The Kennedy Center

Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet Archive

2011 - 2012

Paris Opera Ballet: A Conversation with Suzanne Farrell

- George Jackson

Jul. 5 - 8, 2012

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Paris is a very special place for ballet. I asked Suzanne Farrell what she had known and imagined about the city and the Paris Opera before she ever set eyes on them or stepped onto the Opera's stage. In her response, she first touched on tradition: "The history of dance there goes back centuries. It was King Louis XIV who established the first formal ballet company (1661) and school (1713) and was a dancer himself. Our ballet terms are in French. When I was young, I remember getting ballet books and reading about those terms. Now I encourage my students to study the vocabulary. My mentor, George Balanchine, worked in Paris for a time and he loved telling about its architectural grandeur and fine cuisine."

The conversation turned to the exacting Parisian public and the auspicious event of a ballerina's debut at the Paris Opera. She remembered her own debut at the historic venue: "My first performance was on opening night of a New York City Ballet visit, in Agon, a key Stravinsky/Balanchine 'black and white' ballet. I was nineteen years old and Paris was eager to see the company which hadn't danced there in nine years. The audience was also curious about Mr. Balanchine's newest ballerina. The pas de deux starts with high kicks and the ballerina should look as if she were being shot out of a cannon. Instead, I ended up on the floor, as my supporting leg had gone out from under me. I had wanted to make Mr. B proud by impressing, but not quite that way. Still, it showed that I wasn't playing it safe. I was up in a flash and could even dare to be bolder. Paris didn't seem to hold the mishap against me and the following night gave prolonged applause during the duet I danced in Liebeslieder Walzer. Later I guested with the Paris Opera Ballet in Jerome Robbins's In G Major and in 1993 staged Balanchine's Tzigane for that company; both pieces are danced to the music of French composer Maurice Ravel."

The Paris Opera is proud of having premiered some of the world's greatest ballets, among them Giselle, Coppélia, and Balanchine's Le Palais de Cristal (now known as the Bizet Symphony in C). July 5-8, the company brings its current production of Giselle to the Kennedy Center Opera House. When I asked Suzanne Farrell what we should look for, she replied, "The story may be familiar, and if some of the audience remembers having seen Giselle before, then, perhaps explore by looking at it with new eyes." (You can read Suzanne's previous notes on Giselle here.)

This summer Suzanne Farrell will be away from Kennedy Center, but I asked about her plans for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet's fall season, Nov. 7-11, 2012, in the Eisenhower Theater. "The repertory will, in a way, be a living history of George Balanchine–by way of his works," she said, "beginning with The Prodigal Son which he made in 1929 for Diaghilev's company in Paris. Valse-Fantaisie (1967) to Glinka's music and Danses Concertantes (the 1972 version) to Stravinsky's score are part of the Balanchine Preservation Initiative. Those two ballets and the Intermezzo of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966) will be company premieres. Coming back into the repertory are Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1968 version) and Divertimento No. 15 (1956). Familiar faces on stage will include Natalia Magnicaballi, Heather Ogden, Michael Cook, and Elisabeth Holowchuk. New will be Pavel Gurevich, trained in Belarus and coming to us by way of the Milwaukee and Boston ballet companies."

All that is quite a prospect for Washington audiences to look forward to! The six Balanchine choreographies are remarkably diverse. Prodigal Son is epic and expressive in its theatricality, Danses Concertantes is iridescent and witty, and the lyrical pulse of Divertimento No. 15 suggests the pursuits of Olympian divinities. Yet, Balanchine seemed to work at several levels simultaneously. There is classical form and flow even in the show biz Slaughter, the reality of being young permeates the imaginative Valse-Fantaisie, and in Brahms-Schoenberg there is the interplay of measure and urge. Always the results are clear. And that, like the layers, is a hallmark of Balanchine choreography.

The Paris Opera Ballet is known for its distinctive style. To my eyes its dancers define the place in space they inhabit sharply. Also, the finesse of their footwork allows them the freedom not just to deploy the floor as they wish but play with it. I'll be looking for those qualities in Giselle and also for aspects of characterization. Perhaps because France's traditions value reason and rationality, Giselle's mad scene is approached with particular care. In the past it showed you the stages of the heroine's dementia almost clinically, yet this analysis would also be musical and it could touch the heart.

- George Jackson

New York City Ballet

April 3-8, 2012

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On Balanchine's Who Cares?

On the All American program, Apr. 3, 5, 6 eves. & 7 mat.

While working together in late 1930s Hollywood on the film The Goldwyn Follies, George Gershwin and George Balanchine had discussed collaborating on an original ballet. Unfortunately, their intentions never came to fruition, as Gershwin tragically passed away while finishing the score for the film, at the young age of 38.

