Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet Archive
Ballet Across America II
June 15-20, 2010
This June, the Kennedy Center brings back Ballet Across America, which first graced the Opera House stage two summers ago. For 2010, this biennial celebration will feature nine ballet companies from all corners of the U.S. performing in three mixed repertory programs. Among this year's participants are Houston Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Tulsa Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet Arizona, North Carolina Dance Theatre, and my own company, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. With the talents of so many choreographers, composers, and dancers to be enjoyed over one week's time, Kennedy Center audiences are in for a real treat of discovery.
My company will be performing Monumentum Pro Gesualdo & Movements for Piano and Orchestra – two ballets that were created independently, but are now typically performed together. Both works feature the choreography of George Balanchine and the music of Igor Stravinsky. Their pairing has been a part of my company's repertory since 2001, though I first staged them in 1995 for the Kennedy Center's 25th anniversary season.
On Monumentum Pro Gesualdo
Balanchine premiered Monumentum in 1960 for a program celebrating the 100th anniversary of Italy's unification. (That program also included his Donizetti Variations, which was part of my company's March engagement earlier this year.) The ballet was originally made on Diana Adams and Conrad Ludlow. Costumed in white practice clothes, Monumentum is danced in three sections and features an ensemble of six couples who frequently echo the lead couple's movements.
For the score, Stravinsky re-orchestrated the madrigals of Italian composer Don Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1560-1613) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth. Stravinsky's music always has so many fascinating layers, but a madrigal is a complex musical form in its own right. Popular during the Renaissance, madrigals are love poems set to vocal music and filled with unexpected harmonies and "word paintings" – musical devices used to convey a word's emotional context, such as love, pain, death, or ecstasy. The purpose of a madrigal was to signify the Renaissance era's core values of true love and living for the sake of others.
Though Stravinsky's score for Monumentum is instrumental, his music still resonates with these emotional meanings – and Balanchine's choreography signifies them visually. There are moments in the ballet where true love shines through, in simple movements and graceful gestures. The boy gently takes the girl's hand and kisses it, for example. But as with all Balanchine ballets, it's beautiful without being overly affected, and without needing to establish any specific relationship story between these two people.
Gesualdo's music – and Stravinsky's interpretation of it – is so heavenly and serene. But the history books tell us that Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover, yet his noble status exempted him from punishment. It shocks me that music this calm could come from the mind of such a dark soul! Or perhaps the music was his penance.
On Movements for Piano and Orchestra
Though it's the second ballet in the sequence, Movements was the first one I learned and performed. I danced its premiere in April 1963, though that was not the original plan. Balanchine had initially cast Diana Adams in the lead ballerina role, partnered by Jacques d'Amboise.
As I write in my autobiography, two weeks before opening night, Diana had learned she was pregnant and was confined to bed rest. Balanchine was about to cancel the premiere until Jacques suggested that the ballet might be saved if they could teach me Diana's part. I was still only a corps member in the company, but Balanchine acquiesced. So Jacques took me to Diana's apartment one evening to learn the choreography.
The experience left my head spinning; no recording of Stravinsky's atonal score existed, and along with the rest of the world, I had never heard the music before. Jacques and Diana grunted, clapped, and sang to help me "hear" the music and get through the steps. And Diana's living room – complete with couch, coffee table, and slippery parquet floor – was a fraction of the size of a real studio. But after a couple of hours, things started to click, and the next day Balanchine scheduled full rehearsals with me, Jacques, and the six corps girls.
Two days before the premiere, however, I was still unnerved and unsure. Everything was happening so fast, and there had been no time for me to absorb the complete world of the ballet. My feelings of inadequacy compelled me to approach Balanchine and say, "I don't think you should let me do this ballet." (Can you imagine?) But he replied, "Oh dear, you let me be the judge." That brief exchange turned out to be a pivotal moment for us, as it marked the beginning of our lifelong trust in each other. I stopped second-guessing myself, put my total faith in his judgment, and performed the ballet opening night in an all-Stravinsky program. Lo and behold, audiences and critics loved Balanchine's latest creation.
