, peaceful quality of Elysium - the paradise-after-death in Greek mythology. There's a lot of contact and connection between the man and the woman, but there's really no earthly word to describe the emotional world that develops between them.
Divertimento Brillante is also a pas de deux, and the final section from Balanchine's 1967 four-part Glinkiana. The first part, a polka, and the third part, a Spanish jota, have not survived as far as I know, but the second part, the Valse-Fantaisie, has been performed many times. Balanchine always liked Glinka's music, and he constantly sought to expose the Western world to more Russian composers like him. Patricia McBride and Edward Villella were the original cast for Divertimento Brillante; its themes are based on Bellini's opera La Sonnambula, which was also Balanchine's inspiration for another ballet.
As the Balanchine Preservation Initiative continues to grow, everyone involved has come to realize the incredible fragility of these works. But in the same spirit, the journey is also very empowering. It's almost like having Balanchine taking the reins again, working directly with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet to create something completely new.
On George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream
New York City Ballet (Feb. 28 - Mar. 4)
Schedule and Tickets
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. 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.
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 second act is devoted to dance and pageantry and a lovely divertissement, leading up to the marriage ceremony. And all is well. But then the entire palace scenery disappears and suddenly we're back in the forest. It's a final, fleeting moment where all the magic and drama of Midsummer began, before one last good-bye.
On Bolshoi Ballet: Cinderella
Feb. 21-23, 2007
Schedule and Tickets
Having performed the role of Cinderella in Paul Mejia's version of the ballet, I know how thrilling it is for a ballerina to dance this part - to step inside the magical world of a fairy tale and bring the audience along with you.
I've always felt that fairy tales are really for grown-ups. Though we read them when we're young, fairy tales convey morals that should stay with us throughout our entire lives. We shouldn't dismiss them because we're no longer a child. Many of these fairy tales also have sub-stories and sub-texts, and that's why it's fascinating to revisit them again - just as choreographer Yuri Possokhov has done with this new production. The Bolshoi premiered it last year in Moscow and will enjoy its U.S. premiere here at the Kennedy Center.
Yuri Possokhov received his training at the Moscow Ballet School, danced with the Bolshoi for a time, and is currently Choreographer in Residence at San Francisco Ballet. He was commissioned by the Bolshoi to create this new Cinderella to Sergei Prokofiev's score, which was originally created for the company's 1945 production. Without even seeing the ballet, Prokofiev's music alone helps you visualize what's happening on stage because it's so powerful and moving.
The plot in Possokhov's Cinderella is generally the same story we all know, though there are some original twists. These elements include fanciful sets aglow with the moon and stars, costumes and characters inspired by the 1930s, and the replacement of the fairy godmother with a male narrator. Some say this narrator may represent Prokofiev while he was composing his score for Cinderella more than 60 years ago.
Many other versions of Cinderella have been created over the years, but whatever surprises the Bolshoi has in store for us, its timeless story has always been captivating. At its core is a young woman whose noble character triumphs over depravity and cruelty. Despite all the obstacles, the prince perseveres in his quest to find Cinderella. Their reunion – which is the moral of the story– teaches how goodness of heart prevails.
On Bolshoi Ballet: Don Quixote
Feb. 24 & 25, 2007
Schedule and Tickets
Over the past 250 years, there have been many ballets inspired by the characters and themes in Miguel de Cervantes's novel Don Quixote. The interpretation that the Bolshoi is bringing to the Kennedy Center is one of the company's crown jewels. With choreography by Aleksey Fadeechev after Marius Petipa and Aleksandr Gorsky, the Bolshoi's version follows the love story between Kitri, the daughter of an innkeeper, and Basil, an amorous barber. Perhaps more than anything, the ballet is popular for the bravura dancing that always takes center stage, matching the exuberance of Ludwig Minkus's score along the way. I've always enjoyed dancing in class to his music.
The Don Quixote that I'm personally closest to is George Balanchine's ballet, featuring music composed specifically by Nicolas Nabokov. His 1965 interpretation closely follows Cervantes's story and the relationship that develops between the title character and his beloved Dulcinea. The premiere was life-altering for me, because I portrayed Dulcinea to Balanchine's Don Quixote.
In 2005 with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, I re-staged Balanchine's production at the Kennedy Center. It was the 400th anniversary of the novel, so there was enormous interest in what we were doing. Petipa's version is so ingrained in world consciousness that some people would say to me, "Oh, I saw that ballet last year!" And I'd explain to them that what they must have seen was Petipa's version, because Balanchine's ballet hadn't been performed in over a quarter of a century.
There were many other fascinating and challenging facets to the process of re-staging Balanchine's work. For example, in companies like the Bolshoi, Petipa's Don Quixote and other ballets are handed down to future generations. Every student learns these roles in their training, commits them to memory, and performs them many times through to graduation day.
But in re-creating Balanchine's Don Quixote, I was viewing and analyzing a 28-year-old film, much of which was poor quality and very dark. And if someone was dancing off camera, I'd have to imagine what they were doing and go from there. So my personal "preservation" process was not to embalm Balanchine's work, but rather to allow it to have a new life. I think there's a fine line between preserving something and having it preserved. Preservation is active; preserved is passive. Dancing is an active profession.
In reviewing the cast of Bolshoi dancers performing in Don Quixote, a few names and faces are familiar to me. For example, I worked with Sergey Filin when I taught Balanchine's Mozartiana at the Bolshoi in 1998. So I'm looking forward to welcoming the company to the Kennedy Center and re-visiting with them as well.
