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The Suzanne Farrell Ballet Says Goodbye

Natalie Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in "Meditation," the first ballet Balanchine created on Farrell. Photo by Teresa Wood, Courtesy The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

Last fall, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that its resident company, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, would disband following its final performances December 7–9. A wholly unique endeavor, TSFB—of which I was a member for 10 years—would draw dancers from around the country together to work closely with Farrell, one of Balanchine's most celebrated muses. And while contracts were short on weeks, they were long on intensity and inspiration. According to the Kennedy Center, Farrell will transition into a resident teaching artist role as the Center expands its studio space and educational programs, although details are vague. In addition to Balanchine's Meditation (which is exclusive to TSFB), the final program includes Tzigane, Serenade, Chaconne and the rarely seen Gounod Symphony, which the company reconstructed in 2016. I spoke with my former director about her final season, and her reflections on her company.

What has been the most rewarding part of directing your company?

One reason why I thought a company was necessary was that I had been staging Mr. B's ballets all over the world, and that's nice, but you only see the first performance. You don't know how it's going to grow or what future it has. I believed I could do better work if I had my own dancers—that's the atmosphere I grew up in. You can go back to those ballets and become better and discover new things about them.

Another reward is being able to learn all of the parts instead of just my own. I had rarely seen many of these ballets because I was dancing in them. There are multiple layers beyond your own part and they're all connected. Having performed them and having been in the studio when they were created gave me an incredible insight and knowledge about the entire "world" of that ballet, because I was there when it was being born.



How did you choose your company's final program?

It wasn't easy. I looked for ballets that we hadn't danced for a while with particular historic meaning for the company and myself. I wanted to do Gounod again because it was so much fun and so well received, and it was as if Mr. B had returned and created a ballet just for us. Not many audiences have seen it, so it's certainly worth repeating. We also haven't performed Chaconne in a long time—that was a piece he did for me, so I thought it would be appropriate. And then, of course, Serenade; it's Mr. B newly arrived in America, such an iconic and seminal ballet. The Dark Angel role was the first solo Mr. B had me dance when I was in the corps. I still get nervous when I hear the music.

You are also doing Balanchine's Tzigane and Meditation, which you own the rights to.

Correct. We are the only company that can perform them. Meditation was the first ballet Mr. B created on me; in retrospect he choreographed our lives, so it has profound meaning. It's also a very beautiful pas de deux, timeless in its sentiment. And Tzigane is so different in atmosphere, music and sense of play.


Suzanne Farrell. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy TSFB.

What did you discover about Balanchine that you weren't as aware of as a dancer?

How united the corps is—the choreography isn't exactly the same as the principals' or the other featured dancers', but it's united and related in various ways. When you teach it, you see the similarities in musical phrasing and that it has a flavor of what the principals would develop further in the pas de deux. And then Mr. B's sense of humor, his sense of musicality—when you tell each person their responsibility and importance to the ballet, it is so revelatory.

Your class combinations are full of brain teasers, which helped me learn so much about musicality. What do you try to impart on the dancers?

I hope that it makes everyone more acutely aware of the music. I was always amazed that you dancers did what I asked for. This is not always the atmosphere at other companies—that's why I cherish my dancers so much. But also, most artistic directors don't teach company class. They're busy with administrative issues, so I was fortunate in that sense. When you spend more time with each other in the studio, you're not as guarded in how you're going to dance, which then translates onto the stage.

Allynne Noelle (center) with members of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in "Gounod Symphony." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy TSFB.

I also felt that we were all on board with an intensely focused, singular vision.

Thank you. It seemed very clear and uncomplicated. You could give everything as a dancer, and that's very unique. Mr. B was like that. After we moved to the State Theater, he began teaching company class all the time. Not everybody came, because the classes were difficult; they were classes to improve in, and for him to learn about us and for us to know what he wanted. You can't achieve this if you don't share that important time.

There aren't many details about your next role. Are you looking forward to teaching more? Will you continue staging on other companies?

You know me. I've always lived in the now. I'm consumed with preparing for the season. It's so much easier being a dancer. [Laughs.] You're only responsible for your own part. On the other hand, teaching and directing has extended my dance life in a way that I never could have as a performer. And I still enjoy my work and respect it—it is my destiny.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Early in Carrie Imler's 22-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was excited to be cast in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. But immediately following dress rehearsal, she was removed from her role in "Melancholic." "My artistic director at the time pulled me aside and said, 'We can't put you out there,' " she remembers. "My weight fluctuated my entire career. Just when I felt like I had figured it out, I would gain it back and have to start all over again." Despite becoming one of PNB's most celebrated principal dancers, Imler never shook the fear of what might happen when a leotard ballet was in the repertoire.

Ballet prides itself on high standards, and the classical ballet physique is not the least of those expectations. Fear of the "fat talk" still lurks in studios, but, as Imler points out, weight is a challenge that many dancers face, while others may struggle with the arches of their feet or turnout. If you are confronted about your weight, know that many talented dancers have been there. Having "the talk" doesn't mean you can't become a professional, but if you take a mindful approach to the conversation, it will show your maturity and ultimately your ability to navigate a career.

Has Something Changed?

If your teacher or director has approached you about your weight, you're likely left feeling emotional, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Once you have a chance to think clearly, ask yourself what factors, like puberty, may be contributing to changes in your body. Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet, says, "There is this huge focus on weight and body at a time when even non-dancers are struggling with body issues and everything else that is happening as an adolescent."

External factors often play a role as well. PNB's consulting nutritionist, Peggy Swistak, says that she often sees dancers struggle with weight early in the season as they adjust to living on their own and sharing a kitchen with a roommate. "One may have really bad eating habits and doesn't have to watch her weight at all, and the other is gaining weight. There is a conflict in managing their food together," she says. Ballet Memphis ballet master Brian McSween adds that financial stress can create barriers for eating nutritiously. "The one-dollar piece of pizza costs a lot less than eating organic," he says. "You have to make the best choices possible with what you have." Other changes, like a new schedule, layoffs or even emotional setbacks, will present the need to reevaluate your food habits and exercise routines throughout your career.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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