Balanchine's highly charged choreography is the exacting physical counterpart to Stravinsky's complex, landmark score. Indeed, none of us had ever danced to something so electrifyingly charged before. Stravinsky filled his music with split-second rhythms and ever-changing meter, and Balanchine's steps matched that lightning-fast frenzy note-for-note. In fact, Balanchine was once quoted as saying, "Nothing gave me greater pleasure afterwards than Stravinsky's saying the performance ‘was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans, but never explored the result.'"
As difficult as it is to dance, Movements is equally a challenge to teach. If the music were more classical, dancers could hum the melody to help reinforce the steps. However, there are few places in Movements that you can latch on to as anchors. So I teach my dancers the counts I first learned, now ingrained in my body, but I do it very slowly at first. Of course, I warn my dancers that eventually it will be 10 times faster! For all its seemingly wild energy, Stravinsky's music has a very precise structure, and laying that foundation is the key to everything else.
On putting the two ballets together
I can't say exactly what inspired Balanchine to merge Monumentum and Movements together, other than that they both feature the music of Stravinsky, they're both white costumes, and they're both rather short. But in 1965 he revived Monumentum and had me perform both ballets back-to-back. The two had never been staged in tandem prior to this, but they've been performed as a unit ever since. A brief lowering of the curtain signifies the transition.
Danced together, Monumentum and Movements are a revelation in stylistic contrast: the former is so classical and pure, while the latter is so modern and stark. I found great joy in moving from one style to the other in a matter of seconds. Plus, audiences are treated to completely opposite sides of the Balanchine-Stravinsky spectrum in such a short amount of time. With the dream-like perfume of Monumentum still hanging in the air, Movements charges onto the stage and knocks the wind out of everyone. The juxtaposition is just so palpable and invigorating – just as Balanchine knew it would be.
On the chance to see old friends during Ballet Across America
June's performances will give me the opportunity to reconnect with some dear friends who are now artistic directors of their own companies: Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Peter Boal, and Ib Anderson.
Jean-Pierre, who leads North Carolina Dance Theatre, is married to Patricia McBride – a wonderful dancer who I shared a close friendship at City Ballet, as her dressing room was right next to mine. I'm looking forward to seeing both of them again during the celebration. North Carolina Dance Theatre will follow The Suzanne Farrell Ballet on Program A with Jean-Pierre's Shindig, featuring live bluegrass music by the Greasy Beans.
Peter Boal, artistic director of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, was also once a principal dancer with City Ballet. I taught him Chaconne during our brief overlapping tenures there, and later I invited him to perform in my staging of Mozartiana for the Kennedy Center's 25th anniversary season. Peter was also a featured dancer with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 2001, and we continue to have a dialogue. I'd love to conduct a partnership with his company in the future, where I get to work with his dancers and vice-versa. Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform Benjamin Millepied's 3 Movements on Program B.
I also have a Mozartiana connection with Ib Anderson from Ballet Arizona – he originated the ballet with me in 1981. Ib joined City Ballet in 1980 after dancing with the Royal Danish Ballet for many years; Balanchine soon cast him opposite me in Mozartiana. In my autobiography, I write about how I was initially concerned with Ib's height – he was not as tall as most other men I had danced with – but Balanchine felt Ib was the perfect stature. Perhaps this was because the shorter Balanchine saw a little of himself in the male lead. During Ballet Across America, Ballet Arizona will perform Ib's new work Diversions on Program B.
Featured on "Program A" - Mar. 3, 4, & 6 at 7:30 p.m.; Mar. 7 at 1:30 p.m.
I first saw Haieff Divertimento when it was revived for New York City Ballet's 1993 Balanchine Celebration. I thought it was charming and wonderful – I didn't understand why it never had much of a performance life. Surely, the dancers who performed it in the early days have felt the same way. There's little history with this ballet, but it should have one, which is why it's the newest addition to my Balanchine Preservation Initiative.
Balanchine originally choreographed the work in 1947 for Ballet Society under the title of Divertimento. Two years later, he premiered it with his newly formed New York City Ballet as Haieff Divertimento, renamed to acknowledge Alexei Haieff, the music's composer. For some reason, it fell out of repertory. Todd Bolender, one of the ballet's original cast members, briefly revived it in 1985 for his Kansas City Ballet. But the work has not been seen since the 1993 restaging.