On Matthew Bourne: Edward Scissorhands
Feb. 13-18, 2007
Schedule and Tickets
The Kennedy Center is presenting Matthew Bourne's "dance play" adaptation of Edward Scissorhands. The production features his company New Adventures in a story based on the film directed by Tim Burton. The music of Terry Davies is influenced by themes in Danny Elfman's film score.
While I have not yet seen the production, I did love the movie, which starred Johnny Depp in the title role. Matthew Bourne is one of many choreographers today who are telling stories by combining dance with theater and other genres. Directly or indirectly, these choreographers have been influenced by Maurice Béjart, who used this format throughout his long career. However, for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet's engagement in the Opera House later this season, we will present two Béjart works that are pure dance: Rite of Spring and the scène d'amour from Romeo and Juliet.
For Edward Scissorhands, I'm curious to see how Matthew Bourne has created dance movement and partnering choreography for a character - and a performer - who must wear large and dangerously sharp-looking scissors as appendages. It's a very magical and whimsical story, and that always makes good material for dance.
I suppose that's why the elements of fantasy and suspension of disbelief are so important, just like in the ballet of Cinderella. There's no way to make a toe shoe be a glass slipper, though costume designers have been trying for ages! For many young girls, I think the dream of getting their own toe shoes is just as compelling as wishing for a glass slipper, because being in the ballet is all part of the fairy tale too. Exploring how a character can transcend their physical reality to find the heroine or hero within - whether it be with a glass slipper or scissors for hands - is a fascinating adventure.
On ABT: Othello and Mixed Repertory
Jan. 9 & 10 (Mixed), Jan. 11–14 (Othello), 2007
Schedule and Tickets
A new year is upon us, and as I'm beginning to travel and rehearse my own company for our new project called the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, I'm also looking forward to many other ballet productions coming to the Opera House in January and February.
ABT's three-act Othello, which is being presented as part of the citywide Shakespeare in Washington festival, was originally co-produced with the San Francisco Ballet. It premiered in 1997 when, interestingly enough, Michael M. Kaiser, former Kennedy Center President, was ABT's executive director. Some of you may have seen the television broadcast of the production, which was nominated for an Emmy.
The choreography for ABT's Othello was created by Lar Lubovitch, whose early career at Juilliard included training by Antony Tudor, Anna Sokolow, Martha Graham, and Jose Limón. Limón's The Moor's Pavane is another interpretation of the Othello story.
Mr. Lubovitch's style tends to combine elements of classical and modern movement. Many people who have seen his Othello say one of the most memorable moments is Desdemona's death scene (I hope I'm not giving too much away here!). It uses to great effect the handkerchief that leads Othello to doubt his wife's fidelity. As their dance comes to its inevitable conclusion, Othello slowly ties the handkerchief around Desdemona's neck and, in a final spin, seals her fate.
The drama in Othello is further intensified by the music, composed by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal. If you've seen any of the movies he's created music for - like Frida, Interview with a Vampire, or Titus - you'll know how visual and atmospheric his scores are. USA Today even called his music for Othello “worthy of a Hitchcock tingler” - so hopefully that gives you a sense of how edge-of-your-seat the whole experience is.
Along with a full-evening ballet, ABT usually brings a program of mixed repertory for their annual Opera House engagement. This year, the rep program includes “Kingdom of the Shades” from Marius Petipa's La Bayadère, Agnes de Mille's Rodeo (to celebrate de Mille's centenary), and Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies. The program showcases a wide range of choreographic styles and emotional contexts: de Mille's lighthearted vision of the American pioneer West, Tudor's somber tale of a village lamenting the death of its children, and the haunting dream from Act II of Petipa's ballet about a beautiful temple dancer.
On Kirov Ballet: Romeo and Juliet
Jan. 16-21, 2007
Schedule and Tickets
The Kirov Ballet's three-act Romeo and Juliet premiered in 1940 at the Mariinsky Theatre, the company's home in St. Petersburg. Leonid Lavrovsky created it for the Kirov to Sergei Prokofiev's monumental score, which was also commissioned by the company.
Russia, of course, has given birth to many ballet visionaries, including George Balanchine, who began his training at St. Petersburg's Imperial School of Theater and Ballet. Whereas Balanchine tended to focus on the movement instead of the narrative, Lavrovsky's choreography in Romeo and Juliet is Soviet-era classicism, a fusion of storyline, dancing, and pantomime with many gestured emotions, power-lifts, and death throes timed to the music. His ballet was a historically significant and influential one, in that it achieved great international success, becoming a touchstone for many others to model themselves after or differentiate from.
Growing up in Cincinnati, I remember seeing the 1956 film version of Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. At the time, ballet only came to us about once a year, so when I was beginning to gravitate toward dance, the film let me see professional ballet up close, in a way I hadn't experienced before.
Lavrovsky's production weaves together all the key moments from Shakespeare's tragedy: the sword fights, the romantic balcony pas de deux, the lovers' final death scene. The court dancing at the Capulet ball is a good opportunity to see how the choreographer creates different levels of energy for various characters. The Capulets move differently than the Montagues, and their conflict is reflected in their contrasting physicality. This heightened level of energy is much different from the quiet intimacy of the balcony scene.
Another interesting aspect of the Kirov's production is that their Juliet role is often portrayed by a coryphée, a level of dancer recognition between the Kirov's corps de ballet and their star soloists. This engagement could be your chance to witness performances by Kirov ballerinas of tomorrow.
Come June, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will perform the scène d'amour from Maurice Béjart's Romeo and Juliet, set to music by Hector Berlioz. It's very different from the Kirov's production, but when I go to the ballet, I look forward to the sheer entertainment of it - to immerse myself completely, rather than “be on the lookout” for something in particular.
I hope you'll find many opportunities throughout the rest of our ballet season to do the same.