Preserving the Dance

Classic Arts Features   Preserving the Dance
Suzanne Farrell, Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Ballet, writes about how she's rediscovering some of the "lost" works of George Balanchine which her troupe is presenting in June.

Since its formation, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet has been committed to carrying forth the legacy of George Balanchine through performances of his classic ballets. With my new project called the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, I hope to further our mission by sharing some of his rarely seen or "lost" works with audiences who have never experienced them before. I also plan to document their re-creation so that they don't fall out of performance again. Incredibly, most of these works haven't been staged in nearly 40 years!

Ballets are generally passed down from one dancer to another — and with so many roles to learn, steps can certainly slip from a dancer's memory over time. Perhaps the choreography or music is extremely unique or unusual. Perhaps the absence of certain elements, players, or resources makes it impractical to produce a ballet again. Or perhaps some parts of a ballet continue to be performed while others do not. Whatever the case, sometimes even real gems get forgotten along the way.

The Balanchine Preservation Initiative aims to breathe new life into some of these glittering gems. As part of our Opera House program in June, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will perform the Adagio from Concierto de Mozart, featuring the composer's Violin Concerto No. 5, and Divertimento Brillante, featuring music by Mikhail Glinka. Next season, in November, we'll continue with Pithoprakta, meaning "action by probabilities" and danced to music by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, plus various "lost" divertissements from Balanchine's Don Quixote.

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. In 2001 I began this process by reworking Variations for Orchestra, a solo that he originally made on me in 1967. The pas de deux from Clarinade soon followed — it was another ballet I had originated in the 1960s, and one that Balanchine had always wanted us to do again but never got the chance. In 2005 The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performed Don Quixote, which Balanchine bequeathed to me, but which hadn't been performed in more than 25 years.

Reaching deep into my memories and personal archives, and working closely with the Balanchine Trust, I began to uncover other "lost" ballets recorded on film, which was quite uncommon back then. The quality of this footage runs the gamut — from a polished BBC video of Divertimento Brillante, to a dark, shaky version of Ragtime (II), 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!

Regardless of what I've had to start with, the process of reviving these works has been a fascinating one. 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. The fragments that remain are still very much enlightening — they are windows into the evolution of Balanchine's craft. The 1960s was filled with Stravinsky, jazz, and eclectic elements. It was also the era of going to the moon and thinking about space. Many of these lost works reflect how Balanchine was exploring new ways of using, filling, and transforming space during that time.

Of course, with this project come many personal choices for how to "fill in the gaps" between surviving sequences of choreography. Balanchine did it with Petipa, and I frequently did it with Balanchine at my side. For example, during rehearsals for Tzigane, he'd say, "Suzi, you know what I want, so fill it in somehow!" It's all part of how ballet gets passed down. But I have to admit, it will be interesting to see if balletomanes can de-code what is Balanchine's and what is mine!

Enthusiasm for the Balanchine Preservation Initiative has spilled over into my dancers — they're thrilled to be a part of the process. In rehearsals, they continue to comment on how wonderful these works are, wondering how any of them got lost in the first place.

As for Concierto de Mozart, its world premiere was performed in 1942 by Argentina's Ballet of the Teatro Col‹n. Tulsa Ballet gave its North American premiere in 1987, but to my knowledge, no other company has performed it since. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is performing the pas de deux featuring only the solo couple, as opposed to the extended version surrounded by an ensemble. Though I never performed in the ballet myself, I was attracted to it because Balanchine did not choreograph many works to Mozart's music. So the pas de deux is unlike any other he created. The score is so exquisite and soothing, and the dance has the serene, peaceful quality of Elysium — the paradise-after-death in Greek mythology. There's a lot of contact and connection between the man and the woman, but there's really no earthly word to describe the emotional world that develops between them.

Divertimento Brillante is also a pas de deux, and the final section from Balanchine's 1967 four-part Glinkiana. The first part, a polka, and the third part, a Spanish jota, have not survived as far as I know, but the second part, the Valse-Fantaisie, has been performed many times. Balanchine always liked Glinka's music, and he constantly sought to expose the Western world to more Russian composers like him. Patricia McBride and Edward Villella were the original cast for Divertimento Brillante; its themes are based on Bellini's opera La Sonnambula, which was also Balanchine's inspiration for another ballet.

As the Balanchine Preservation Initiative continues to grow, everyone involved has come to realize the incredible fragility of these works. But in the same spirit, the journey is also very empowering. It's almost like having Balanchine taking the reins again, working directly with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet to create something completely new.

Suzanne Farrell is the Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Ballet and the Artistic Director of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

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