Haieff Divertimento is a pure dance ballet in five parts: the Prelude, Aria, Scherzo, Lullaby, and Finale. There's a lead couple and four other couples, so it's a relatively small ballet, but everyone in it dances energetically. The Lullaby is the solo for the ballerina, and the Aria includes the ballet's only pas de deux. I've seen reference to it as a “blues” pas de deux, but I don't view it as so. The music is based on the jazz of the day, but it's not jazzy per se. And it's also jazz as interpreted through Alexei Haieff's Russian-American sensibilities.
In my staging of the ballet, I want it to radiate the same kind of youth, happiness, and vulnerability of the late 1940s, but at the same time not convey that era so overtly. Ballet in America was a much younger art form then, so it should feel new – not green, of course, but with a sense of freshness, as if you've never performed or seen this kind of ballet before.
Though it will be performed here with live music by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, there is currently no physical recording of the score, making it a challenge for my company to take Haieff Divertimento on tour after our Kennedy Center engagement. So this might be your one chance to see this lovely ballet for some time to come!
Afternoon of a Faun
I danced Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun many times, and added it to my company's repertory in 2001, but The Suzanne Farrell Ballet has not performed it as part of the Kennedy Center's mainstage season since.
The music is Claude Debussy's swirling and dreamy "Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune." It reminds me of my youth, when I choreographed to another of his classics just for fun, "Claire de Lune." I think many people have heard the music, but they may not know it has twice been interpreted as a ballet.
Afternoon of a Faun was first a ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky, so it has an extensive history. Created in 1912, nearly 20 years after Debussy composed his score, Nijinsky's version follows a faun in the forest, torn between a beautiful nymph and his own watery reflection. In 1953, Robbins transposed the setting to a dancer's studio, turning faun and nymph into shy, young dancers who discover an attraction to one another, but who are also consumed by their own images in the mirror as they dance.
As Robbins imagined it, the mirror is the audience – the "fourth wall." This device has been employed throughout the performing arts, but Robbins might have been the first to ever use it this way in dance. Billowing silk enchants the rehearsal studio, very much a part of a dancer's world. We constantly look in the mirror and get used to that kind of gaze, that back-and-forth energy between reflection and self. In dancing Afternoon of a Faun, however, it's one thing to imagine your audience in a rehearsal mirror, it's quite another to be on stage and look out to a real live audience as your reflection. It plays tricks with your brain a little!
Robbins designed his ballets with enormous precision, and with Afternoon of a Faun, he was very particular about how his dancers looked into the "mirror." You have to be sure you're looking at the correct angle – which changes depending on whether you're looking back at yourself or your partner's reflection, and also where on stage you're positioned. The trajectory of the eyes has to be exactingly accurate for the unseen mirror to be convincing to an audience. I impart that to my dancers as well.
There's reflection, there's imagination, and there's a kiss that changes everything. With my Notes, I'm always careful not to say too much. Words can paint you into a corner, especially when trying to describe such a physical profession as dance. So I'll leave it to you, our audience, to experience the dreamy mystique of Robbins's ballet.
Featured on "Program B" - Mar. 5 & 7 at 7:30 p.m.; Mar. 6 at 1:30 p.m.
Donizetti Variations is a pure dance ballet – very exuberant with an Italian flair, and so much fun to dance and watch. It's the first work on my company's second program, starting things off with a flourish of joy.
Balanchine originally choreographed the ballet in 1960, so my company's premiere coincides with its 50th anniversary. He created Donizetti Variations for a salute to the centenary of Italy's unification, and wanted a sunny contrast to the more somber works on the program, which included La Sonnambula and Monumentum pro Gesualdo. While not officially a part of my Balanchine Preservation Initiative, it's nonetheless not seen as often as other Balanchine works.
Featuring a lead couple and a corps of six ladies and three gentlemen, Donizetti Variations is fast, lighthearted, and technically demanding. There's a central pas de deux and an abundance of dancing for every role. A comedic break in the middle of the ballet tends to take audiences aback – they laugh but they're not sure they should.
