The Balanchine Couple

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MARCH 8, 2004

The Balanchine Couple

George Balanchine was the most influential ballet choreographer of
the twentieth century, and Suzanne Farrell was one of his most
celebrated dancers. From 1961, when she joined his New York City
Ballet, until her retirement in 1989, Farrell astonished audiences
with her beauty, her daring, and her range. She was Balanchine's
muse, his "Stradivarius," as he once called her, and he
choreographed some of his greatest works for her, including Don
Quixote, Chaconne, and Mozartiana. He was also deeply in love with
her, and their work together grew out of an unconsummated devotion,
a courtly love lived through dance and anchored in a profound
workaday compatibility. They were intimate collaborators, and with
Farrell, Balanchine pushed his own neo- classical style to new
heights, changing classical ballet forever.In the fall of 2000, eleven years after her retirement as a dancer
and nearly twenty years after Balanchine's death, Farrell started
her own dance company. Based at the Kennedy Center in Washington,
D.C., The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is dedicated to performing the
work of Balanchine. The group began as a part-time pick-up troupe
of dancers whose "real" jobs were with more established companies,
but this seems to be changing. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet recently
embarked on an extensive national tour culminating in a week of
performances at the Kennedy Center; Farrell runs a nationally
competitive intensive summer program at the Kennedy Center; and
plans are underway to revive Balanchine's spectacular full-length
Don Quixote. The Kennedy Center has hitherto preferred to host
touring companies from New York, London, St. Petersburg; but if
plans with Farrell proceed apace, it will soon boast a full- time
resident ballet troupe dedicated to the Balanchine legacy.

Farrell was unrivaled as a dancer and has staged Balanchine's work
to great acclaim around the world, but does she have the artistic
vision to lead a large company of dancers at one of the nation's
great theaters? And if she does, why should the Kennedy Center
expend scarce resources to house a Balanchine company? After all,
the New York City Ballet remains dedicated to preserving
Balanchine's legacy, and many dance companies keep Balanchine works
in permanent repertory. Do we really need The Suzanne Farrell
Ballet?

The answer is yes. Two decades after Balanchine's death, his legacy
is strangely unclear. There are several problems. For a start,
relative to the other great Western art forms, ballet has shallow
roots in American culture. When Balanchine arrived in 1933, it was
little more than a vaudeville act. In the course of the next fifty
years, he raised it to an internationally recognized high art,
producing an oeuvre of great ballets and laying the foundations for
generations to come--or so one thought at the time. But dance has
no written tradition, and disappears easily from collective memory:
unless Balanchine's dances are alive and interesting now we are
likely to forget why they ever seemed so important.

This is especially true in today's political and intellectual
climate. Although much of Balanchine's work still seems radical
today, it is in fact firmly rooted in the traditions of Russian
classicism. Aristocratic and formal, it celebrates hierarchy and
discipline rather than free self-expression; it places women on a
pedestal; and it prizes courtship and feminine beauty over gender
equality or ethnic diversity. Not exactly correct in today's
America.

Under the direction of Peter Martins, Balanchine's own company, the
New York City Ballet, has turned its sights towards an aesthetic
that is androgynous, glamorous, and visually opaque. In the hands
of City Ballet's resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, this
new plasma-age style has opened new possibilities and yielded
interesting results. But for the work of Balanchine, it seems
wrong. This is particularly evident in the company's current New
York season, which is marking the Balanchine centennial with a
breathtaking historical overview of the ballet master's oeuvre. In
these performances, the intimacy, transparency, and immediacy that
once animated Balanchine's dances is gone.

Instead, seminal ballets such as Concerto Barocco, Serenade, and
Symphony in C have taken on a smooth, sculptural beauty. We
recognize their finely wrought exteriors, but the dancers, many of
whom are exquisitely formed, do not develop the internal life of
the dance. They take few risks and make few mistakes; their
performances are technically polished, athletically impressive, and
emotionally flat. This staid aesthetic sensibility effectively seals
off Balanchine's most radical and innovative dances, embalms them
for the benefit of future generations. At today's City Ballet,
Balanchine's ballets often look gorgeous, but they are rarely bold
or fascinating.