Balanchine had many fond memories of choreographing The Goldwyn Follies, and he knew all the lyrics to Gershwin's songs. So it only stands to reason that, sooner or later, Balanchine would choreograph his own ballet to the composer's beloved music.

Flash forward to 1970, nearly 35 years later: Balanchine's company premiered Who Cares? danced to 17 of Gershwin's works as orchestrated by Hershy Kay. I remember seeing it that winter, right before moving to Belgium to work with Maurice Béjart, and getting swept away in all the ballet's energy and fun. I knew so many of the songs from my own childhood, even though they were composed years before I was born. They have such a classic, contemporary sound no matter when you listen to them.

On opening night, the company had only completed orchestrations for the first and last songs in the ballet—"Strike Up the Band" and "I Got Rhythm. " The remaining songs were played live on a single piano, with the exception of the charming "Clap Yo' Hands," which was performed to an old Gershwin recording. (Balanchine eventually removed that part from the ballet in 1976, perhaps because of the recording's grainy quality.) There was no scenery until late 1970, but there were costumes, originally designed by Karinska. The ballet was an instant success.

It begins with the ensemble, who collectively dance "Strike Up the Band" and "Sweet and Low Down," followed by "Somebody Loves Me" for the women and "Bidin' My Time" for the men. Next, couples from the ensemble perform sequential pas de deux to "S' Wonderful," "That Certain Feeling," "Do Do Do," and "Lady Be Good. " It's truly lovely how they all flow one into the other.

By that point, you certainly feel as though you've enjoyed a full ballet, but that's just the beginning! Now the focus shifts to the principal dancers. Three women each partner with the same man in their own pas de deux, interspersed with solo variations for all four performers.

Karin von Aroldingen, Marnee Morris, Patricia McBride, and Jacques d'Amboise originated these roles; I eventually performed Patty's parts in the pas de deux with Jacques for "The Man I Love" and the solo for "Fascinatin' Rhythm. " Audiences will also thrill to seeing "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," "Embraceable You," "My One and Only," "Liza" and "Who Cares?" choreographed the way Balanchine imagined them, all culminating in the grand finale to "I Got Rhythm. "

Though there's no singing—Balanchine choreographed to the essence and mood of each song, not the lyrics themselves—I'm sure you'll be tapping your feet and humming along the whole way.

My own company relished the opportunity to dance Who Cares? in 2002. We felt as if we were experiencing the Great White Way at the height of a bygone era. It's a wonderful 40 minutes of joy, romance, and pure American nostalgia.

On Robbins's West Side Story Suite

On the All American program, Apr. 3, 5, 6 eves. & 7 mat.

Jerome Robbins Award

I saw this ballet for the first time last September, when I was invited to New York for a special celebration of Jerome Robbins. I was one of 26 ballerinas who had worked with the late choreographer to be honored with a lovely "Robbins Award. " (See the photo—the statuette is reminiscent of Jerry in his sailor costume from Fancy Free!)The evening also included a performance of In Memory of…, which Jerry created for me in 1985, as well as West Side Story Suite.

First staged by City Ballet in 1995, West Side Story Suite is a compendium of songs from the iconic 1957 musical that was a modern-day retelling of Romeo and Juliet. The selection of songs rings close to the sequence of music featured in the 1989 anthology Jerome Robbins' Broadway. (That hit show also featured numbers from The King and I, Gypsy, On the Town, and other musicals that Jerry either directed or choreographed over the years.

Even before I began performing professionally or had met Jerry, I loved singing and dancing in my living room to West Side Story. One of the boys from my ballet school, Eddie Roll, landed a featured role (I think it was "Action") in the original Broadway production. We were all so excited.

For the ballet suite, Jerry kept the atmosphere of the original musical intact, but the songs aren't necessarily in the same order as before. There's the "Prologue," "Dance at the Gym," "Cool," "America," "The Rumble," and "Somewhere" ballets, but this time around it all adds up to more of an evocation of the story between star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. There's also a seventh section—"Something's Coming"—a newly created solo for the character of Tony.

One intriguing aspect to West Side Story Suite is that some of the dancers also sing their roles, along with vocalists in the orchestra pit. Those in the ballet spotlight aren't normally renowned for their voices, too, but here their singing—in addition to their movement and physicality—takes center stage.

It's been more than 50 years since West Side Story premiered, and Jerry passed away in 1998. What great fun for dancers to dive into his choreography today, feeling for themselves—and sharing with new audiences—the unique sense of rhythm and musicality that Jerry brought to the world of dance.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

Oct. 12-16

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Next month, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will open the Kennedy Center's 2011/2012 Ballet Season with a celebration of my company's 10th anniversary. To christen the season, we will present my company's premiere performances of Diamonds. Both of our mixed repertory programs will end with this shimmering ballet that Balanchine first made on me in 1967. We'll be presenting it in partnership with The Sarasota Ballet.

