Suzanne Farrell: Balanchine's Muse—And More
Farrell rehearsing Cook and Magnicaballi at Center for Ballet & the Arts, NYU, photo courtesy Kennedy Center
On Sunday afternoon Suzanne Farrell, the great Balanchine muse, graced the stage of the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, courtesy of the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU. She showed a rehearsal of the master’s Gounod Symphony (1958) and gave a talk moderated by Jennifer Homans, founder/director of the Center.
Farrell’s devotion, spontaneity and playfulness shimmered with vitality. To everyone’s delight, her observations about teaching and setting ballets spilled into memories of her own dancing life. She gave the impression of being completely free in her relation to dance, and of totally trusting her instincts when it comes to Balanchine. Maybe she was more than a muse. I remember in one documentary, she described the way she worked with Balanchine in the studio as experimental. Maybe she was a collaborator as well as a muse.
Just as Balanchine would invoke Tchaikovsky’s ghost when he wanted to change the order of the music, she invokes Mr. B’s when she feels she needs to change the steps. When asked how she knows if it’s okay to change something, she said, “If he didn’t want me to change it, he would make it so I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror the next morning.”
Sunday at Skirball, the two excellent lead dancers from her DC–based company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, were Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook.
Courtesy Kennedy Center
Here are some of her bon mots, some of them addressed to her dancers, others addressed to the audience.
To the dancers:
- You are not dancing for him but because of him.
- I’m not sure I would smile [in this part] but you have to look alive and pleasant. So let us see that.
- When you get onstage, all that [rehearsing] disappears. I never knew exactly what I was going to do next.
- With different conductors, it’s a new life every time you get out there.
- We can never harness time. We have to live in the music we have. You have your pulse. Moving very fast and very slow opened up a wide range of music.
- We’re all vulnerable in dance. That’s what makes it alive.
- Are you comfortable there? Tracey, you don’t look comfortable.
Farrell rehearsing Magnicaballi and Cook in Balanchine's Monumentum, photo by Rosalie O'Connor for Pointe magazine
To the audience:
- The graveyard of ballets is well populated.
- Often steps get changed and it’s often the ones that are unique to that ballet.
- We have fun in the studio. Mistakes are fine. You just don’t want to make the same mistake.
- We are our own technology. All we have is who we are. We have to amplify. I say to my dancers, “Turn up the volume,” or “Let me see the technicolor in your eyes.”
- Everything we do defies gravity; we can’t perspire and we can’t make it look hard. It’s great to be a dancer!
- Dance is as big as the music allows.
- In many of Balanchine’s pas de deux, the man holds the woman’s wrist. It makes a better line and he can feel her pulse.
- In pas de deux, they have to know what each other is doing without looking at each other. Others come in and interrupt the dream.
- Mr. B’s ballets are memorable, not memories. You don’t’ want it to be a museum, but forever memorable.
- I don’t use the word change. I adapt. Mr. B would change the steps because they started to erode.
- You have to expand the number of dancers [to match the music]. All the senses should be satisfied.
- I would be remiss as a teacher if I held back.
- I still have dreams where I hear the music for my entrance and I can’t find the stage. I find a door and open it but it would be a black wall.
- I want to make you come into our world. You should be sitting on the edge of your seat like this, not back like this. You should want to participate. We give you everything.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series