Farrell's approach could not be more different. It is not that she
reproduces Balanchine's ballets as they were danced when he was
alive: on the contrary, as she herself points out, Balanchine
believed that his ballets were like flowers and would die with him.
He famously declared that he didn't care what happened to his
dances after his death. To which Farrell responds: "But I care." In
her own company, she has tried to create what she calls the "right
environment," the physical, emotional, and artistic conditions that
will bring Balanchine's ballets new life in the twenty-first
century--and she has succeeded.

This season, when the curtain rose on Serenade, Mozartiana, or even
an old warhorse such as "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker,
there was a hush of expectation, of the unknown, of a live drama
about to unfold. This theatrical magic, I think, has to do with the
way Farrell's dancers understand Balanchine's ballets. They do not
see them as finished works to be mastered and performed, but rather
as blueprints, maps that will guide them through the music to which
they are about to dance. For these dancers, a ballet is not
preordained, even if the steps are set. Anything can happen, and
they are poised in anticipation.

This sense of spontaneity is crucial in performing Balanchine, whose
ballets rarely tell a story, but are instead short, formal essays.
They are "about" split-second phrasings and other musical decisions
that shape the character of a dance (and a dancer). This makes the
dancers vulnerable: an impulsive shift of weight, for example,
might be visually or rhythmically exciting--but it might also throw
the dancer off balance and disrupt the illusion.

When it does work, however, the artistic payoff is enormous. In one
performance of the serene and romantic pas de deux from Chaconne,
Chan Hon Goh spun into a deep lunge on point. The momentum of her
turn knocked her precariously off balance, but rather than playing
it safe and correcting her balance, she kept going, letting the
momentum carry her even further into peril. Peter Boal, her elegant
and gracious partner, did not panic or grab at her hand to steady
the movement: instead, he too let it go, and gently followed the
flow. In a split second, she had passed through the danger zone, and
found her way to a new and wholly unanticipated balance, and Boal
was right there, ready for the next movement. It was over in an
instant, but it captured a world: her trust, his loyalty, and their
mutual faith in an uncertain course of events.

This kind of dancing requires intelligence. Not knowledge exactly,
but physical acuity and presence of mind. Without it, the
devilishly difficult classical variations in Balanchine's
Divertimento No. 15 to music by Mozart, for example, can be dull
technical displays. Farrell's dancers were not always perfect in
their execution, but they captured the ballet's grace and witty
repartee. We should not be surprised: Farrell's own dancing was
suspenseful and iconoclastic, and as a teacher she is known for her
mind-twisting, "body as brain" combinations that challenge a
dancer's most ingrained physical assumptions. She is clearly making
her dancers think for themselves, with edifying results.

Moreover, in an age when ballerinas are increasingly sinewy,
androgynous athletes bent upon conquering technical challenges,
Farrell's women have a newfound femininity. Their ports de bras are
full and round, and they bend their bodies with grace and fluidity.
They are not stiff, and their open, soft demeanor allows them to
get inside a movement and explore its full range. Nor do they
muscle their way through difficult steps: they seem to arrive at
them easily, as if carried along by emotional and musical
impulses.

Perhaps most striking of all, Farrell's company managed to give each
ballet a distinct atmosphere and resonance, from the prayerful
mourning of Mozartiana to the eighteenth-century esprit of
Divertimento No. 15 and the Hollywood glamour of Waltz of the
Flowers. This was especially true in the company's performance of
Serenade, which Balanchine choreographed in 1934 to a lush score by
Tchaikovsky. It is a ballet of darkness and light, love and destiny,
death and redemption, with strong theological and romantic
overtones.