Featuring 34 dancers in all—16 male/female pairings and a central couple—Diamonds is the final sequence in Balanchine's three-part Jewels, which is considered to be the world's first full-evening "plotless" ballet. Comprised of Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds, Jewels is Balanchine's balletic visualization of various gems. For each part, he selected music from a different composer. (Emeralds is performed to Fauré, Rubies to Stravinsky, and Diamonds to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3.) Jewels was an instant success when it premiered.

Balanchine made it clear that his idea for a ballet about gems came from years before, when his friend Nathan Milstein, the renowned violinist, introduced him to Claude Arpels, of the famed jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels. Balanchine once stated, "I have always liked jewels. After all, I am an Oriental, from Georgia in the Caucasus." I've always enjoyed that quote, connecting Jewels to his heritage in that way.

I think it's also possible that Balanchine was inspired by his original staging of Symphony in C, which he choreographed for Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 under the title of Le Palais de Cristal. Each movement was performed in different colors, but when Balanchine re-staged it the following year for New York City Ballet, he re-costumed it all in white. Perhaps he put those initial color combinations on reserve until Jewels came into focus 20 years later.

In devising the ballet, Balanchine asked which kind of gem I wanted to portray; I responded it might be nice to be a ruby, if only because most of my costumes up to that point had been white or black, and it would have been fun to perform in a different color. But Balanchine already had his mind made up, and so I was cast in Diamonds, with Jacques d'Amboise as my partner. And of course, it was meant to be.

Unlike most other Balanchine ballets, Jewels is a highly costumed productiona fact that surprised some people, given he had spent so many years educating audiences to appreciate the movement for its own sake, with minimal accoutrement. Karinska designed all the costumes, using a common visual element across all of the ballerinas' bodices. She didn't use real gemstones in the costumes—they would have been too heavy to dance inbut with the ornate perfection of her designs, from the audience's perspective, you never would have known the difference.

Karinska was very proud of what she had created, once saying, "I sew for girls and boys who make my costumes dance. Their bodies deserve my clothes." My own costume, a tutu, looked and felt very couture; she had designed something so magical and special. In fact, Diamonds was the first and only tutu ballet Balanchine made on meand my costume also featured a lavish, bejeweled headpiece, a design never seen beforeso the whole ensemble from head to toe brought out a very different quality in the way I moved. (In a publicity photo shoot for the ballet, I remember turning the headpiece around, so that the jewels cascading down my forehead were visible in all their splendor. I've since heard that someone once actually danced the ballet that way. How utterly impractical, but how funny!)

Diamonds begins with a lovely waltz for 14 ladies, followed by a gorgeous pas de deux to the beckoning voice of a French horna harbinger of what's to come with the rest of the ballet. I always loved making this entrance, because it's so beautiful and hauntingit's filled with so much promise, yet you don't know how it's going to be fulfilled.

As with many other Balanchine ballets—Meditation and Chaconne among themI enter into Diamonds from backstage right, and traverse diagonally across the stage to meet my partner entering from the opposite wing. I sometimes tell my dancers it's as if I've lived on that diagonal all my life! When I once asked Balanchine why he was so fond of starting me there, his reply was simple: "So that you're on stage longer." And it's true: a diagonal is the longest straight path you can move within any square or rectangular space.

This diagonal was actually staged last, after the rest of the pas de deux was choreographed. Rather than use valuable time in the studio to determine how the dancers should enter, Balanchine started working with us from what I call the ballet's "pas de deux proper," where Jacques is kneeling in front of me. In fact, Balanchine didn't tell us this was not the beginning until he began choreographing the diagonal.

Throughout the ballet, various patterns in the choreography suggest the shape of a diamond. And the polonaise is incredibly thrillingit's not as folk-like as the one in Theme and Variations, but rather a crystalline vision of what a polonaise would look like refracted through a diamond prism. In the finale, as the music crescendos, Balanchine juxtaposes the ensemble couples in a flurry of activity with the central couple in a slow arabesque promenade. This dramatic contrast creates a truly enchanting moment.

In a February 1975 New Yorker article, Arlene Croce once wrote that my dancing in Diamonds was an evocation of "the freest woman alive." Earlier this year, my company starting working on Diamonds at Jacob's Pillow, and indeed, it was pure bliss to get those steps into my body again and teach them to my dancers. I can't wait to share the culmination of our efforts with you.

Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée

I don't believe this ballet, featuring 12 young women and a central couple, has ever been performed in the Washington area before. That's not to say it doesn't have a rich history!

Stravinsky originally composed Le Baiser de la Fée (which translates to "The Fairy's Kiss") as a tribute to Tchaikovsky. Based on Hans Christian Andersen's short story "The Ice Maiden," the ballet adapts melodies and themes from some of Tchaikovsky's early piano pieces and songs. Because it's sieved through Stravinsky's distinctive musical sensibilities, I'm not sure how easy it is for audiences to recognize the Tchaikovsky inspirations, though!

Bronislava Nijinska originally choreographed the ballet for a 1928 Paris premiere, commissioned by Russian ballerina and actress Ida Rubinstein. In 1937, Balanchine created a new full-evening version for his American Ballet. In 1950, he revised it for New York City Ballet, calling it "The Fairy's Kiss" before eventually changing it back to the French title.

Meanwhile, in 1934, Stravinsky arranged a concert suite of music from the ballet, called Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée. Nearly 40 years later, Balanchine staged Divertimento for his 1972 Stravinsky Festival. With an original cast including Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson, this entirely new work incorporated excerpts from both Stravinsky's ballet score and the concert suite. Additionally, Balanchine eliminated the fairy-tale plot in favor of pure dance, allowing everyone who comes to the theater to create their own story.

The ensemble begins Divertimento in a joyful swirl of colorful costumes, which the lead ballerina joins before entering into a short waltzand then a grand pas de deuxwith her male consort. Wonderful solos and variations follow for each principal. The ballerina's solo is especially Stravinskian, with lots of twists and accents, while the male's variation has an imaginative, foreboding quality to it.

In 1974, Balanchine decided to add a second pas de deux to the end of Divertimento, performed to Tchaikovsky's "None But the Lonely Heart." Most audiences will recognize this exquisite music, as it has also been featured in films. (Balanchine took a similar approach with the Emeralds section of Jewels—after a couple of seasons, he added a sort of "apotheosis" to the ballet using new music.)

This extra pas de deux in Divertimento effectively summarizes everything that's come before it, ending with a beautiful image of just the central couple. Whatever Balanchine's reason for the addition, I think it's fascinating that he could call on just the right music to complete his vision.

I never danced Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée, though while I was in Balanchine's company, I started to learn it once, just for fun. I'm now excited to present The Suzanne Farrell Ballet's company premiere of this work during our 10th anniversary performances at the Kennedy Center.

Concerto Barocco

Concerto Barocco is a ballet I know from many different angles, because I've performed both of its solo roles at different times in my life. Originally created in 1941, the ballet was ornately costumed initially. In 1962, as a first-year corps member, I was thrown into the role of the second solo girl. I had never seen the ballet and now it was being revived with white leotards and skirts as costumes. Diana Adams was having knee trouble so she could not dance. Mr. Balanchine had me stand next to her and Pat Neary to determine whose height went best with Allegra Kent, who was replacing Diana in the first soloist's role. At the time, I wasn't sure whether being the shortest of the three (but still tall in my own right) was advantageous or not!

The second movement evokes a mood of peace and purity, while the two outer movements are fast and wonderfully energetic. The music is Bach's Double Violin Concerto, and one fascinating element to Balanchine's choreography is that each solo girl, at times, represents one of the two solo violins, while the eight corps girls are the remaining strings. Once while rehearsing the ballet, I glanced down in the pit and saw the two solo violinists playing very close together, almost as though one bow might collide with the other if the musicians didn't remain completely in sync with one another. Balanchine's choreography has that same sense of precision/precariousness and action/reaction tension to it.

A year later, in 1963, I made my debut as the first soloistthe adagio girlin Concerto Barocco, this time partnered by Jacques d'Amboise. Learning the other role was an adventure, as I had to keep my body from instinctively moving to the counts I knew from the second soloist role. But in the end it was heaven to learn both parts, and that made it easier for me to stage the ballet later in life. I've taught it several times to other companies, including Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem.

I've added Concerto Barocco to my company's repertoire for our 10th anniversary celebration. Audiences needn't do any homework to prepare for the ballet, but if you're intrigued, I'd encourage you to listen to Bach's Double Violin Concerto before seeing it. This is a great way to rouse an appetite for your experience in the theater, and to make it as meaningful as possible once the performance arrives.

Whenever Balanchine told me he was going to create a new ballet to a particular composer's work, I'd go and get the record and just listen to itnot dance to itand soak in the anticipation of moving to that music, imagining all that was in store for me. With every Balanchine ballet, there's so much to hear, and so much to see, it's impossible to take it all in with a single viewing.