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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.


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News

George Balanchine's Gounod Symphony is one of those ballets that seems to have fallen through the cracks, for no good reason. This 25-minute work, set to Charles Gounod'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 Suzanne Farrell Ballet in rehearsal (Courtesy The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)

At its premiere in January 1958 at New York City Center, its cast of 32 was 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. This makes sense, since there is something very French about Gounod, a kind of brilliance and formality associated with the Paris Opéra. (Some have linked it to Symphony in C, also set to French music.) Its choreography overflows with brilliant patterns made up of clean, bright, intercrossing lines. Verdy compared it to the gardens of Versailles, and, in fact, the sets designed by Horace Armistead had a garden theme; they were originally used in NYCB's production of Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. For The Suzanne Farrell Ballet premiere, however, the ballet is getting a new look. Though she won't reveal any details, Farrell says the concept “will allow us to see the choreography better."

Farrell will be staging it, though she never danced it herself. Her tools are “an old, silent archival video in black-and-white" starring Diana Adams and Jacques d'Amboise, and of course the Gounod score. (She staged the ballet once before, for the School of American Ballet, in 1991.) Since there were no archival videos of the ballet on YouTube for her dancers to study, everyone in the room was seeing the steps for the first time, as if it were a new ballet. As she puts it: “It's almost as if the ballet were being created now by Mr. B."

Not long ago, for World Ballet Day (Oct. 4), the company filmed an open rehearsal:

It turns out that the premiere will also be a kind of farewell. Recently the Kennedy Center, which funds The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, announced that the company will disband after final performances in December, 2017. Farrell's role at the Center hasn't been fully defined, but she will continue to serve as a teaching artist as part of the Center's expansion, which includes new studios, a lecture hall and more. She's not wistful, but, as she recently told The Washington Post: “I'm very proud of my dancers and everything we've done, and I'm grateful for that." —Marina Harss

Ballet Stars

As the curtain closed on the tender image of Juliet intertwined with her Romeo, the audience at Minneapolis’ Northrop Auditorium paused, letting the raw abandon of Sara Ivan’s performance wash over them before breaking into thunderous applause. Ivan had poured heart and soul into Maurice Béjart’s  grueling 15-minute pas de deux. The performance, part of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s spring tour last year, meant more than a triumphant homecoming for Ivan, who grew up in the Twin Cities. It also marked her victory over an injury that had caused her to lose the role of Juliet three years earlier and almost derailed her career.

 

As a young student at Minnesota Dance Theatre, Ivan knew she wanted a dance career. When she was 17, on a whim she auditioned for Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell, a Balanchine-based intensive at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. “The audition was at our studio, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just take an extra class,’ ” she says. But she found herself immediately captivated by Farrell. “She was so elegant and a little intimidating,” she says. Ivan lacked any Balanchine training, but nevertheless Farrell accepted her on scholarship.

 

When she arrived in Washington, Ivan felt overwhelmed. She couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced Balanchine style and wasn’t used to wearing pointe shoes at the barre. “Suzanne approached me the third day, and I thought she was going to kick me out,” says Ivan. Instead, Farrell asked if she’d be interested in joining her company. Ivan stammered that she would be honored, to which Farrell replied, “Well, we’ll see.” 

 

Fueled by Farrell’s encouragement, Ivan made an intense effort, absorbing corrections, going across the floor as often as she could. She fell in love with Farrell’s teaching style. “She used a lot of metaphors,” says Ivan. “She would compare développé to putting on white satin gloves.” On the last day of the summer program, Farrell took her aside and offered her a contract. “It was a dream come true,” Ivan says.

 

Through Farrell’s classes and videos of Balanchine ballets, Ivan started transforming her technique. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet works sporadically throughout the year, so many of its dancers freelance during off-seasons. For two years, Ivan danced with Washington Ballet’s studio company when Farrell’s company was off. In 2006, when Ivan was 20, Farrell cast her as the lead in an excerpt from Romeo and Juliet. The role calls for extreme flexibility and accentuated Ivan’s supple extensions. It was her first lead, and she knew that as a young corps member she needed to prove herself. “There are things at 20 that you just don’t have,” says Ivan in retrospect. “Strength, partnering experience, artistic maturity.” To compensate, Ivan threw herself into rehearsals to the point of exhaustion. “I was pushing too hard and wasn’t resting enough or eating properly,” she says. One morning during grand allegro, Ivan fell and felt something in her left knee snap. Terrified of losing her opportunity, she continued to dance on her injured knee for a week. She only made matters worse: By the time she saw a doctor she had completely torn her ACL. She would need reconstructive surgery to dance again.

