My friend Jeannie has never been to the ballet. For whatever reason, this intelligent young woman in her twenties questions the relevance of ballet. Because I love and respect ballet, I perceive her stance as a challenge. To me, good ballet is nothing but relevant.
Therefore I am truly excited to be bringing Jeannie with me to see The Suzanne Farrell Ballet for their Tenth Anniversary season at the Kennedy Center. Since her first ballet experience must set the standard, I know that Ms. Farrell will not let us down.
Known as George Balanchine's muse, Suzanne Farrell is dedicated to and possesses first-hand knowledge of Mr. B's choreography, which is what prompted the Kennedy Center in 1993 to invite her to teach a selected group of local dancers in a Master Class series. This small workshop has grown into what is now the Kennedy Center's own company, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.
In an interview with me this July, Ms. Farrell said, "I came in with no expectations, other than to teach a nice workshop for local dancers. It has been an organic relationship. My work at the Kennedy Center has continued to grow and evolve. From the beginning, one of my goals was carrying forth the legacy of George Balanchine through performances of his classic ballets."
She went on to say, "My work on the Balanchine Preservation Initiative is very special. I enjoy the process of working in the studio, consulting on costumes and sets, and it is always wonderful to see the finished product. Because of my closeness to George Balanchine, I had always considered seeking out some of his rare works to help build a unique repertoire for my company. Even real gems are lost along the way."
Ms. Farrell's selections of Balanchine ballets offer us a glimpse into his choreographic evolution in America, from the 1930s through the 1970s. In essence, he always honored his dance education and training at the Mariinsky School in St. Petersburg, which began under the last years of Tsar Nicholas's reign. But after the revolution, as he grew and suffered under the Soviet system, he began to challenge the status quo by stripping down the gaudiness and allowing the movement to be the main form of expression: a simpler, cleaner, more modern way to respectfully push the boundaries.
Reaching deep into her memories and personal archives, and working closely with the Balanchine Trust, she recalled, "I began to uncover other 'lost' ballets recorded on film, which was quite uncommon back then. The quality of this footage really ranges: from a polished BBC video of Divertimento Brillante, to a dark, shaky version of Ragtime, shot by my sister with an 8-mm camera. Filmed from the audience, Arthur Mitchell and I are practically dots; dancers jump in and out of the frame, and there's no music! Despite what I've had to start with, the process of reviving these works has been fascinating. As I aspire to remain as true as possible to Balanchine's original vision, I know that some of these puzzles have missing pieces. But that's no reason to let these ballets completely disappear."
Regardless of when these ballets were first made, Ms. Farrell says, they remain timeless and always new. "Every time I stage one of Balanchine's ballets, I see something different. I'm constantly discovering another facet of his genius. I call Mr. B's ballets 'worlds' because each one is so different. Each piece creates an entirely different atmosphere, with the costumes, music, and choreography. Each step is unique to that 'world.' Whenever people ask what my favorite ballet is, I say 'the one I am currently working on.' I live in the moment, and am thrilled to revisit the 'worlds' of Concerto Barocco, Diamonds, Sonatine, Baiser de la F_e, Pithoprakta, and Serenade. For our 10th Anniversary Season, I wanted to give the audience a range of ballets, composers, styles, and chronology. These programs have something to offer everyone, from regular ballet fans to new audiences. If you come back every night, each night you will take away something different."
I am eager to witness Jeannie's reaction to Serenade; built on the simplest of ballet steps: first position, tendu, pli_, and the simple truth that, as Balanchine once said, even though there is no "story" to follow, the mere presence of a man and a woman onstage is enough; dancing in the moonlight, alone, together, confused, and supported. Relevant? How could it not be?
Visit suzannefarrellballet.org for a complete touring schedule and information on the Balanchine Preservation Initiative. Follow The Suzanne Farrell Ballet on Facebook (facebook.com/thesuzanne farrellballet) and Twitter (@farrellballet).
Kim Kokich has been involved in ballet all her life, as a dancer, teacher, reviewer, and reporter for NPR.