“It was perfect," Nina says of her debut as Odette/Odile. It's the last scene of the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan and these are the last words this character, the ballerina played by Natalie Portman, will ever speak. Her relationship with perfection—physical, technical, artistic—has haunted her throughout the movie and finally, changing from Odile's black tutu to Odette's white one, she pulls a shard of broken mirror from a wound beneath her ribs. Could there be a better symbol for the dark side of a dancer's pursuit of perfection? The studio mirror, so innocent and embracing in those first delightful years of dance class, has become a maddening dagger of constant criticism.
The soprano Maria Callas, revered by generations of opera-lovers, was famously imperfect in her technique and was cherished all the more for it. The pianist Vladimir Horowitz played with such phenomenal elegance and fire that no one cared about the flubs. Most painters, even those with superb draftsmanship, move beyond or beneath correct technique to brushwork of extravagance and strangeness. And a poet like Emily Dickinson, who turned grammar on its ear—who's to say she didn't achieve her own technical perfection, a new grammar created for the bubble of perception in which she lived and wrote?
Classical dance is different from these arts, perhaps because it begins as an athletic endeavor. Early on, the challenge of training one's body to move in Euclidean traceries and celestial spheres is a beguiling sort of sport. The energized tendu, pirouettes with a stable axis, jumps with life and loft, placement that is lightly rooted yet yearning to fly—learning this embodied language of secret meanings is fun. But as the athleticism of ballet matures into the art of ballet, a change occurs. The technical refinement that is a professional necessity becomes, as well, a spiritual quest.
All artists feel this quest to some extent, but none feel it in every joint and muscle the way dancers do, or face it daily as dancers must, in the alternate universe of the studio mirror, a fifth dimension that reflects all flubs and flaws, not to mention ounces and pounds. One of the powerful tensions of classical dance is that this profoundly physical art form so often expresses fleshless states, both existential and supernatural. The truer a dancer's line and the more pure her technique, well, the more convincing the airy, soulful illusion. This is a reality that the tenets of political correctness cannot change.
Furthermore, young dancers on a career track develop an eye highly sensitive to, and sometimes distorting of, flaws that the non-dance world will never perceive. Rudolf Nureyev ardently wished his legs were longer and he worked devilishly to get the appearance of length. The young Gelsey Kirkland, so uniquely gifted, desired instead to look and dance like Suzanne Farrell; it took years for Kirkland to accept her own body and its brilliance. Every dancer has some beef about his or her instrument, some built-in and immutable issue of anatomy, proportion or silhouette which keeps perfection just beyond reach.
And yet, in truth, there is no actual standard. As the critic Matthew Gurewitsch notes, “Whereas high C is high C, an arabesque is the arabesque of a particular body. So a 'perfect,' Platonic arabesque may not even exist."
One could argue that this pursuit of an abstraction—the “Platonic arabesque"—is not only necessary in an art form as physically demanding as ballet, it is bound up in ballet's philosophy of transcendence, its belief that the body itself can speak to classical ideals of harmony, aspiration and liberation. American Ballet Theatre's Veronika Part, a ballerina trained at the Vaganova Academy and possessing a classical line as close to perfection as it gets, says, “Every single day until the last day of your dance career you have to work, you have to strive to achieve perfection. But better than perfection is the ability to let it go. When you're onstage you have to know that it's impossible to be perfect and you just rely on your experience and talent. The great performance is when you feel, 'Oh my god, I'm just completely free.' This is amazing."
The ballerina Heather Watts, who joined the New York City Ballet in 1970 and was a favorite of choreographer George Balanchine, arrives at the same conclusion but from a different path. “Perfection," she says, “is a moving target: Each day you begin anew, trying for a higher bar every time you go out onstage." Watts suggests that dancers confuse perfection with security, “which is doing the same pirouette you did in rehearsal. As dancers we like to be ready and rehearsed and precise and assured and confident. But Mr. Balanchine was really into calculated risk-taking, trying to reach an ideal that was an imaginary hope. It's hard and scary to risk everything in a live performance, but we were raised to that. In class we risked, in rehearsal we risked, we did it all day long so that we'd be ready to risk at night. You could say the 'perfection' was that the performance was alive."
Imagination makes its own rules. In the famous essay “Some Lines from Whitman," the critic Randall Jarrell quotes a section from Walt Whitman's immortal poem Song of Myself and then writes, “There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter." In other words, artistry that possesses a flashing life force—daring, reaching, giving—will always contain moments that are not quite correct. This goes double for performance, which only happens once and cannot be edited. It's the life we remember: the singing of the self.
Laura Jacobs is The New Criterion's dance critic and a staff writer at Vanity Fair.
The word “ballerina," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated in the late 1700s and was the feminine of ballerino, Italian for “dancing master," which descended from the Latin ballare, “to dance." More recent definitions include Merriam-Webster's “a woman who is a ballet dancer" and American Heritage's “a principal woman dancer in a ballet company." The word, one might say, dances about, never landing in a precise fifth position.