Serenade has no plot, but begins quietly with a group of women
facing the audience in long tulle dresses, each with one hand
raised as if to shield her eyes from the sun. The music starts, and
they begin to dance: in a swirl of movement, clear formations
emerge and break apart, momentum builds, and the dancers are
pressed on by the swell of the music and the rush of their own
steps. A dancer comes in late; a man follows. They dance, and as he
departs she falls to the floor. Another man enters with a woman,
his dark angel, draped over his back, her hands covering his eyes.
Blinded, he approaches the fallen woman. The trio dance together,
until the dark angel pulls the man away, covers his eyes again, and
presses him to continue his journey, leaving his loved one
collapsed on the floor where he found her. The dance continues with
breathtaking embraces and bodies wilted in submission, until finally
the forsaken girl is ceremoniously lifted on high. Aloft and
supine, she is carried through a long diagonal of dancers towards a
distant light. She raises her arms slowly and arches deeply back,
chest open, in complete surrender.

Farrell's dancers performed the ballet humbly, never forcing the
drama or trying to act out the dance. There was no melodrama, just
perfect poise and decorum. By listening to Tchaikovsky and
Balanchine, they found the phrasing, the timbre, and the momentum
of the music in the steps, and did not so much dance the ballet as
let it happen to them, for all to witness. They revealed a
spiritual world, and the illusion was complete and unbroken.

This is no small achievement, for in spite of the Kennedy Center's
commitment to Farrell, the company still has a short rehearsal
period and the dancers juggle their schedules to work together. As
a result, not all of the company's performances were as convincing
as Serenade, and some of the dancers are less interesting than
others. Yet the company danced as a tightly knit group, and Farrell
has clearly pulled them into her poetic vision.

She does not stop there, but seems acutely aware that a new
generation of audiences, who never saw Balanchine's work when he
was alive, must also be taught and brought along. In this, she is
not alone: many ballet companies are attempting to lure new
audiences to classical dance by making it more "accessible" with
pre-performance lectures, "family" programs, and sexy advertising
campaigns. But Farrell is more serious: she simply comes out on
stage and talks to audiences about Balanchine's work.

In a fascinating program called "The Balanchine Couple" she
introduced and discussed pas de deux from various works, giving a
detailed analysis of the choreographic structure of each dance,
such as the visual symbolism of Apollo. She used personal
reminiscences to make a point, recalling, for example, that she
asked Balanchine if he wished to change a particularly awkward step
in the pas de deux from Meditation. He responded: "It's O.K. dear,
sometimes love is awkward." Farrell never dumbs the ballets down,
and she does not try to make them fun, easy, or glamorous. She
simply asks audiences to look, think, and engage with the text of a
great work.

I have been following Farrell's career for nearly thirty years, and
have seen her as dancer, coach, teacher (I studied with her when I
was myself a dancer) and now as director. She has a rare ability to
teach artistry: in her dancers, technique is not just a skill, it
is also an ethic, as their poise and intelligent stage presence
shows. She is not just conveying Balanchine's steps; she is also
giving her dancers a vast range of artistic possibilities, as
varied and strictly defined as Balanchine's art.

It is worth remembering how much Farrell knows: she stands in a
direct line of descent, reaching back through Balanchine to Fokine,
Diaghilev, and the French and Russian origins of twentieth-century
modernism, and even further back, to Petipa and Imperial Russian
classicism. Balanchine often said that he "talked" to Tchaikovsky,
Mozart, and (even after his death) Stravinsky. Farrell now says she
talks to Balanchine. This may be spiritual or symbolic; but it also
represents continuity, tradition, and deeply held knowledge.

Balanchine's ballets constitute a vital cultural heritage, as
important to dance as Mozart and Beethoven are to music. Yet the
New York City Ballet has moved on, and the artistic heart of the
company now lies with contemporary work and young choreographers.
If The Suzanne Farrell Ballet becomes a permanent and full-time
troupe at the Kennedy Center, it could change our cultural
landscape. Washington could become home to a world-class ballet
company dedicated to preserving and extending Balanchine's legacy.
This would be fitting: Balanchine gave America--and the
world--modern ballet, and his dances are national treasures. So is
Suzanne Farrell. She is an artist of the first order who continues
to illuminate Balanchine's works in ways that no one else has. This
is not because she has a finger on the pulse of our time, but
because she shows us the formal, romantic, idealistic, and deeply
experimental character of his art. She preserves his ballets by
treating them as evolving life-forms, which cannot be tied down but
must instead be allowed flight.

By Jennifer Homans

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