George Balanchine's Gounod Symphony isn't often performed. This 25-minute ballet, set to the French composer's lively first symphony, has largely faded from popular repertoire. (It was last performed at New York City Ballet in 1993, and by the School of American Ballet in 2007.) But this fall, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is bringing Gounod back. It will receive its company premiere October 21–23 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The ballet was first performed in January 1958 at New York City Center, its cast of 32 led by Maria Tallchief and Jacques d'Amboise. But the dancer most closely associated with the lead ballerina role was the French-born Violette Verdy. There is something very French about Gounod, a kind of brilliance and formality associated with the Paris Opéra. Its choreography overflows with patterns: crossing and parallel lines, and weaving. Verdy compared it to the gardens of Versailles, and, in fact, the sets designed by Horace Armistead were originally intended and used for NYCB's production of Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, however, is developing a new look. Though she won't reveal any details, Farrell says the concept "will allow us to see the choreography better."
She will be staging it, though the ballet's rarity means she never danced it herself. Her tools are "an old, silent archival video in black-and-white" starring Diana Adams and Jacques d'Amboise, in addition to the Gounod score. (She staged the ballet once before, for the School of American Ballet, in 1991.) Since there are no easily accessible videos of the ballet for her dancers to study, everyone in the room will be learning the choreography for the first time. As she puts it: "It's almost as if the ballet were being created now by Mr. B."