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The Farrell Dilemma

Suzanne Farrell Ballet / Joyce Theater, NYC / October 19-23, 2011

Suzanne Farrell
Photo: Paul Kolnik

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, named for the transcendent dancer who was George Balanchine’s last muse, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Ironically, after a decade of generously favorable response to the group’s work, some observers are questioning the wisdom of the enterprise’s very existence.

Sarah Kaufman, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic, sums up the situation clearly in her review of the troupe’s showing at Kennedy Center in DC (the Farrell Ballet’s official home), which directly preceded the present New York run. The Center’s support for what became the Farrell Ballet had been urged by James Wolfensohn when he was chairman of the Center’s board. Like so many of us, he had been inspired by the ballerina’s incomparable dancing.

Thanks to Farrell’s unique experience with Balanchine and her own vision and skill, the company she evolved over the past decade has consistently offered passages of sensitive, selfless, profoundly musical dancing. Nevertheless, it remains essentially a small pick-up group that can work only sporadically with Farrell. Inevitably, few if any of its dancers have been of the highest professional caliber. Under these circumstances, which are dictated by well-intentioned yet insufficient funding–and the absence of a Lincoln Kirstein clone to guide its growth–the organization can’t hope to develop even as far as an aspiring regional ballet. “The questions now are,” Kaufman concludes, “Could Farrell’s talents be better used? And could [Kennedy Center’s] money be better spent?”

Once it was clear that the New York City Ballet, under Peter Martins, didn’t care to have Farrell around in her ideal role–coaching the dancers in the Balanchine repertory–I once hoped another sort of plan might work. What if three companies ripe for and worthy of what she can offer–Miami City Ballet, just for example–each agreed to hire her for a residency of three months per year, during which time she would coach and teach company class, imparting her deep understanding of Balanchine’s principles? This was a pipe dream, my colleagues insisted; logistics alone would make it impossible and the present state of the economy would make it unlikely.

So dance fans are left with what Farrell can do with the resources she has. What I saw on the opening night of her company’s New York run was disheartening. The ballets performed were Haieff Divertimento (1944), which Farrell had reconstructed; the pas de deux from Diamonds (1967), in which she originated the ballerina role and hasn’t been equaled yet; Meditation (1963), the first ballet Balanchine created for her; and the justly renowned Agon (1957).

As a curtain raiser–a meet-and-greet affair, introducing the dancers to the audience–the light-weight Haieff Divertimento would have been just fine if only Farrell’s dancers had the ability to toss it off with ease technically and the principals had invested in it dramatically.

The work for the four-couple corps and a central, unpartnered man is dotted with spiffy little bows from one dancer to another and from the dancers to the audience. You see immediately that this is the work of Balanchine because of the swift, crisp footwork, the inventiveness in the use of formal classical steps, and the liveliness and logic of the stage patterning. All of this reminded me of the perkier sections of the more substantial, and equally arch Danses Concertantes (1944; revised 1972).
And then, at the heart of the piece, we get the Romantic Balanchine. The man who lacked a partner meets the one destiny has chosen for him. He yearns to possess this sylph or muse who, as women of her ilk do, keeps floating away from him. The best that can be said for the Farrell crew’s execution of the choreography is that Kirk Henning was promising as the main guy and everyone tried really hard to bring it off. The problem here–and throughout the program–is that effort is just what you don’t want to see in a performance.

The pas de deux from Diamonds, the concluding section of the three-part Jewels, revealed most clearly what Farrell has been able to accomplish with her dancers and why the deck is stacked against her. Balanchine created the ballerina role on her and her dancing persona. Her grandeur, her lushness, her daring, and her potent dance imagination are incorporated into its design.

As in every ballet Farrell has mounted on her company, her coaching has clearly been superb and miraculously without ego. But she is working with people (here Violeta Angelova, partnered by Momchil Mladenov) who are dancing the coaching, phrase by phrase, step by step, as if they had a microchip containing Farrell’s wise, detailed, and objective instructions embedded in their bodies. The dancers operate as if they understand these instructions and respect them but they can’t follow them–or, when they do–can’t make them cohere. The results include missteps, disjointedness, and a woeful absence of confidence and spontaneity.

