A Long-Awaited Return: Inside Suzanne Farrell's "Diamonds" Rehearsal at NYCB
In a large practice studio inside Lincoln Center's Koch Theater, Suzanne Farrell watches quietly as New York City Ballet principals Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen work through a series of supported poses. As Janzen kneels to face her, Mearns brushes through to croisé arabesque, extending her leg high behind her. "I wouldn't penché there," says Farrell, gently. "You can, but I wouldn't."
"I get so excited here," says Mearns with a laugh. The three are slowly working through the pas de deux of "Diamonds," the ballet George Balanchine created on Farrell and Jacques D'Amboise in 1967 that makes up the third act of his full-length Jewels.
"I know," Farrell says. "But it's more exciting if the arabesque turn afterwards is sustained."
Indeed, the pirouette's sailing, majestic quality is what makes this particular moment of the pas de deux so dramatic. It's one of many illuminating details brought out over three rehearsal days in April, when Farrell coached two principal casts—Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, who perform tonight, being the other—for the company's performances of "Diamonds" this week and next.
But there's another reason why Farrell's presence here is so significant: While she is arguably one of the most important ballerinas in NYCB's history, one who collaborated closely with Balanchine and originated roles in 24 of his ballets, this day marked her first time back to the company in 26 years. After her retirement from the stage in 1989, then ballet master in chief Peter Martins kept her on staff as a teacher and coach, but rarely gave her opportunities to work with the dancers. In 1993, he dismissed her from the company entirely.
Farrell was deeply hurt, but she moved forward. She continued to work as a répétiteur for The George Balanchine Trust, became a professor of dance at Florida State University, and for 17 years directed The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (where I was a longtime dancer) out of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. But for over two decades, she hasn't been able to pass her knowledge on to those inheriting her roles at NYCB.
Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle in rehearsal for Balanchine's "Diamonds." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy NYCB.
Her return came about through a series of separate inquiries. One was from newly appointed artistic director Jonathan Stafford, who has brought in past NYCB luminaries, such as Edward Villella and Patricia McBride, to coach dancers in the roles they originated since Martins' resignation in 2018. The other was a personal letter from Kowroski; now the company's most senior ballerina, she wrote to Farrell expressing how much she'd love to work with her before she retires.
Mearns, who says working with Farrell has been a lifelong dream, says she and Kowroski weren't sure what to expect when they found out she had agreed to come. "We knew it would probably be an emotional experience for her," she says.
In a phone interview, Farrell admitted to feeling a "wide spectrum of emotions" walking into the theater. "But whenever I get into a studio everything falls away," she says. "It becomes about the work and Mr. B. And what was wonderful was working on 'Diamonds' again in the very room where it came into being: Mr. B, Jacques, the pianist—it all started in that room."
Farrell's first rehearsal was with Mearns and Janzen, and she suggested an initial run-through to acquaint herself with them. "Before we started she came over and said, 'I have to be honest, I haven't seen either of you dance,'" says Mearns, who has performed the role for 11 years. "It took a lot of the pressure off that she had no pre-conceived notions of what we were going to look like; we could just be ourselves."
"I didn't want them to feel they had to perform for me and be perfect," Farrell says. "I wanted them to feel vulnerable to the moment and to suggestions."
For the next two hours, the three worked through the ballet moment by moment. Farrell frequently stopped the couple to rework their spacing, creating sharper angles. "Mr. B designed all my ballets on a diagonal," she says, adding that it's a motif that repeats itself in each section of Jewels. "It's the longest dimension you can have. You're onstage longer."
Mearns and Russell Janzen rehearse the pas de deux of Balanchine's "Diamonds." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy NYCB.
Mearns was surprised by how much certain aspects of the ballet had changed over time. "Those diagonals have flattened out, or they've become circles. But the original spacing makes more sense and actually makes things easier—we're able to move more expansively."
Along the way Farrell clarified counts and steps—simplifying assemblés that had become embellished, restoring attitudes that had straightened into arabesques, or pointing out musical syncopations that needed more emphasis. A punchy relevé développé in the scherzo, she told Mearns, "should feel more like a yawn," while during a series of promenades in the polonaise, she advised the couple to pause briefly in between each new position. "That had gotten blurred over the years, probably because someone wanted to keep getting around, and then that's what we were taught," says Mearns. "But she's right—there's so much going on during the finale and we're right there in front. You have to bring focus to something."
Farrell works with Kowroski and Angle on a partnering sequence from "Diamonds." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy NYCB.
Farrell often presented her suggestions to the couple as options rather than dictations. "I don't want to take anybody's interpretation away from them," she explained later. "But I do want them to understand how Mr. B intended it to look and what he was going after at the time. And I want to give dancers a thesaurus of ways they can be, instead of just one adjective, so that they can take the one that's appropriate for the time."
While there aren't any immediate plans for Farrell to come back, Mearns describes their time with her as sacred: "You could see that the ballet had not left her, and that she was so in tune with Balanchine." She predicts the role will feel newly layered when she and Janzen perform it on May 7. "I think it will be heightened, I think it will be deepened, and I think it will be a very new experience onstage."
Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
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Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
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Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
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I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
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The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.