 

Ivan was devastated. Another dancer took her place in Romeo and Juliet, but Farrell asked Ivan to assist during stage rehearsals. “I would point details out to her,” says Farrell. “Watching from the front provides a different perspective.” Ivan agrees. “I learned that even the smallest correction can make a big difference, and sitting in the audience I had the visual to see why.”

 

Ivan’s recovery lasted nine long months. Once reliant on her hypermobility, Ivan now had to develop strength and control. And she realized that she needed to take better care of herself. She returned to the company determined to put her setback behind her.

 

Last year, Farrell scheduled a reprise of Romeo and Juliet for the company’s national tour and gave Ivan a second chance to tackle the role. Ivan was thrilled. Her final Juliet in Minneapolis marked a turning point in her career. “I felt this moment of ‘I have arrived,’ ” she says. “I’m free to go on now with nothing holding me back.”

Ballet Training

Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!

It seems like every other week I have a new injury: hip issues, Achilles tendonitis, back problems. I’m afraid this will stunt my career— it’s hard to improve when I’m always injured. What can I do? —Frustrated

Injuries are exasperating, but nonetheless a part of our profession. Make sure you’re taking time to heal properly. It’s tempting to try to push through when you should be resting. I developed a rare hip injury early in my career. I could barely lift my leg, but I was so anxious about casting that I did not have it properly evaluated for months. Well, I didn’t get the part, and I permanently damaged my hip. I also developed knee and ankle problems as a result of compensating.

Use the time off as an opportunity to learn about your body’s weaknesses, quirks and asymmetries. I found that my right hip socket cocks slightly inward, so certain muscles are weaker. Now I regularly stretch and strengthen that side to prevent further strains.

Once your body is well enough to get back to class, don’t be embarrassed if you need to modify combinations for a while. You’ll learn to work correctly, which will benefit your dancing in the end.

I’m never satisfied with my pointe shoes. I’ve tried several and they always make my feet look more turned in than they actually are! What should I do? —Janice, California

Pointe shoes can sometimes magnify imperfections. In all honesty, maintaining turnout is more difficult once you’ve got the boots on. Make sure you’re taking a sincere look at your technique and not just blaming your shoes.

That said, finding the perfect pair takes a while. I’ve changed my shoes many times during my career. Find a professional fitter to measure your feet and recommend shoes based on your foot type. “Look at the box shape of your shoe,” says Mary Carpenter, a New York–based teacher and shoe fitter. “If you have a square foot and you’re wearing a tapered box, it’s going to twist. If you have a narrow, tapered foot and you wear a square box, you’re going to sink in it.”

There are also tricks that can improve the look of your shoe. Some dancers criss-cross their elastics to tighten up excess material, or sew the sides down lower. Consider trying a special-order shoe. They take a while to come in, but you can customize everything to your liking.

My arabesque is stuck at 90 degrees. How can I make it go higher? —Talia, Florida

I’m so glad you asked—I used to have the same problem! Thankfully, my arabesque significantly improved over time. It’s still not great—94 degrees on a warm day—but at least it’s acceptable.

I suspect you either have an inflexible back or you’re holding your arabesque improperly. Or both, as was my case. Luckily, a teacher taught me a great exercise that can help you increase flexibility and find proper placement.

You’ll need two portable barres and a mirror. Set the barres parallel to the mirror, one about four feet behind the other. Take an arabesque, placing your foot on the back barre and your hands on the front barre. Observe your position. Are your shoulders down and square, ribs aligned, hips pulled up, arabesque leg turned out and behind you? (Use a lower barre if you can’t maintain the correct position.) Take three slow, deep pliés, keeping your upper back lifted. After the third plié, lift your back leg off the barre (without compromising your shoulders), hold, and lower the leg back down. Repeat, for a total of four times on each side. Stretch your back and hips in the opposite direction as soon as you’re finished. My flexibility, position and strength improved, and hopefully yours will, too.

Talking to Amy: Houston Ballet Principal Barbara Bears

I’ve had four foot surgeries, and have unfortunately experienced trickle-down injuries when coming back. You tend to compensate when you’re not 100 percent, so other things flare up. As dancers, we have to listen to our bodies. If something’s bothering you, talk to your instructor and then have it looked at by a dance medicine specialist. If you have several serious injuries, look at how you’re working. Are you not wearing the proper shoes, or not warming up well enough before class? Do your own little bit of investigating.

 

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