Agon was all too obviously beyond the technical abilities of Farrell’s dancers, and yet its timing was, in every detail, as deliberately strange and adept in its relationship to Stravinsky’s spare, compelling score as it had been at the ballet’s premiere. I remember being one of the astonished witnesses of that first night, merely a teenager but able to recognize that Agon was what the City Ballet was “about.”

The ballerina role in the climactic pas de deux was created on Diana Adams (partnered by Arthur Mitchell). Farrell later inherited the part and now has assigned it to Elisabeth Holowchuk, who performed leading roles in three of the four ballets on the Joyce program. Holowchuk is an accurate dancer but, lacking both inherent drama and sensuousness, she simply doesn’t register as a theatrical personality.
The most relaxed dancing on the Joyce program came with Meditation, made for Farrell when she was still in her teens. It’s a duet that’s a man’s (Everyman’s? The choreographer’s?) naked confession of love for the dream woman he can never fully possess. It registers as a powerful rush of emotion (the Tchaikovsky score helps a lot), leaving little memory of specific steps and or stage patterning. Performing it, Holowchuk managed to entertain the possibility of expressiveness while Michael Cook was convincing through his authenticity and mercifully unpoetic. Any guy could find himself in this situation, he suggested. And this is certainly true–if only because unanswered love can be as emotionally gratifying as love fulfilled.

Shoring up the sporadic performances of her troupe, Farrell has contrived projects that are supposedly do-gooders for the dance community. Borrowing dancers from other companies to fill out the ranks of her necessarily small troupe is claimed to enlarge the visiting dancers’ opportunities. Does importing more proficient dancers than she has to lead a production fall into the same category? Or is it evidence that the Farrell Ballet is not in a position to produce stars from its own ranks?

Another undertaking, reviving Balanchine works previously thought to be lost, presumably rescues them from oblivion. But Balanchine, an undeniably productive and resourceful choreographer, himself allowed these works to disappear. Often he recycled the best inventions in them when he made a new ballet. In viewing Farrell’s reconstitution of the “lost” works, Balanchine fans with long memories can enjoy the parlor game of seeing where some phrases or effects showed up in subsequent ballets–reworked, refined, and elaborated in their new context.

Farrell’s projects, especially when given formal names like the Artistic Partner program and the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, may engender respect for her company and elicit significant funding. But they are, in the end, essentially social work and scholarly endeavor, not art.

Farrell’s dancing was an immense gift to the world. People who never had the chance to see it “live” fall in love with it via video alone. Once a ballerina who couldn’t be surpassed, Farrell subsequently demonstrated her extraordinary ability as a teacher and coach of Balanchine’s style and repertory. Surely she’s earned the opportunity to function at a level that corresponds to her gifts.

© 2011 Tobi Tobias


  1. Martha Ullman West says

    I’m interested in Farrell’s reconstruction of “Haieff Divertimento.” She was not in fact the first to do this, When Todd Bolender was directing Kansas City Ballet (or State Ballet of Missouri as it was called for some years) he reconstructed it with the help of Tanaquil Le Clercq, almost certainly for the same purpose Tobi describes, as a good curtain raiser for the company. Perhaps Farrell, like Bolender, thought it an appropriate work for a company in the making, which it certainly was in 1944 when I believe it was done for the students of SAB.

  2. George Jackson says

    The Farrell group has had better spells during the past decade than it is having currently. Even at its best, though, it lacks more than just money. Farrell tries to do everything herself that is needed by the dancers and the audience, Even Balanchine relied on help – the other ballet masters, Lincoln Kirstein, et al.). The question is – can Farrell learn to delegate? Foremost, her men need a strong teacher / role model.

  3. A brilliant and lucid response. But it made me question the very premise of the enterprise in another way–concerning the overall coaching (not the details or knowledge; not the impulse and the ownership). Maybe Farrell would get better performances overall if she were LESS instructive in every detail. Maybe the dog has a better crack at walking on its hind legs if he does it his way, and not in your diamante Manolos. This wouldn’t be any more satisfactory in terms of the choreography, but it might be in terms of the affect.

    I agree with you completely, George.