The music comes from the little-known 19th-century opera Don Sebastian by composer Gaetano Donizetti, though there's no connection between the ballet and the opera's plot. Karinska designed the colorful costumes; they have a somewhat pinafore, “elegant peasant” look to them. The ballet was originally performed in tutus, and I think it's fascinating that Balanchine's ballet could change costuming so drastically, yet not lose its essence in any way.
Though I danced the lead many times, my very first experience with Donizetti Variations was in the corps. I was thrown into the ballet mid-performance as one of the supporting girls, and in my book, I wrote about my unexpected baptism:
“I found myself in the wings one night watching Donizetti Variations…. Suddenly, one of the girls twisted her foot and came hobbling offstage in tears. There was a ten-minute pas de deux before she had to go on again, and I volunteered my services even though I was not an understudy and hadn't rehearsed a single step of the ballet. I had watched it many times, and I loved the music; that was all I needed to plunge in. They carried the poor girl upstairs to the dressing room, removed her shoe, and gave her an ice bag, while someone else eased her out of her costume and I climbed into it. I whisked my hair on top of my head, wrapped the little pink silk scarf from her bun around it, shoved on a pair of pink tights and soft toe shoes, and ran downstairs with someone following me fastening the back of my costume… I found myself volunteering often in emergency situations after this. I knew it was the best way for me to learn my craft, because nothing in the rehearsal studio can compare to the real moment of quick decision in front of an audience. The only place to learn is ‘out there,' on the edge, when the beginning and end of your career hinges on that one performance, that one moment.”
I'm excited to add Donizetti Variations to The Suzanne Farrell Ballet's repertory – it's musically and physically very different from any of our other ballets.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II pas de deux
Featured on all programs Mar. 3 - 7
The Act II pas de deux from Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream is simply exquisite. Whereas Act I of the ballet – inspired by Shakespeare's play – 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.
This is the first time The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will be performing a selection from A Midsummer Night's Dream, the second full-evening ballet that Balanchine created in America, premiering in 1962. Though the Act II pas de deux has been showcased in various lecture-demonstrations and workshops over the years, I don't believe any other company has extracted it for a fully staged performance before.
My 2007 Notes on A Midsummer Night's Dream offer an overview of the full ballet and Felix Mendelssohn's music; that's also where I discuss my role as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies. 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.
Featured on "Program B" - Mar. 5 & 7 at 7:30 p.m.; Mar. 6 at 1:30 p.m.
Agon is regarded as one of Balanchine's most iconic works. The pas de deux has been in my company's repertory since 2003 – we've performed it as part of my program "The Balanchine Couple" – but this is our Kennedy Center premiere of the complete ballet.
When it premiered in 1957, Agon was on a "Greek Trilogy" program along with Apollo and Orpheus, two other Balanchine works featuring the music of Stravinsky. The ballet was considered daring at the time, with the black/white casting of Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in the pas de deux, and it was revered for taking modernist ballet further than ever before. Agon marked the beginning of Stravinsky's experimentation with his 12-tone musical technique, but also the last time he and Balanchine fully collaborated on a ballet.
To me, the iconic status of Agon rests in the way the steps were put together. They could only have become Agon and nothing else. Everything astrologically just seemed to be in alignment when Balanchine and Stravinsky created this ballet. More than 50 years later, that perfect design is still palpable.
My 2008 Notes on Agon focus mostly on Stravinsky and Balanchine's collaboration and the pas de deux, which I started performing at 17. Regarding the full ballet, it begins and ends with four male dancers, their backs to the audience. Eight women complete the cast of 12, which Balanchine parallels to Stravinsky's 12-tone technique. (Even if audiences remain unaware of that connection, there's still a subconscious order to it all.) Conversely, the music is inspired by French court dances – there are places in the choreography that look like a Balanchinian minuet, for example. But it's French court dance as sieved through the ear and the genius of Stravinsky.
There is no story, but as Balanchine's oeuvre is testament, the absence of a story does not negate the drama. The dancers, dressed in black and white, interact in myriad formations – duos, trios, quartets, etc. – and their relationships to each other keep changing from moment to moment. Just as Stravinsky's meter keeps changing, and drastically so: as a dancer, you count on six here, then three there, then five in the next breath, and each of those counts belongs to a different tempo. That's one of the things that makes Agon so fascinating and challenging to hold together. But when it is held together, it's so much more edgy, impressive, and exciting.
