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A Final Serenade

There could be no more auspicious moment for Suzanne Farrell to mark the closure of her ballet company than December 2017. With the New York City Ballet future of her former partner Peter Martins very much in doubt, Farrell sent her dancers out onstage at the Kennedy Center last week to perform works she and Martins had often danced together, works created by the man who cast her out of his company after she rebuffed his proposal.


The Suzanne Farrell Ballet: “Forever Balanchine: Farewell Performances”


The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, December 8, 2017


Rebecca Ritzel

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performing George Balanchine's “Serenade” © The George Balanchine Trust. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

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What a time to celebrate Farrell, what a time to celebrate Balanchine.

Since 2001, the Kennedy Center has invested between $1 and $1.4 million on Farrell’s pickup company, which was composed mostly of freelance dancers and guests principals. During Farrell Ballet’s first decade, other companies traveled to Washington to fill out the corps of larger Balanchine ballets like “Episodes,” which are rarely performed. Through the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, the Center helped Farrell reconstruct 11 “lost” Balanchine ballets, including the trippy space-age “Prithoprakta” and the jaunty “Ragtime.” Now the future of those 11 ballets is now unclear.

Both Farrell and the Kennedy Center were cryptic in explanations they gave as to why the company was folding. The former City Ballet star, now 72, told Dance Magazine that “If I had my choice, I would go on forever.” She also said she plans to spend more time teaching—she is a professor at Florida State University. Previously, Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter told the Washington Post, “It was not an intent to say, ‘We are ending this company.’”

But now it has ended, in a rush of blue tulle, strains of mournful Tchaikovsky and many, many onstage roses.

Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in “Tzigane” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

“Serenade,” “Meditation,” and the rarely seen “Tzigane,” were highlights of the company’s closing programs, which on alternating nights also included the “Gounod Symphony” (a Preservation Initiative ballet) and “Chaconne.”

For me, attending the December 8 performance was not only a chance to watch these ballets in awe, but also to sort through decade’s worth of memories, all the while mulling current events and conflicting feelings about the choreographer who, by today’s standards, sexually harassed and emotionally abused one of America’s finest ballerinas.

Farrell was only 18 when Balanchine wrote her his first love letter, in a form of a poem: “I can’t forget this blessed vision, in front of me you stood my love, like instant moment of decision, like spirit beauteous from above.”

This was the choreographer's description of “Meditation,” the pas de deux created just for her and Jacques D’Amboise, which Farrell was preparing to premiere in 1963.

Watching National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden dance the emotionally loaded duet, one could not escape the feeling that when she bouréed off stage, she was carrying more than just her partner Michael Cook’s broken heart, she was a vanishing vision of Farrell’s hopes and dreams.

Forgive my melodramatic description, but Cook and Ogden’s performance—gentle, meaningful, tender—lived up to the expectations of an emotionally overwrought evening.

Heather Ogden and Thomas Garrett in "Chaconne" by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Atmospheric acuity has always been a stronger suit of Farrell’s company, more so than technical precision. Ogden’s virtuosity is the exception, since nearly all the dancers are freelancers. Some have likely been turned down by other companies, while others deliberately turn down other contracts. As first soloist Alyssa Holowchuk told me once, “I don’t dance for anyone else because I want to available whenever Suzanne needs me.” Another former principal, Bonnie Pickard, had planned on retiring for good after stints with Charlotte Ballet and Tulsa Ballet, but instead danced for Farrell from 2001 to 2009.

Farrell brings out the best in dancers who are not the best of the best. That has long the consensus. But the company has had its shaky moments, including the first movement of “Gounod Symphony.” The corps dancers wee painfully out of sync, and could not reach a consensus on a repeated pose performed by some in arabesque, some in tendu back and some with legs raised somewhere in the middle.

Still, it was apparent that this ballet for 32 dancers, originally premiered in 1958 and revived by Farrell last year, is a lovely mashup of elements that often don’t coexist in Balanchine ballets. There are striking diagonal patterns, including a giant “X” formation stretching the length of the stage (like “Symphony in C”) and what I call a Balanchine pretzel, where a dozen or so dancers wind in and out of each other’s arms until they are one beautiful black and white knot. (As in “Episodes,” but with more grace and less game-of-Twister angst.)

“Tzigane” (1975) was a better-performed rare gem. Like “Meditation,” Balanchine made the ballet on Farrell and gifted it to her, but after she had returned from her New York City Ballet. The female lead is not a beauteous spirit but a very sexy, very real woman. Natalia Magnicaballi, who has danced for Farrell since her inaugural season, was alone onstage when the curtain opened, tapping out a flamenco-like rhythm to a Ravel violin solo. When her partner (Kirk Henning in Martins’ original role) joined her, it was not so two could become one soul, but so they could sharpen each other, iron twisting and turning iron. The duet (with a small ensemble dancing in the background) was playful, character-driven and almost erotic. Not at all like the Balanchine works that have become iconic.

“Serenade,” perhaps the most beloved of all Balanchine ballets, closed out the program. Thankfully, the corps looked much better rehearsed here than it did in the “Gounod,” perhaps the result of Farrell making the most of her limited rehearsal time. Balanchine originally created the ballet on a group of students, and based his formations on the number of girls who had shown up for class each day. It’s impossible to single out members of the corps, in their matching blue leotards and tulle, but it seems as if each gets her own chance to dash across the stage and let loose, and when they did, it was with great joy, grace and character, as if Farrell had coached every single dancer to go out there and give it her all.

That is probably exactly what she did, empowering each dancer to shine. The choreographer would no doubt be proud of his protégé.

“Woman is the goddess, the poetess, the muse. That is why I have a company of beautiful girl dancers. I believe that the same is true of life, that everything a man does he does for is ideal woman.”

That’s what Balanchine rather famously told Life magazine. He did not speculate on a woman’s own motivations for moving well through life. The most iconic images in “Serenade” are from the opening, where 17 women each hold one hand aloft as if to blot out the moonlight, and the finale, when four men carry the Waltz Girl (Heather Ogden) off stage. Those aren’t the tableaux I’ll remember from this performance, however. The image burned in my memory is just before that last scene when Ogden rises from the stage and hurries forward between two lines of dancers and clasps her arms around the neck of another ballerina.

Two beautiful dancers, finding strength not in a male partner, but in the arms of each other.

Near the very end of his life, Balanchine asked Farrell to forgive him for amorous, and then vindictive, behaviour. “I was an old man and you were young. I should not have thought of you that way,” she records in her autobiography. She forgave him, and she preserved his legacy, celebrating the man without whitewashing the ugly quandaries.

The question for ballet going forward is how to continue fostering the work of creative artists—male and female—while respecting every individual in the studio on the stage. There must be a way. There has to be. We need arts administrators with the resilience of a very strong partner. And we need many more dancers to rise on the support of another, and find the strength to walk forward in the spotlight, just as Farrell did so gracefully at the Kennedy Center, to take her final bows.

Rebecca Ritzel

Rebecca J. Ritzel is a Baltimore-based arts journalist. She served as the Washington Post's theater columnist from 2014-2016. Her cultural coverage has appeared in more than two dozen British and North American outlets, including the New York Times, the National Post, National Public Radio and Teen Vogue.



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