The Kennedy Center

Suzanne Farrell's Notes from the Ballet Archive

2013 - 2014

On George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Pennsylvania Ballet (June 6–8, 2014)
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Pennsylvania Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream

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."

Jermel Johnson from the Pennsylvania Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream

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. From the moment the music begins, you can sense the agitation of the midsummer night bugs - and then you know you are entering this magical world. 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.

Titania's pas de deux with Bottom

Julie Diana Pennsylvania Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Nick Bottom

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."

Suzanne Farrell's Cat

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. Kids from the Pennsylvania Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream

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 Act II pas de deux

Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench from the Pennsylvania Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Whereas Act I of the ballet 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. 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. But then we hear Mendelssohn's beginning overture music once again. The ballroom comes alive with midsummer bugs, and suddenly we're transported back to the forest! It's a final, fleeting moment where all the magic and drama began, before one last good-bye.

Alexander Peters from the Pennsylvania Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Puck flying

And with that, Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream brings the Kennedy Center ballet season to a glorious close. I hope to see you again in the fall when The Suzanne Farrell Ballet opens the 2014–2015 season over Thanksgiving weekend. I'll soon be off to my summer retreat, then back to the Kennedy Center in July to lead my Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell program for young dancers. Have a wonderful summer!


Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in 'Diamonds', photo by Rosalie O'Connor (2013) The Suzanned Farrell Ballet: Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in Diamonds, photo by Rosalie O'Connor (2013)

Performed by New York City Ballet April 1 & 4–6

For our 10th anniversary engagement in 2012, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performed Diamonds (see photo at right), the final section of Jewels that George Balanchine made on me in 1967. You can listen to my 2012 podcast here, in which I talked about how Jewels came to be and about my experiences learning and dancing Diamonds.

But since I've also staged all three parts of Jewels several times as a Balanchine répetiteur—including performances at The National Ballet of Canada and Cincinnati Ballet—there is definitely more to talk about!

As I write in my autobiography Holding on to the Air:

"Although Jewels is without story, it is not without motifs, and I have always felt that the thread that connects the three gems is woven by walking. Each of the three sections makes a statement about a very specific style of walking—Rubies tips the scale at one end with a turned-in, cocky kind of strut, a Stravinskian strut; Emeralds has a low, delicate walk marked by a slow, underwater weightiness, a very French allure; while Diamonds tips the scale at the opposite end with a proud, high, exposed kind of prance, like a Russian thoroughbred."

The movement in Rubies is very whimsical, capricious, and seemingly unpredictable—and rightly so, since it's performed to Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Indeed, the title informs the movement. From my perspective, I can also see how the pas de deux in Balanchine's 1964 ballet Clarinade, set to jazz music composed by Morton Gould, might have been a stepping stone for the jazzy movement that Mr. B elaborated on in Rubies three years later. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is the only company that dances the pas de deux as a separate entity, as part of my Balanchine Preservation Initiative.

Emeralds, meanwhile, is danced to the quiet, moving strains of music from Gabriel Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock. It's the only part of Jewels that Mr. B amended after its premiere. Though it was rare for him to do this with his ballets, Mr. B eventually added another pas de deux for the first ballerina and a pas de sept at the end, as somewhat of an apotheosis that brings together the lead dancers once more to reiterate the walking motif and summarize the mood of the piece.

As for Diamonds, which is danced to all but the first movement of Tchaikovsky's "Polish" Symphony No. 3, I've always felt it requires a relatively tall ballerina. (Though when casting a ballet, you can't always ensure that happens. You must choose the dancer who moves in the manner the ballet calls for.) The entire pas de deux is based on the concept of diagonals; its "pulling away" sequences are more dramatic the further apart the dancers can get from each other. So I think it's more exciting if the ballerina has long limbs to help create more extended, tension-filled lines.

Looking ahead, check out the Kennedy Center's upcoming 2014-2015 ballet season, which was just announced earlier this month. I'm excited for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet to officially open the new Kennedy Center ballet season at the Opera House over the Thanksgiving weekend. Our program, which will feature three company premieres and the return of one of Balanchine's greatest ballets, promises to be a visual feast.

Natalia Magnicaballi, Michael Cook, and company in 'Movements for Piano and  Orchestra'(2010), photo by Carol Pratt The Suzanne Farrell Ballet: Natalia Magnicaballi, Michael Cook, and company in Movements for Piano and Orchestra (2010), photo by Carol Pratt

Mr. B's original 1951 version of Swan Lake is the very essence of Act 2, while he once said that his tour de force Allegro Brillante "contains everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes." And his combined "white ballets" Monumentum Pro Gesualdo/Movements for Piano and Orchestra (see photo at right) are the pure distillation of Balanchine's collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. The program will end with Jerome Robbins's delightfully witty The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody), which will send you out into the night laughing and content. All of our performances will be accompanied by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

I hope you'll join us in the fall!

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

On Paul Mejia's Romeo and Juliet

Program A: Nov. 6, 7, & 9 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 10 at 1:30 p.m.

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Elisabeth Holowchuk and Michael Cook in 'Romeo and Juliet' Elisabeth Holowchuk and Michael Cook in Romeo and Juliet, photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Paul Mejia originally choreographed this lovely 25-minute ballet in 1977, when he was artistic director of Ballet Guatemala. Later, when he was co-artistic director of Chicago City Ballet with Maria Tallchief, I joined the company's European tour in 1983 and performed Romeo and Juliet opposite Adam Lüders at several outdoor festivals, from Rome, Naples, and Ravenna to Tunis, Lyon, and Milan. It's a beautiful rendition of Shakespeare's tale in condensed form, choreographed to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. Having grown up with Tchaikovsky's music, I felt very much at home in the ballet.

This engagement marks my company's first performances of the work, and my second staging of one of his ballets; the first was Eight by Adler. It's also our way of celebrating the 450th year since Shakespeare's birth, and one of three works on this November's programs danced to Tchaikovsky's music.

I have danced two different versions of Romeo and Juliet to two different composers: Paul's set to Tchaikovsky, and Maurice Béjart's set to Berlioz. With the Tchaikovsky version, you don't have three hours to develop your character and rely on the story. You have to jump right in. This approach gives new challenges to the audience and the opportunity to experience the tale of Romeo and Juliet in a concise format. Seeing what it's like as an opera or a play or in a different dance presentation calls attention to new facets of the story each time, showing how it can be just as powerful regardless of the medium.

Here, there are no props—Romeo, for example, takes his poison using movement alone. There's plenty of drama and the action unfolds in a more abstract way through dance. This version opens toward the end of the story, in the crypt, where Juliet is already presumably dead and Romeo is surrounded by an ensemble of dancers dressed in black. (Romeo and Juliet are clothed as innocents in white. This color contrast, along with the absence of traditional narrative, is very Balanchinian.)

From my perspective, the ensemble doesn't necessarily represent Montagues or Capulets, but rather the dark forces, those obstacles that keep people apart in life. These dancers step into and out of the action, morphing into different roles along the way.

From the crypt, Romeo and Juliet's doomed relationship is revealed in flashback, from when they first meet to Romeo's conflict with Tybalt, one of the dark forces. Tybalt's death, staged symbolically through dance, is the catalyst for the lovers' downfall. Though Shakespeare's story is a tragedy, this version culminates in an inspiring and moving final tableau, which I won't give away here. I hope you enjoy this unique interpretation as much as I first loved dancing it, and as much as I've delighted in staging it for you now.

On Balanchine's Tempo di Valse

Program B: Nov. 8 & 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m.

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Bonnie Pickard and ensemble in my company's 2003 presentation of 'Tempo di Valse' Bonnie Pickard and ensemble in my company's 2003 presentation of Tempo di Valse, photo by Paul Kolnik

Tempo di Valse is Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" music extracted from Balanchine's full-evening 1954 version of The Nutcracker and without the flower costumes. It was first staged as an independent ballet in 1981, on a tribute program during Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Festival that also included, among others excerpts, the composer's "Garland Dance" from The Sleeping Beauty and the waltz from Eugene Onegin.

I think it's a real treat for audiences to experience this beautifully structured choreography for 15 female dancers in its purest form, at a time other than the holidays. With the story removed, you hear the music and see the movement differently, no matter how many times you've made Nutcracker part of your winter-time festivities.

When I was with Balanchine's company, we'd perform The Nutcracker 40 to 50 times over the holiday season. I remember one year I was scheduled to dance an evening performance but not the matinee. I was lying on a cot in my dressing room, and the music was being piped in from the stage. In the stillness, shut off from the bombardment of all things Christmas, I too heard the music differently, catching nuances I had never noticed before.

My company hasn't performed Tempo di Valse in a decade, since I staged it for the Kennedy Center's own Tchaikovsky Festival in the fall of 2003. The choreography has such wonderful, complex patterns. The ballerina and two demi-soloists come and go, but the corps remains on stage the entire time. For these performances, the women will be dressed in pink and white chiffon. There's no "Dewdrop" and no flowers—just magnificent dance!

On Balanchine's Pas de Dix

Program B: Nov. 8 & 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m.

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Maria Tallchief and her husband Buzz arriving on my private island in upstate New York Maria Tallchief and her husband Buzz arriving on my private island in upstate New York, from my personal photo collection

My company's premiere performances of this ballet are a tribute to my good friend Maria Tallchief, who passed away in April of this year. Balanchine made Pas de Dix on Maria and André Eglevsky in 1955, and the ballet became one of the hallmarks of her career. She was such a great lady, a larger-than-life personage and staunch Balanchine disciple.

Because of our mutual devotion to Balanchine's work, our lives frequently intertwined starting in the late 1970s. For example, while Paul Mejia was co-artistic director of Chicago City Ballet, the company she founded, Maria and her husband Buzz would invite us over for dinner and animated discussions at their house. She also visited me on my private island in upstate New York a couple of times (see photos). And in later years, we tended to gravitate to each other at the Kennedy Center Honors. I will miss her strong convictions and spirit.

Pas de Dix features four ensemble couples and a lead couple, hence the "dix" or ten in the title. Two of the corps women dance individual variations, and the other two perform a duet at one point. The lead couple dances a stylish pas de deux interspersed among the four ensemble couples as well as their own bravura solos, concluding with a dazzling finale.

The music, which is very lush and rich, comes from Marius Petipa's 1898 Raymonda, danced to a score by Alexander Glazounov. It has a nice mix of slow passages and grand moments. Audiences familiar with Russian music will recognize its infectious Hungarian folk flavor.

Balanchine was clearly very fond of Raymonda after dancing it as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. He went on to choreograph the full-length ballet for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as well as three ballets for his own company: Raymonda Variations using music primarily from the first act, and Cortège Hongrois and Pas de Dix using music primarily from the third and final act.

Though I never saw Maria dance this role, and I never danced it myself, I did see a live performance of it at one point, and I remember the principals were wearing white with gold trim. Our palate will be a variation on that. All the women are dressed in tutus, giving the ballet a very regal effect. And there will be a hint of a set to evoke the majesty of the ballroom. With Pas de Dix, I'm honored to salute the memory of Maria and Balanchine.