“Balanchine is my life, my destiny.” Suzanne Farrell still talks about George Balanchine in present tense. Hailed as the most influential ballerina of the 20th-century, Farrell has dedicated her career and her life to preserving and promoting the legacy of the great ballet master. In her dancing days, she was New York City Ballet’s brightest star—and one of the most important muses to Balanchine. They formed the greatest artistic partnerships between a choreographer and a dancer in the history of ballet. An epitome of the ideal Balanchine ballerina, Farrell was his perfect creative instrument and a source of inspiration for nearly 30 ballets, many of them deemed masterpieces. After retiring from her dancing career in 1989, she became NYCB’s ballet master but was dismissed from her job by Peter Martins in 1993. Yet her devotion to Balanchine didn’t end—she went on coaching and staging his ballets around the world and eventually founded her own company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (2001-17), which unfailingly brought unique perspectives and offered deep insights into the universe of Balanchine during the troupe’s seasons at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Farrell’s commitment to Balanchine, her knowledge and understanding of his technique, philosophy, aesthetics and his repertoire are virtually unrivalled. That’s why it was such an important moment for NYCB to have Farrell back in the company’s studio this spring—after nearly 26-year absence—to coach the leading dancers in “Diamonds,” an iconic Balanchine’s ballet, in which the central ballerina role was created specifically for her. Farrell’s performance in this role is still considered a gold standard.
She was invited by the new artistic management of the company, Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan (both former principal dancers with NYCB), recently appointed to replace Martins who resigned last year. Farrell’s return to the studio to share with the dancers her insights and wisdom and her first-hand knowledge on this ballet is a welcome gesture and a sign of New York City Ballet’s new beginning.
A final part of the plotless triptych, “Jewels,” “Diamonds” is a tribute to the Russian Imperial Ballet and a nod to Balanchine’s artistic roots. Choreographed to the last four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, it’s a spectacular showcase of the 19th-century classical ballet at its most grand and exquisite, with architectural patterns evoking the precious stones.
“The “Diamonds” pas de deux is one of the most beautiful Balanchine ever made, supremely classical in style, epic in scope, ritualized in manner, and yet in the midst of its unmistakable grandeur there lurks immense sweetness and vulnerability,” Farrell described one of the most sublime moments of the ballet in her autobiography “Holding on to the Air.” And that gentle air of vulnerability, of poignancy and of complete surrender to the music and the movement was particularly evident in the performance of Maria Kowroski on Friday, May 3. Her dancing, always grand and meticulously controlled, now acquired a special warmth and tenderness; her phrasing, as expansive and eloquent as ever, possessed an air of freedom and spontaneity, thus adding tremendously to the dramatic power of her performance. The noble and courteous Tylor Angle, danced with an understated ardor and provided her with gallant and secure support.
For Kowroski, who danced the leading ballerina role in “Diamonds” countless times during her long career with the company, to work with Farrell on rediscovering anew and refining the details and nuances of the choreography was undoubtedly a priceless experience and a dream come true.
“Diamonds” was the final piece on the excellent triple bill aptly titled “Balanchine, Barber and Broadway” that also included Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and Peter Martins’s “Barber Violin Concerto.”
As I watched “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” I couldn’t help thinking about the performances of this ballet staged by Farrell for her company’s seasons at the Kennedy Center. In her apt staging, the ballet was a crowd pleaser like no other and a perfect example of Balanchine’s comic genius. The Farrell dancers cherished this piece and danced it to the hilt.
“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is a self-contained ballet from the Broadway musical “On Your Toes” (1936). Balanchine reworked the choreography for this dance in 1967 to feature Farrell in the leading role of the Striptease Girl. “I was to dance in high heels for the first time onstage,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Heels immediately alter one’s equilibrium and stride. And this gave me an immediate feel for the ballet’s style—unclassical, sexy humor.”
And that unabashed, sexy humor was on full display in the performance of the uninhibited Sara Mearns in the Farrell’s role on Friday night. As the good-hearted Striptease Girl, who falls in love with the Hoofer and ultimately saves his life, Mearns was an every inch a showgirl she was to portray, demonstrating her perfect comic timing and kicking every step with uncontainable energy and haughty abandon. Alas, Peter Walker as the Hoofer, couldn’t match her charisma and impressive theatrical power. His tap dancing was adept; but as an actor, he hardly scratched the surface of the boundless comic possibilities of his role. Still, with its convoluted, thriller-like plot, featuring plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and with hilarious roles for the entire cast, the ballet more than delivered on its promise of sheer entertainment and fun.
Martins’s “Barber Violin Concerto” was the centerpiece of this well-balanced and infinitely enjoyable program. Created in 1988 and set to Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14” (thus the ballet’s title), this piece is one of the most intriguing, intricate, and downright successful ballets created by this choreographer. It features two couples: the classical ballet pair (Teresa Reichlen and Aaron Sanz) and the modern dance pair (Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle); and the juxtaposition of these stylistically different duets—and the ever-shifting interactions and fascinating tensions between them—form the ballet’s key interest and its driving force.
During the performance, the choreography was served with distinction by the whole cast. At every turn, Teresa Reichlen evoked a regal princess, looking poised, serene and stunningly glamorous. Her neatly-articulated dancing strikingly contrasted the angled and twisted pliancy of the bare-chested and barefoot Jared Angle in the ballet’s supremely crafted central pas de deux.
In her short white flowing dress, Megan Fairchild, in turn, seemed like a force of nature as she skipped and zoomed about the stage, whirling like a pesky bee around the unflappable Aaron Sanz, who seemed totally undeterred by her buzzing demeanor.
Barber’s sublime score received a top-notch treatment from the NYCB orchestra under the baton of Andrew Litton, with the excellent Kurt Nikkanen playing solo violin.