An Impossible (Or at Least Difficult) Dream

Suzanne Farrell watches Momchil Mladenov, who dances the title role in
Suzanne Farrell watches Momchil Mladenov, who dances the title role in "Don Quixote," during rehearsals. (Photos By Salvatore Sacco For The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005


Suzanne Farrell stands behind the knight in armor and sweeps her arms out to him, then raises them grandly overhead as if she had scooped up the moon.

The demonstration lasts just a few seconds, but with it Farrell is teaching a lesson in nuance. As the rehearsal pianist finishes playing a delicate phrase, Farrell turns to the young ballerina at her side. "You're not pushing him away," she tells her, nodding toward the tall young man. "You're leading him to a destiny."

It is a small but telling moment in the preparation of George Balanchine's three-act "Don Quixote," a ballet that turns on ideas of inspiration and destiny. This 1965 work is, on one hand, an ornate, busy ballet with a cast of 64 dancers, lavish costumes, multiple set changes and showy effects -- among them a live horse and donkey, and a moving windmill. But it is also a poem. Balanchine created it as an ode to Farrell and to her ability as a 19-year-old budding sensation at the New York City Ballet to fuel his creative powers.

In Cervantes's epic tale of the addled old knight and his beloved Dulcinea, whose purity impels him to continue his quests despite public ridicule, Balanchine saw himself and his newest star ballerina. Artist and society, artist and muse, aging man in thrall to an elusive young woman -- these relationships are at the heart of the ballet. For the first several years nobody but Farrell danced the role of Dulcinea. At the work's premiere, and occasionally thereafter, Balanchine himself performed as the devoted Don.

Yet despite their chemistry, despite Farrell's acclaimed interpretation of Dulcinea and Balanchine's ceaseless efforts at revising other parts, the ballet was never a success. Balanchine's old friend Nicolas Nabokov (cousin to the novelist) composed the score to order, but it was roundly dismissed by critics as meandering and flabby. Writing about the ballet in the New Yorker in 1975, critic Arlene Croce observed that what had started out as "an interesting failure" had grown stale and boring. Evidently Balanchine agreed, dropping it from City Ballet's repertoire three years later.

Now the muse is taking up where the master left off. Under Farrell's direction, Balanchine's "Don Quixote" will be performed for the first time in 27 years in a production that joins the Kennedy Center-funded Suzanne Farrell Ballet with the National Ballet of Canada. The ballet will premiere Wednesday at the Opera House with performances through next Sunday. In a bit of poetic justice, its revival coincides with the 400th anniversary of Cervantes's tale.

The Million-Dollar Question

Think of it as a Balanchine bonus track, a long-shelved work that has finally been dusted off -- on a million-dollar scale. The Kennedy Center and the National Ballet of Canada are sharing the costs. The National Ballet, which hosted the five weeks of rehearsals and has built the sets, props and costumes, eventually plans to perform the ballet in Toronto, though a spokeswoman said the originally scheduled date of November 2006 is uncertain now that the company is searching for a new artistic director.

Yet although there is considerable excitement about the resurrection of a Balanchine ballet, especially when the dancing is being supervised by the esteemed Farrell, there is also a million-dollar question attached to it. Can she -- a ballerina, not a choreographer -- succeed with this massive production where the great Balanchine could not?

Such a question kept "Don Quixote" in the dark for decades as Farrell struggled to gain confidence in teaching Balanchine's works and in teaching this, the biggest of Balanchine's works. After his death in 1983, Farrell inherited the rights to the ballet, though doing anything with those rights was only a distant thought.

"You can't divorce the story from the ballet," Farrell says after rehearsal one recent evening, sipping rum and tonic on the patio of her hotel, "and he probably wanted me to be comfortable with how it was interpreted."

Even after she retired from dancing and began teaching Balanchine to dancers around the world, she didn't feel she was up to taking charge of what amounted to a deeply personal episode in her life retold as a lavish love sonnet with five dozen participants and livestock.

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