When George Balanchine died in 1983, he bequeathed three of his ballets to Suzanne Farrell, his cherished muse. A tribute to her talents, the gift was also prescient. The young woman he knew simply as a dazzling dancer would become in 1999 the artistic director of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and have the opportunity to set these treasures on her own troupe, which is produced by the Kennedy Center. Since then Farrell has staged Meditation and Tzigane, leaving only the full-length Don Quixote, based on the Cervantes novel, to be revived. From June 22 to 26 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, she presents the haunting ballet, which was last performed by New York City Ballet in 1979 with Farrell dancing the role of Dulcinea.
"I've wanted to do this work for a long while," Farrell says, "but I needed more experience with my company. The 400th anniversary of the publication of the Cervantes novel seemed a perfect time. I think the world may be more reflective now than when Mr. B choreographed the ballet in 1965, and its theme may be even more affecting. It's especially meaningful to me because at the time we were just becoming close collaborators."
Choreographing to a commissioned score by Nicolas Nabokov, Balanchine portrayed Don Quixote as both a sainted fool and martyr, a tragic hero with a remarkable vision that is misunderstood and maligned by society. As he campaigns to liberate people from servitude and ignorance, he finds inspiration and comfort in a young woman who visits him in a variety of guises, notably as Dulcinea, who first appears as a maiden threatened by warriors.
The fearless Spaniard could be described as an artist pursuing his ideal, spurred on by an unattainable muse‹a frequent theme in Balanchine's work‹or the ballet could be seen as the quest of ordinary individuals for justice in an unjust world. In the first performances, Balanchine played the Don to Farrell's Dulcinea, and created the ballet's most glorious dances for her. Later, he also took on the role on special occasions to please Farrell, for instance, when she had a childhood friend in the audience and on her mother's birthday.
"Mr. B didn't tell me too much about the ballet as we began working on it," Farrell says, "which was typical of him. It was my first excursion into a story ballet and I was excited and frightened. I started reading the novel and was surprised to find that my character didn't come in for a long time. But then, I saw that Mr. B would be faithful to the spirit of the story, not so much follow it incident by incident. He had danced the Petipa version as a boy in St. Petersburg, and had fond memories of it."
As was often his custom, Balanchine tinkered with Don Quixote long after its premiere, adding and subtracting elements. He also regularly changed steps to accommodate individual dancers. Knowing his habits, Farrell felt comfortable making a few changes for continuity and timing in the first act and condensing the musical score.
"I think in a sense," Farrell continues, "that Mr. B gave it to me to see what I could do with it, as a challenge. In one version, he added a lovely Spanish divertissement but it gets in the way of the plot. Just when the story is being established, here comes this distracting dance. Then you have to establish what's going on all over again. So I took that section out. Mr. B would expect me to try alternatives‹he was preparing me to find my own way into his ballets."
Farrell tries to prepare her dancers in the same way. "Mr. B would give you the movement and then you had to figure out the character yourself," she says. "You didn't use unnecessary gestures or facial expressions to get across the meaning. I remember how strange it was for me to do Don Q at first. I didn't know what I looked like. I'd never moved that way before. There's been so much excitement surrounding this ballet for my dancers because, like me back then, they don't have any visual references. Conveying an emotional story requires very different skills than performing abstract ballets. You have to work on a lot of different levels, all at the same time."
In the third act, Farrell realized that the arm movements in one sequence resembled the movements of windmills, with the arms crisscrossing in patterns. "Nothing Mr. B did was by accident," she explains. "It illustrates how he got ideas across without being literal or using old-fashioned mime. It's also a very musical way to understand the Don's confusion. When the dancers saw what these movements looked like, they could understand how they underlined and intensified the meaning of the scene."
Because Don Quixote requires a cast of 57, Farrell had to add dancers to her 38-member company, plus nine children. Fortunately, she could arrange to have dancers from the prestigious National Ballet of Canada join her for the Kennedy Center performances. To find the children, she held auditions locally for 8- and 9-year-olds. "When I saw them walking down the hall in the Kennedy Center, they looked so tiny," she exclaims. "I gave them a few exercises at the barre to see how focused they were. They giggled a lot. They were very cute. They are only on stage for a few minutes, so they don't have to have a tremendous amount of concentration. The best part was seeing how interested they became when I told them all about Don Quixote."
Farrell talks excitedly about the new production. "We'll use the same original scenery by Esteban Francés and new costumes by Holly Hynes, with the first act set in Don Quixote's library, the second set in a castle ballroom, and the third, outside the castle walls. Just look how long the story has lasted. I think in every era, he means different things to people. Fundamentally, the story is about someone with such strong belief and conviction that nothing will change his mind. I'm sure there's a little of him in all of us."
Valerie Gladstone writes frequently about the arts.