This past weekend, Dec. 7 to 9, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet gave its farewell performances in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The all-Balanchine program included “Chaconne,” “Tzigane,” “Meditation” (“Serenade” at some performances) and “Gounod Symphony,” works associated with Farrell, one of choreographer George Balanchine’s muses, who led the Kennedy Center-based company for 16 years.
Farrell, 72, was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2005. She will continue to teach her summer intensive program for dancers aged 14 to 18 at the center (next from July 23 to Aug. 11, 2018) and is expected to oversee classes in the dance studios currently under construction as part of the Kennedy Center’s expansion.
Her extraordinary career has been marked by abrupt transitions. Unlike some of the late, great choreographer’s muses, Farrell, more than 40 years younger, declined to become Mrs. Balanchine, instead marrying fellow New York City Ballet principal dancer Paul Mejia. Both left the company in 1969.
Farrell returned in 1975, retiring from the stage in 1989 after difficulties following a hip replacement. She continued as a coach until 1993, when she was fired by Peter Martins, who became ballet master after Balanchine died in 1983. (Last Saturday, it was announced that Martins would take a leave of absence while charges against him of sexual harassment are investigated.)
Though there are various systems of notation, and many works were recorded on film or video, to a large extent dances are preserved after the death of their choreographers through the recollections of individual dancers. Farrell works with the Balanchine Trust, which oversees the licensing of Balanchine’s works for performance worldwide.
Of the four pieces performed at the Saturday matinee, three — “Chaconne,” “Tzigane” and “Meditation” — were created for Farrell, who owns the exclusive rights to “Tzigane” and “Meditation.”
A graduate of Russia’s Imperial Ballet School and the then-Petrograd Conservatory in the early 1920s, Balanchine fled to Paris in 1924 and began choreographing for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Brought to the United States in 1933 by impresario Lincoln Kirstein, he launched the School of American Ballet in 1934, choreographed on Broadway and in Hollywood, led several short-lived companies and founded, again with Kirstein, New York City Ballet in 1948.
The program naturally featured the company’s principals, Buenos Aires-born Natalia Magnicaballi, Toronto-born Heather Ogden and Arizonan Michael Cook, as well as first soloists Thomas Garrett, Allynne Noelle and Kirk Henning.
“Chaconne,” set to the music of 18th-century German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who wrote operas in Paris, featured pas de deux by Odgen and Garrett — looking like princess and prince — alternating with ensemble dances, all in a courtly style. Balanchine created the set of variations by assembling sections of Gluck’s music from “Orfeo ed Euridice.”
“Tzigane” begins as a solo, danced by Noelle in gypsy costume to a violin solo strikingly played by Opera House Orchestra Concertmaster Oleg Rylatko, who was also featured in “Meditation.” (The conductor was Nathan Fifield.) Later, Cook and, at the conclusion, eight other dancers joined her. The work was premiered in 1975 as part of New York City Ballet’s Ravel Festival, celebrating Farrell’s return to the company in an unexpected way. As she writes in the program notes: “Mr. B was capitalizing on what I had learned over the five years I had been away from his company. This was the first of several instances where I drew from this indispensable collection of theatrical movements, hints, and looks — what I called my ‘Béjart bag of tricks.’” (Farrell had been dancing in Switzerland with Maurice Béjart’s company.)
“Meditation,” writes Farrell, “was the first ballet that Balanchine made on me, and in 1965, it was the first ballet to which he gave me ownership.” This powerful work, in which a vision of a woman, danced by Magnicaballi, comforts and eventually leaves a distraught man — presumably a lover who has lost his love — played by Henning, makes use of intricate steps and arm linkages, a Balanchine signature, seeming to bridge classical ballet and modern dance. The music is by Tchaikovsky. Farrell’s partner in the 1960s was Jacques d’Amboise.
The program closed with “Gounod Symphony,” set to 19th-century French composer Charles Gounod’s “Symphony No. 1 in D Major.” Magnicaballi and Cook danced in and around the full company, 30 other dancers, demonstrating Balanchine’s ability to make beautiful and varied patterns, always inspired by the music, on a large scale.
More than any other choreographer, Balanchine modernized ballet and — despite his Georgian and Russian roots — created a style recognizably American. The enjoyable and well-received “Forever Balanchine” program gave as good a sense of the master’s style as any four pieces could.