Suzanne Farrell Ballet returning to Power Center for three performances
I know I’m not alone in thinking that ballerina Suzanne Farrell has twice blessed the dance world and all who cherish the legacy of America’s most important ballet choreographer, George Balanchine (1904-1983). Muse to Balanchine — who made nearly one-third of the 100 or so ballets she danced in her long career at New York City Ballet specifically for her — she has gone on, in her post-dancing years, to found her own company, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, to keep his works alive as well as his flame.
The company, founded in 2000, was last seen in Ann Arbor in 2003, in programs that revealed highly musical, vividly alive performances of Balanchine classics like “Serenade” and “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.” Now the company, which makes its home at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, returns Friday and Saturday for two full-length University Musical Society performances plus an abbreviated family matinee.
Though both evening programs emphasize Balanchine choreographing for two dancers, they are different and equally marvelous.
"Balanchine" by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company:
Friday brings ballets — both well- and little-known — from the 1950s and 1960s: the “Pas d’Action from Divertimento No. 15” (Mozart); the “Contrapuntal Blues Pas de Deux from ‘Clarinade’” (Gould); Balanchine’s magnificent and important ballet made in collaboration with Sravinsky, “Agon”; and a section of a ballet Farrell danced when she went abroad to work with the very different European choreographer Maurice BÃ©jart, “Scene d’Amour from ‘Romeo and Juliet.”
Saturday evening the focus is on “The Balanchine Couple,” in a program of pas de deux, with commentary by Farrell, that includes sections from “Apollo,” another important Stravinsky collaboration; “La Sonambula"; “The Unanswered Question from ‘Ivesiana’”; “La Valse”; “Agon”; “Meditation”; “Pas de Mauresque from ‘Don Quixote’”; “Chaconne”; and last and far from least, the delicious “Grand Pas de Deux from ‘Stars and Stripes,” Balanchine exulting in the Americana of John Philip Sousa.
How many of the pas de deux on both programs did Farrell herself dance?
“All except ‘The Unanswered Question’ and ‘Pas de Mauresque,’” Farrell wrote in answers to questions e-mailed to her last month.
She took time as the company rehearsed in Washington, D.C., to answer other questions put to her about her company and the Balanchine legacy, including the Balanchine Preservation Initiative.Q: What are the particular challenges of Balanchine style for dancers today, and what do you try to emphasize in coaching the ballets?Â A: Dance is unique from other art forms in the way it can live on. So much depends on the individuals, both the dancer and the choreographer, and on the poetry and vitality they bring to the stage or studio at that moment. A score, a piece of music, will always be the way the composer intended it. The notes will never change. Words are written down and become the text of a great poem or a play. But choreography is subjected to many variables.
If Balanchine ballets retain his integrity, his musicality, his energy, spirit and lifelong philosophy — the right environment will hold them together. I’m not constantly correcting my dancers. They usually know when they’ve made a mistake, and if you constantly correct someone, they will feel limited and fear any movement that has not been sanctioned. They become ciphers. A technical problem can be fixed, but a thought-process problem or an emotional limitation becomes insurmountable.Â
I usually withhold comments until there’s been a cluster of things that have started to chip away at the work process, the performance, the rehearsal. Dancers don’t use anything other than who they are in the sense that we are not machines where the volume can be turned up. We have to do it all visually and energetically. We are our own technology, our own instruments. There is no cinematographer, no editor, no sound track to enhance. You will have days when you don’t balance as long, or you don’t turn as many times or you can’t jump as high. That’s where your response to music and space comes into play.Â
Q: What was your favorite ballet to perform and why? The most challenging? A: I have always lived in the present, so whatever ballet I was performing was my favorite at the time. Each held its own unique challenge and fascination. Mr. B’s ballets were more like “worlds.” I loved living in different “worlds” for a bit of time.Â Q: I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the BÃ©jart on the program, but somehow I thought the company was totally Balanchine-focused. Would you talk a little about the company’s focus beyond Balanchine? A: I learned a great deal working with Maurice BÃ©jart. He used enormous amounts of space, filled with props, scenery, and electronic music. Maurice BÃ©jart had a passion for his work, and I identified with that immediately. One of the missions of my company is to present performances and outreach programs that perpetuate the artistic legacy of my mentors, which include BÃ©jart and Robbins.Â
Q: I’ve seen most of the ballets on the program, but never “Clarinade.” Could you tell a little about it, and how it fits into the Balanchine Preservation Initiative? A: 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. “Clarinade” was set to jazz music composed by Morton Gould for Benny Goodman, who played the clarinet for the first performance. The ballet was a light-hearted excursion with four movements. I wore a turquoise and black polka-dot leotard with a skirt and my hair in a ponytail, and my partner was Anthony Blum.
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 outer space. Many of these lost works reflect how Balanchine was exploring new ways of using, filling, and transforming space during that time. 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.
PREVIEW Who: The Suzanne Farrell Ballet What: Two different programs of ballets by Balanchine (and Bejart). When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; and a family matinee, 1 p.m. Saturday Where: Power Center for the Performing Arts, 121 Fletcher St. How much: $20-48 evening performances, family matinee, $10 for children, $20 for adults. UMS Ticket Office in the Michigan League, 734-764-2538, and online at UMS. Related event: Meet Suzanne Farrell in conversation with University of Michigan Balanchine specialist and faculty member Beth Genne, Wed., 7-8:30 p.m., Palmer Commons, Fourth Floor Forum Hall. Free and open to the public.
Susan Isaacs Nisbett is a free-lance writer who covers classical music and dance for AnnArbor.com.