  5. While recognizing the validity of the comments made in response to your post, Tobi, I thought the remarks by “Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic” (your characterization, Tobi, not mine) Sarah Kaufman in the Washington Post — which I had coincidentally read several days ago — were nasty, if not downright slanderous. They smack of petty feminine jealousy. I don’t know Ms. Kaufman from the man in the moon, but I do know Ms. Farrell, and in a head-to-head competition in any artistic or athletic domain between the two I would put my money on Suzanne, even at age 60-something with arthritis.

  6. Caroline No says

    Farrell might find it hard to go back to mere coaching after running her own show. Merrill Ashley has commented on the limitations of being a coach; you are not the one making casting decisions or directing the shape of the repertory, which affects your degree of influence.
    Money is certainly not the only problem — some of these issues were evident early on even if they didn’t get mentioned in the reviews — but it would help. A lot.

  7. One of your very best pieces ever, Tobi.
    Congratulations, and thanks for sharing it.

  8. Allen Dickstein says

    I think about how blessed I was to have seen Suzanne Farrell perform again and again. Your idea about her coaching three companies is brilliant. Since Edward Villella is retiring from Miami City Ballet, I wonder if she might want the position.
    Your essay reveals and distinguishes many layers of lore, and of the experiences over time that were required to gain that knowledge. The kind of judgments you make come from knowledge gained from experiences you sought out and followed up on. The many cycles of research stand clearly revealed, like the rings of Saturn. You saw Ms. Farrell when this way of making was young, and you’ve seen what she can do now, using the same blueprints and much the same insight but not the same kinds of (so to speak) carpenters. And the question is, can we afford to build like that any more? And if not, what HAVE we come to as a civilization?

  9. Virginia Wilhelm says

    Suzanne Farrell was my favorite ballerina back when I was fortunate enough to see her dance. I was at SFB yesterday for the matinee. Back in 2003, I think, I saw the company at Brooklyn College; Peter Boal guest-starred in “Apollo,” and I remember thinking at the time that it was a better “Apollo” than could be seen at NYCB. So I would have to agree with George Jackson, that Ms. Farrell’s company has had “better spells” in the past.
    Just a couple of comments on the performance I saw yesterday: I think that Heather Ogden [from the National Ballet of Canada –Ed.], who danced the “Diamonds” pas de deux, probably handled it better than the women in Ms. Farrell’s company could have. “Agon” was too taxing for the company. Momchil Mladenov, who danced in “Meditation” looked strangely like Balanchine. I was glad for the chance to see “Haieff Divertimento.”
    I wish Ms. Farrell great good fortune, but I have to agree with Tobi’s comments. I wish she could have live music, a more spacious stage and better dancers. Tobi’s final paragraph in her review said it all.

  10. A measured, thoughtful description of what can happen when honorable intentions don’t match the skills at hand. I remember being disappointed when Farrell’s company appeared at Jacob’s Pillow, and hoped these were mere growing pains. I’m sad to learn that they reflect an ongoing set of limitations. Thanks for writing.

  11. Leo Greenbaum says

    Thank you for the judicious review, but consider the tiny stage and the recorded music. I thought that “Meditation” was the one best danced. My friends were wondering why Farrell picked “Diamonds” and “Agon.”

  12. Micalyn S. Harris says

    How sad!

  13. Ellen Handler Spitz says

    Wonderful piece, Tobi!

  14. May I take the opportunity to point out that many aspects of the creative process aren’t really under the control of the creative artist? It’s all very well to say woulda, coulda, shoulda but the elements which might help may simply not be there in spite of, as in this case, Ms. Farrell’s best efforts. If the viewer experienced disappointment, I suspect hers is even greater.

  15. sandi kurtz says

    I haven’t had the opportunity to see the company, so my comments are from a different context. It takes a different skill set to run a dance company, even a small one, than it does to dance, however marvelously. I absolutely agree that Farrell’s unique knowledge of the Balanchine repertory and style is a priceless resource, but it’s sounding like the current situation is not a good fit for her skills.

  16. Sadly, Haieff Divertimento was anything but a ballet for students; all the parts were danced by soloists, including the young Tanaquil Le Clercq, and the ballerina was first the dazzling virtuosa Mary Ellen Moylan and then the peerless Maria Tallchief. As such it is not a pretty little curtain raiser, to say the least. Moylan recalls that the variation had piques and fouettes on a bent knee (!) and was extraordinarily difficult. Etc.

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