Susan Farrell Ballet/National Ballet of Canada

June 22, 2005

Suzanne Farrell Ballet/National Ballet of Canada
Opera House, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

June 22–26, 2005

Reviewed by Clive Barnes


Going forward can be difficult, but going back can be even harder, particularly in theater dance. Here every performance is unique, each renewal provides a kind of small death, so there is little permanence, only happy accidents of conservation and memory. Some dance works are more easily retrievable than others—but I can think of few major creations harder to pull up from under the sands of time as George Balanchine’s 1965 full-evening Don Quixote (his entrance card to the cultural Big League represented by the then-new Lincoln Center). The problems confronting Suzanne Farrell—Balanchine’s original Dulcinea—in renewing it for her comparatively small and comparatively young company were, to say the least, formidable.

The original was a lavish production, by far the most extravagantly staged work New York City Ballet had ever undertaken—and then comes the problem of which version to stage. From its first performances in 1965 to its last in 1980, the ballet seemed to be in a continuing state of semi-flux, with Balanchine and the composer, the Russian-born Nicolas Nabokov, changing, switching, adding, and subtracting in efforts to finalize what must have seemed like an impossible dream. What remained constant was the emphasis on the woeful Knight himself and his concept of the ideal woman, Dulcinea; it was light-years away from the 19th-century Petipa/Minkus ballet classic and closer to the Cervantes novel (and perhaps closer still to the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha).

To help her in her quest, Farrell had the synopsis of Balanchine’s original scenario, which was published in the June 1965 issue of Dance and Dancers. A more literary treatment can be found in Francis Mason’s Balanchine’s Stories of the Great Ballets, and, of course, there are the various versions of Nabokov’s score (which, significantly perhaps, has never been recorded).

The ballet has also never been notated. Although New York City Ballet owned a black-and-white rehearsal movie and innumerable photographs, perhaps most valuable were the memories of earlier casts (notably those of Farrell herself, who was not only the ballet’s inspiration but was also integrally involved in its creation). It seems that Farrell settled on returning, as much as possible, to the 1965 original version—thus certain characters, such as the Juggler in Act I, have been unexpectedly restored. More significantly, the order of the music and action, switched around over the years, has been put back in place.

At its original performances, and indeed during its entire first life, Balanchine’s odd dance-drama was greeted with more respect than love. Audiences and critics alike noted the high seriousness of the aspiration, yet Nabokov’s score never emerged as a reasonable theatrical entity. Despite a few almost surprising melodic moments, the music is boring, dryly academic and unmemorable, and it deals a grievous blow to the ballet’s viability.

The other disadvantages (seen from the opening but rarely stressed) are its lack of theatrical coherence—it sorely needs the dramatic thread Balanchine found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and the fact that the principal role, Cervantes’ eponymous hero, is unavoidably a mime part. Originally the well-publicized (though one-sidedly chaste) love relationship between Balanchine and Farrell gave the ballet a certain dramatic piquancy, particularly on the half-dozen or so times Balanchine himself played the role. (He gave what was touted as a one-time-only performance—and clearly wasn’t—at the ballet’s charity preview, but the premiere was handed over to Richard Rapp.)

The choreography is as variable as a summer storm, with its peaks coming in a last-act plotless divertissement that resembles the second act of his Midsummer Night’s Dream, and some character numbers, particularly a pas de deux Mauresque, from a second act that often recalls the mood of Balanchine’s poetic La Sonnambula. But the ballet’s real strengths are its staged images, drawing freely on Christian ritual, especially the sweet simplicity of the processional preceding the Don’s death.

This estimable revival is of obvious scholarly interest—hopefully it will be filmed and notated—but despite workable and handsome new scenery by Zack Brown and costumes by Holly Hynes, it seems doubtful that it could ever become a standard repertory piece. Even if the choreography were more than charmingly mediocre—and it isn’t—the Nabokov would hang round the ballet like an albatross pretending to be a boa constrictor.

This revival premiere, at which Farrell was deservedly presented with the 2005 Capezio Award, was somewhat under-danced by Farrell’s company, insufficiently fortified by principals and soloists from the clearly flagging National Ballet of Canada. Sonia Rodriguez, although not blessed physically or stylistically with Farrell’s unique gifts, made a good shot at Dulcinea (later the role was shared by Heather Ogden) and, although he looked far too young, Momchil Mladenov proved modestly adequate as the Don, a role that has defeated even performers as brilliantly gifted as Francisco Moncion and Adam Luders (not to mention Balanchine). In fairness, though, whenever Balanchine appeared, it became a celebratory occasion for reverent fireworks.