It is not incorrect, if we go by Merriam-Webster, to call a corps girl a ballerina, and those who don't know much about ballet blithely apply the term to anyone who wears pointe shoes. Yet the more one knows about this art the more reverence one brings to the word, perhaps because it is the last vestige of those vaunted titles of yore—“prima ballerina" and “prima ballerina assoluta"—mantles of esteem that were earned like a knighthood and bestowed by queen, country or company director. Such titles are now defunct, having been replaced by the gender-neutral, everyone's-equal “principal dancer." (The Paris Opéra Ballet is the exception, calling its principals étoiles, or “stars," but then, France was the birthplace of ballet and is a law unto itself.) Today, no queen is handing out diplomas in ballerinadom. It is an invisible crown that comes to a dancer on invisible hands.
Suzanne Farrell has always done things her own way. In the 1960s and ’70s, when she rose to stardom as George Balanchine’s preeminent muse at New York City Ballet, she set the standard for dancing that was committed, mercurial and marvelously alive to the music. Fearless in the face of multiple pirouettes and perilous transitions, she was like a force of nature: earth, air, water, fire, Farrell. So it’s not surprising that as the artistic director of her own company Farrell is still doing things her own way. With its innovative structure and idealistic programming, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is the very model of a swift and nimble 21st-century ballet company.
The founding of the company took place in 2001, but the seed was planted in 1993, when James Wolfensohn, then the chairman of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, DC, asked Farrell if she would be interested in starting a dance program. She was. “It started out very modestly,” Farrell remembers, “and then it evolved into a three-week summer program, and then an international program.” As the students matured, Farrell and the Kennedy Center presented them in recitals of Balanchine ballets. These performances, few and far between, generated huge excitement in the ballet world, where it was felt that Farrell’s supreme knowledge of Balanchine’s aesthetic had not found the proper outlet. The shows earned rapturous reviews: Farrell had a gift for staging Mr. B’s ballets, yes, but also for inspiring the Balanchine ethic of spontaneity and snap in dancers from many backgrounds. From its foundations in the Kennedy Center education department, the Farrell enterprise flowered into a ballet company with a serious focus. The Kennedy Center recognized this development and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet was born.
“The mission, because of my special relationship with Mr. Balanchine, is to preserve his integrity and his ballets,” Farrell explains. “It’s not enough to do Mr. B’s steps if you don’t have his philosophy and his values.”
And what are those values? “The dancers always take class,” she says. “They listen. They are dedicated. They never mark.” In dealing with the budget constraints of today’s economy, Farrell recalls the practical side of Balanchine. “Mr. B said, ‘If you don’t have ornate costumes, do it in practice clothes. If you don’t have this, then do that.’ I run the company on that kind of model.”
The company’s repertoire of over 50 ballets is distinctive in that most of the pieces—by Balanchine (first and foremost), Jerome Robbins and Maurice Béjart—were either created for Farrell or frequently performed by her. Deeply intimate with the works she is teaching and coaching, Farrell has been able to revive Balanchine ballets that “had been done for me and were no longer performed. Or they were lost, and only I knew the choreography. It gives my company a repertoire that no other company has.” The retrieved ballets thus far include Ragtime (1966), Divertimento Brillante (1967) and Pithoprakta (1968).
Because it’s not a full-time company, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet can do something unique in the world of classical dance: It teams up with bigger companies to collaborate on the presentation of large-scale ballets. In 2005, Farrell’s dancers joined with the National Ballet of Canada to perform Balanchine’s complete production of Don Quixote, the full-length ballet from 1965 that was Balanchine’s very public declaration of his love for Farrell. The ballet, last staged in 1978, was also willed to Farrell, and its revival was a dance-world event. Two years later, in 2007, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet partnered with Cincinnati Ballet to present Chaconne, and in 2008, performed Episodes with Ballet Austin.
“This allows me to do ballets which require more dancers than there are in my core company,” says Farrell. “We perform in the hometown of the partnership company and then they come perform at the Kennedy Center. On both sides, it gives the dancers longer periods of work. So it’s just a good thing all around.”
This coming season, the company celebrates its 10th anniversary by teaming up with Sarasota Ballet to perform “Diamonds”—Mr. B’s glittering homage to Farrell—from Jewels, along with the classics Serenade and Concerto Barocco, at the Kennedy Center from October 12 to 16. Then The Suzanne Farrell Ballet travels solo to The Joyce Theater in New York City for a weeklong engagement October 19 to 23.
Looking to the future, Farrell says, “Naturally, I would like longer seasons or more seasons at the Kennedy Center, but I think we’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. I wouldn’t want to be too big, because then you have too many dancers not dancing all the time. It’s onstage, in performance, where you really learn how to perform, not just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Everyone in my company dances everything. Everyone’s an important piece of the necklace. It’s a happy company.”