I'm reminded of Stravinsky once rehearsing an orchestra for one of Balanchine's ballets. He was conducting, and stopped to implore the musicians: "Please, do not slur my music." When it comes to Balanchine's choreography, one could replace slur with blur. Balanchine was so skilled at designing ballets refined down to their core essence.
That's not to say Balanchine never changed things in his ballets. I remember we were once performing Agon in Boston, and Balanchine was leading a rehearsal. There was a particular passage where each of the eight girls was to execute a turn, one after the other, on individual counts. But he stopped the rehearsal to adjust the timing, so that a pair of girls executed the turn on two counts, another pair on two counts, and so on. I felt terrible about it, and afterward I approached Balanchine to ask him why he altered the counts. "It gets blurred" he said, "and it's not musically what I want, so I thought I'd change it." To this day, I'm still partial to his original steps!
Featured on "Program A" - Mar. 3, 4, & 6 at 7:30 p.m.; Mar. 7 at 1:30 p.m.
Apollo is another Balanchine ballet on my company's March program featuring the music of Stravinsky.Though The Suzanne Farrell Ballet has performed the complete work many times, this is the first time it has been a part of our Kennedy Center mainstage season. Audiences may have previously seen the pas de deux from Apollo in my program "The Balanchine Couple."
The ballet follows the Greek god Apollo from birth to youth to adult immortality. Over the course of the ballet, he is visited by three muses: Calliope, the muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, the muse of mime, and Terpsichore, the muse of rhythm and dance. As with Agon, I began dancing in Apollo at 17, as one of two handmaidens in the birth scene. Later I portrayed Terpsichore, and I have many fond memories of performing the role. One of the most magical was when I danced the ballet in an outdoor amphitheater at the foot of the Acropolis – we climbed natural rock formations for the final pose.
Many people may not know that the official world premiere of Apollo did not include Balanchine's choreography. The Library of Congress first commissioned Stravinsky's score for a ballet that was performed in 1927, as part of a contemporary music festival in Washington, D.C. Adolph Bolm both choreographed and danced the title role of Apollo for that performance. (Interestingly, the music was conducted by Hans Kindler, who later founded the National Symphony Orchestra.) Balanchine's choreography for Apollo, created for Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris in 1928, and it was with this ballet that Balanchine first garnered international recognition.
Balanchine was ahead of his time with Apollo, and when you see it now, it still looks ahead of its time. As I've mentioned in "The Balanchine Couple," Apollo was the score through which Balanchine learned the art of elimination. By removing theatrical distractions of story, scenery, costumes, and preconceived interpretations, he learned he could reveal the true essence of the music, and reduce many possibilities down to the one inevitable possibility. And that became the catalyst for everything he eventually did. Even with A Midsummer Night's Dream, he condensed the story to such wonderful essence.
Balanchine's tactics of elimination came back to Apollo in the late 1970s; while staging the ballet for Mikhail Baryshnikov in the title role, Balanchine caused a public outcry when he removed the birth scene and Apollo's final ascent to Mount Olympus. My company, however, has always performed the complete version.
The Sleeping Beauty
To be performed by Mariinsky Ballet on Feb. 9-14
One of the first LP records I had as a child was Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty and I have fond memories of dancing for hours in my living room to this glorious music. Please read my notes from 2006 on ABT's production of The Sleeping Beauty and come see Mariinsky Ballet when they bring Sergeyev's 1952 version of the classic fairy tale to the Center.
To be performed by Bolshoi Ballet on Feb. 16-21
During a tour of Russia in 1962, the thing that impressed me again and again was the grand nature of the country. The Kremlin Theatre was huge, and the Bolshoi Theater was also grand and steeped in rich ballet history. Now, as the Bolshoi Ballet returns to the Center with Spartacus, I realize how Russia's immense scale helped cultivate this enormous spectacle.
