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The Balanchine Couple

Jennifer Homans on Dance

(The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)

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.

Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic.