Farrell Sets The Barre High

Suzanne Farrell hasn't shied from programming demanding works.
Suzanne Farrell hasn't shied from programming demanding works. (By Scott Suchman -- Kennedy Center)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

It's a long shot almost beyond contemplation: Imagine the ballet equivalent of hockey's Miracle on Ice, or of the nearly winless Buster Douglas setting his sights on Mike Tyson's heavyweight belt. That kind of supreme confidence -- and possibly overreaching -- will be on view this week at the Kennedy Center, when the impermanent troupe of moonlighters that calls itself the Suzanne Farrell Ballet will attempt George Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer," a work rightfully considered one of the great romantic ballets of the 20th century, and one of Balanchine's paramount achievements.

Amazingly, in the nearly half-century since its creation, "Liebeslieder Walzer" ("love-song waltzes") has never been performed in Washington. Equally surprising is the notion that a group of widely assorted, bighearted but uneven dancers will give this awesome and daunting ballet its local premiere. It's the kind of setup that makes you tingle -- and cringe slightly.

"Liebeslieder" will have four performances beginning Wednesday at the Eisenhower Theater, on a program with Balanchine's "Ragtime," a "lost" duet with a Stravinsky score that Farrell has reconstructed from films, and "Episodes," with music by Anton Webern and augmented by dancers from Ballet Austin. (A second program, "The Balanchine Couple," starts on Friday and will alternate with the first; it features pas de deux from nine ballets, each one introduced by Farrell. )

"Liebeslieder" will be the star of the week, and quite possibly of the season. Nothing happens in it: nothing but four couples dancing for an hour to Brahms waltzes. Yet you could call it a ballet about absolutely everything -- it is at once polite and passionate, expansive and intense, rich in all manner of living detail. Period costumes -- the women in jewels and ball gowns, the men in tuxedos -- an elegant, chandeliered set, and two pianists and four singers who share the stage with the dancers make it more complicated and costly to present than the average piece on a repertory program. To mount and produce the ballet for this run will cost $120,000.

"It's a fantastic ballet and a moving ballet, and something we don't have in our life anymore," said Farrell in an interview after a recent rehearsal at the Kennedy Center. "We don't have this kind of world anymore, where it's all very genteel and very proper, and respectful and loving and passionate. It's about life.

"I've wanted to do this ballet for a while, and now I feel I have a good, proper cast," she said. "We've been together for a while."

Up to now, however, "Liebeslieder" has been a work you expected only from a powerhouse -- the New York City Ballet, for whom Balanchine made it in 1960, or, say, the San Francisco Ballet, until now only the second American company brave enough to mount it.

Why does it require bravery? Because it is devilish to dance well, and it is an extravagant gamble. Even when it is exquisitely rendered, it is an hour with no story and little overt drama, accompanied by those beautiful but hardly familiar German lieder. Critics have loved the ballet from the start, but audiences even in the '60s were slow to embrace it, and given the diet of recognizable staples and bubbly excitement that typifies most ballet seasons lately, today's public can be forgiven if it finds that the fine shadings and subtleties of this work require unaccustomed concentration.

Even though "Liebeslieder" requires just eight dancers, few companies request it from the George Balanchine Trust, which licenses the choreographer's works, because "it can be hard to cast," says the trust's director, Ellen Sorrin. "There are not many people who know how to stage it, and it's not for every audience." Sorrin says she wasn't surprised Farrell decided to put it on: "I think she looks to challenge her audience, and that's a very good thing to do."

"Liebeslieder" is not a virtuoso spectacle; the ballet draws attention not to its dancers' strength and speed -- though those elements are there -- but rather to their musical sensitivity and artistic maturity. It's a work for the most soulful of ballerinas, originally the cool, goddesslike Diana Adams and the enchanting Violette Verdy, with Farrell -- then a new hire but already a rising Balanchine favorite -- soon stepping in for an injured Adams. In more recent seasons, such deeply gifted dancers as Kyra Nichols, Jenifer Ringer and Darci Kistler have danced it into the waning years of their careers.

The contemplative nature of this work was new for Balanchine -- in the same year, he created more emphatic pieces such as "Donizetti Variations" and the astringent Stravinsky study, "Monumentum Pro Gesualdo" -- and he never made anything quite like it again. (With "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze,' " in 1980, he came close. While shorter, it is also a meditation on music and love with four couples, although it has a much darker sense of loss.

"Liebeslieder" is in two parts. In the first, the dancers are in formal attire, with the women wearing heeled shoes, and social protocols govern their actions as much as their sharp, quiet passions do. In the second, the women have become ballerinas, in tulle skirts and pointe shoes, and the newly freed dancing now takes place in the heart, or in an Elysium of the dancers' charged imaginations.

As with most of the ballets she stages, Farrell has a personal history with "Liebeslieder." After just a year in City Ballet, she was thrust into it in 1963, in what she describes as "a whirlwind kind of way to get into a ballet." Making the piece's emotional swings believable wasn't easy for the teenage Farrell, nor was it for her partner Kent Stowell, who was also new to the company at that time. He describes a highly charged atmosphere during rehearsals, where Balanchine's own romantic attachment to Farrell was obvious.

"I felt Mr. Balanchine was the one who wanted to dance with her, that was clear to me," says Stowell, who recently retired as director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Despite the awkwardness, Farrell, he recalls, had an especially ethereal quality in this role, "like a veil over her performances, a mystic presence. It was perfect for 'Liebeslieder,' the amount of distance and unsaid romance there. That was quite natural to her."

Farrell, now a seasoned director -- even if her domain centers on some 20 dancers who assemble at the Kennedy Center each year for just a handful of performances -- has made miracles happen before. No one familiar with Farrell's expertise as a coach, with her alchemist's ability to draw intelligence and feeling out of underrated dancers, should count this company out.

This is the woman who gave the Washington Ballet's Erin Mahoney-Du her greatest role, eliciting a cool knowingness from an often typecast dancer, in Balanchine's rarely performed "Clarinade"; she also turned City Ballet's all-purpose dancer Philip Neal into a marvelously raw Apollo, in the work of the same name. In staging "Liebeslieder," she also has the help of former City Ballet dancer Bart Cook, who works with the Balanchine Trust.

But if rehearsing "Liebeslieder" is a bold project for Farrell, you won't find her in a state of nerves. At least not at a rehearsal one afternoon last week in a Kennedy Center studio, where the atmosphere was businesslike but light. Farrell is dressed in that absent-minded ballet chic only the slimmest of physiques -- such as hers -- can pull off: a baggy blue sweatshirt, sleeves pushed up, with another one knotted around her waist over a skirt and leggings. Her caramel-colored hair spills out of a clip at the back of her head, more so after she demonstrates the timing on a series of turns; she's oblivious to it. She is minutely attentive to the dancers waltzing in front of her.

"Step, and then look like you're going somewhere-ere-ere!" Farrell sings out in waltz time to Momchil Mladenov, trying to draw out more urgency. "But you don't have to run at the same measure all the time. You can go one-two-three, ONE-two-three, one-two-THREE and pow!" She mimes a leap.

As Natalia Magnicaballi whirls with Mladenov in a series of turns, dancing the role Farrell used to perform, Farrell comes up behind and grabs one of her arms, gently shaking it. "Let that arm breathe; don't hold it the same way for all of them. Relax, relax -- be more vulnerable."

With some dancers she works on the timing and shape of the steps, with others she refines the smallest details, seeking more naturalness between the couples. She pays nearly the same attention to pianists Ron Matson and Glenn Sales, fixing the emotional tone: "More longing, longing," she says to them at one point, gesturing with her hand at her breast. They nod, begin the song again, and in that cavernous, windowless room strewn with duffel bags and ballet barres, your heart feels the bottom drop out.

If her dancers sense the added scrutiny with this production, they don't show it. "I feel like every time the Suzanne Farrell Ballet is onstage we have an extra-bright spotlight," Magnicaballi says with a laugh. "With everything that she does, there is extra attention from the ballet world. We try not to think about the pressure."

Asked why she believes her dancers can succeed in this ballet, in which they have no prior experience and have had scant rehearsal time, Farrell replies with a grin, "I'll give you Mr. B's answer: Why not? I was young when I went into 'Liebeslieder.' I was 17" -- she pulls at her cheeks -- "all baby fat. But he trusted me. You don't just become a ballerina; you have to get there, and the only way you can get there is to live and to dance.

"You have to live in the now, and you make your now," she continues. "And now, we've chosen 'Liebeslieder.' "

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