The idea for a ballet about Spartacus dates back to the 1950s, when Russian patriot Aram Khachaturian began composing a four act ballet entitled Spartak, premiering in 1954. The ballet had a 1956 Kirov staging, closely followed by a 1958 version for the Bolshoi with choreography by Igor Moiseyev. Spartacus, which has at its heart the strength of the working class, became a popular ballet in then-Communist Russia. The story was big and the themes were classic, and we can witness this in the three act 1968 version by Yuri Grigorovich.
In a ballet like Spartacus, there are many high-powered male ensemble dances, and the role of a king who becomes a slave and then a fighter is truly an athletic tour-de-force. To fill roles like these, Russian companies have scores of strong male dancers, most likely as a result of ballet's historic popularity in the country.
Mr. Balanchine went to The Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, where for him and his schoolmates, ballet was a matter of patriotism and national pride. Today, many of the political factors are gone from the equation, but the legacy of the athletic male dancer lives on in the Bolshoi Ballet's dramatic epic, Spartacus.
American Ballet Theatre
On Birthday Offering:
When I was growing up as a young dancer, there weren't any videos of famous ballets. Most of my reference to ballet was not from visiting companies, because they didn't come very often. Instead, most of my ballet awareness came from ballet books – some from America but also from London. I had books about Margot Fonteyn, Svetlana Beriosova, Moira Shearer, and others. Through these books, I developed an idea of what ballets looked like before I ever saw them, which was key to my development as a dancer.
There was an insert in one of my books advertising the Royal Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Birthday Offering. Though Royal Ballet premiered the work in 1956, in celebration of their silver anniversary, ABT began performing this ballet in 1989.
As I learned to dance some of these roles later on, I quickly learned that while I knew what a ballet might look like and how others looked while dancing it, one cannot "wear" another dancer's role. I always tried to bring something of myself to the movements. History is made in the present, and when it was my turn to perform ballets I'd seen in my books, I did not simply reproduce these photos.
On Romeo and Juliet
ABT's production of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet had its U.S. premiere in the Metropolitan Opera House in April of 1965. At the same time Mr. B and I were absorbed in creating his Don Quixote, which premiered a month later. I was just across the plaza but in an entirely different world.
When I first saw MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, it was a good reminder of the imagination a choreographer can bring to even the most familiar story. Almost everyone knows Shakespeare's tragedy of young unrequited love, but each choreographer's version of Romeo and Juliet is their own. So many decisions are made. Should the music be Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev or something new entirely? How many characters and when should they be used? Even the action can be different, depending on the choreographer's interpretation of the story. That puts the burden on the dancer to put all knowledge of other choreographers' works out of their minds. You have to become the character your choreographer envisions, leaving behind even the preconceived notions that you have about these famous roles.
Staging decisions can have huge bearing on the atmosphere of the ballet. Maurice Béjart's 1965 production of Romeo and Juliet has no props at all, drawing all attention to the dancers. Conversely, ABT's version has period costuming and rich scenery, fully realizing Romeo and Juliet's Shakespearean world. I'm also reminded of a production of Romeo and Juliet that I danced with Paul Mejia's choreography set to Tchaikovsky's music. There were no props in this version either. Instead there were "forces"—dancers dressed all in black who moved around on stage physically keeping Romeo and Juliet apart—drawing the audience's attention to the circumstances of life that are beyond anyone's control.
Romeo and Juliet is a timeless and simple story that we know so well in some form or another. Yet every time we see it performed by a different company, we are given new insights into the forces that drive the story.
New York City Ballet
On Dances at a Gathering
During much of my early years with New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins was away working on Broadway and touring with his own company. He returned to NYCB shortly before I joined Maurice Béjart's company in Brussels, Belgium. When I came back, my focus was on Balanchine repertoire. But, meeting in the hallway one morning, Jerry said "If there are any of my ballets that you would like to do, feel free to do them."
A while later, vacationing at my summer home, I was doing a barre in the studio to a tape of Ashkenazy playing Chopin. A particular mazurka and etude got under my skin, and I thought, "I simply have to dance to this." The music is part of Jerry's Dances at a Gathering. When I returned to the city, I spoke with Jerry about my reaction to the music and I asked to perform the ballet. It was a joy to do, and Jerry eventually created two ballets for me: In G Major and In Memory of ...
Balanchine admired Jerry. There was mutual respect between them and a history. (Jerry had danced Balanchine's Prodigal Son in the 1950s.) When Jerry decided to shift his focus from Broadway back to the ballet, Mr. B was happy to have him return. Jerry brought his ideas and a new voice. I remember seeing Mr. B often standing in the wings to watch Dances at a Gathering.
I always got along very well with Jerry, but for some, he was famously temperamental to work with. However, I very much enjoyed our close working relationship. Jerry and I shared many dinners after performances and wrote letters to each other up until he died in July 1998 at age 79.
On Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Stravinsky Violin Concerto premiered in 1972 as part of NYCB's ambitious Stravinsky Festival and was immediately declared a masterpiece. It is often referred to as one of Balanchine's "black and white" ballets after the basic costuming. Instead, I call it one of Mr. B's symbolic Stravinsky ballets. He definitely saw Stravinsky's music as being clear and precise, and the choreography and costuming visually reflects the music.
In a way, Mr. B and Stravinsky each grew as artists through one another. Stravinsky often said he learned to understand his music differently when he saw Balanchine's visual concept. And for his part Mr. B returned to Stravinsky over the years, reexamining the music and letting it inspire new movements and new visions.
Interestingly, Violin Concerto was the second time Mr. B choreographed to this Stravinsky music. In 1941 Balustrade was premiered by the Original Ballet Russe as a highly costumed production. Thirty years later, Mr. B heard the music differently as his understanding of the music had grown to another level. Through this type of evolution, Balanchine choreography and Stravinsky music became a seamless whole-perfectly integrated.
George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™
To be danced by The Pennsylvania Ballet
Nov 24 - 29, 2009
Hello again! I would like to welcome you to the Kennedy Center's 2009-2010 Ballet season. As Artistic Advisor for Ballet at the Center, I can tell you that we are very excited to host some of the world's most talented companies this season including the return of Ballet Across America. My own, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, has been busy touring this fall and will return to the Eisenhower Theater in March. It is an exciting year with much to see at the Kennedy Center!
The first ballet performances of the season are George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™, a work which Mr. B had a special fondness for, having danced various roles as a small boy in Russia—even appearing as the dashing Nutcracker Prince at age 15! So it's not surprising that many years later this became the first full evening ballet he choreographed for his new company in America.
This Nutcracker is very near and dear to my heart as well. While a student, I was chosen by Mr. B to apprentice as an angel. At the time, Mr. Balanchine used only eight tall angels in his production, which gave me a thrilling chance to be on stage with a company I had only before dreamed about. Over time, he changed the angels to small girls holding miniature Christmas trees and roles for children in this production have expanded ever since. Pennsylvania Ballet's presentation of Mr. B's Nutcracker will feature 67 children from the Washington area as angels, mice, and other members of the tremendous holiday cast.
From the beginning, Balanchine's Nutcracker was a big success. He was aware that the Nutcracker audience would be filled with children, so he made certain the child roles played out on stage served as good examples—that is, with the exception of Fritz, the menacing little brother. I'm thinking back now to an image I've often seen of Balanchine as a little boy in his cadet uniform at the Imperial Russian School. I'm sure he was brought up to be very reverential, disciplined, and good, and I've always appreciated how Mr. Balanchine took a cue from Hoffmann's original German translation of the Nutcracker story and taught his Nutcracker children to reflect these values on stage. When Fritz breaks the Nutcracker toy, he is shown the consequences of bad manners. Moreover, everyone sees the reward Clara receives for her courage.
For me, Mr. B's Nutcracker is still the best, always meaningful, and bursting with wonder, dazzling costumes, a magical growing tree, glittering snowflakes, and the spirit of the holiday season.
The Kennedy Center Ballet Season is sponsored by Altria Group, Inc.
Photo credits: Ballet Across America II: FIRST: George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky collaborating, photo by Martha Swope. SECOND, THIRD, AND FIFTH: Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl. FOURTH: Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine rehearsing Movements for Piano and Orchestra, photo by Fred Fehl. SIXTH: Suzanne Farrell and Ib Anderson in Mozartiana, photo by Martha Swope.
Photo credits: SUZANNE FARRELL: Photo by Paul Kolnik.