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.
"I didn't think I was ready to tackle something like that," she says. "I had to un-become a dancer and become something else in order to teach and stage ballets. When I retired, I didn't know if I'd like doing that. You know, there's nothing in life that prepares you for being an ex-ballerina." She flips her hand as if she's serving possibilities on a tea tray. "Maybe I'd be too nostalgic. Maybe I couldn't let go of my parts."
Yet letting go, she adds, proved not as difficult as she had imagined, especially since she began working with hand-picked dancers she can call her own. Though it is far from a year-round operation, for the past five years her company has coalesced at the Kennedy Center for a few performances a season and occasional tours. As a measure of her dedication, Farrell recently moved into a Washington apartment within walking distance of the center. Yet while she is clearly committed to her group, its impermanence troubles her; she speaks of "our fragile seasons" and the difficulty of eliciting "smoothness" in performance when the dancers are together for only a few weeks each year.
Wearing a hot-pink satin jacket over a red top and black slacks, the tall, slender Farrell, who will turn 60 in August -- nearly Balanchine's age at the 1965 premiere -- stands out against her surroundings like a hothouse orchid. She has pulled her caramel-color hair loose from the ponytail she wore earlier in the studio, and she looks relaxed, though a bit weary. Asked how she feels about the production so far, Farrell answers with a laugh. "Well, I'm pretty calm -- I think I'm amazingly calm. Though it was a little scary turning the calendar from May to June.
"That doesn't mean I'm overly secure; it just means I have to think clearly," she continues. When she was a dancer, she says, "all I had to worry about were steps. Now it's props, scenery, designers, spacing, scrims, production staff. I used to like to do crossword puzzles, and this is like that kind of a puzzle. But it's part of my growth as well, something I never would have gotten from teaching another Balanchine ballet."
No other Balanchine ballet is quite like this one. Balanchine made a lasting mark on the dance world by departing from the same heavily decorated story ballets that "Don Quixote" epitomizes. Though he had choreographed a handful of other narrative works -- among them "The Nutcracker," "Coppelia" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- most of his ballets involve neither story nor fancy sets. Costumes are often reduced to simple leotards and tights. Dance for dance's sake was his credo. In such neoclassical masterpieces as "Agon," "The Four Temperaments" and "Concerto Barocco," what bowls the viewer over is the impact of the movement alone, matched to superb music.
All that changed in "Don Quixote." Balanchine's version has nothing in common with the hard-driving 19th-century "Don Quixote" of Russian fame -- a version that the Kirov-trained Balanchine grew up with -- in which the title figure is only briefly onstage for comic relief between bouts of bravura technical displays. Balanchine's work takes a more serious, poignant tone, and contains a good deal of religious imagery. Yet with dancers dressed as royalty, villagers, tavern owners, priests, monks and even pigs, his production incorporates the storytelling and character development of old-fashioned full-length ballets.
It was perfecting the mix of mime, atmosphere, exposition and dancing that Balanchine struggled with, making changes to the ballet each season it was performed. His constant tinkering, and the four days it took to hang the elaborate sets before the curtain went up for a half-dozen performances, made it an ordeal for the company, recalls Barbara Horgan, Balanchine's former assistant.
"It was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare," says Horgan, head of the Balanchine Trust, which licenses the choreographer's works. "I dreaded the last week of the winter season. People would get sick, something would happen to the scenery. Finally, on the sixth performance it went well, and that was it." Yet she is left with a memory of many vivid moments, she says, particularly Farrell's fearlessness.
The new sets, designed by Zack Brown, and costumes by Holly Hynes have been constructed for easier setup. (Kennedy Center officials are planning to take the ballet on tour, though details have not been confirmed.) The costumes are based more or less on the originals by City Ballet's famed designer Barbara Karinska, but Brown's sets are his own creation, overseen by Farrell.
Farrell also had a hand in the choreography. To fill in what she doesn't recall, she has referred to a bootleg black-and-white film of the premiere and a silent video of a later performance. (She has forbidden her dancers to see them, preferring them to come to the ballet fresh.) But neither record shows much of the action beyond the principals. So Farrell has made some educated guesses when it comes to the corps de ballet.
"I believe Mr. Balanchine would expect me to," Farrell says. "That's why he gave me the ballet. . . . It's all in keeping with the world he already choreographed."
That world, she says, was ingeniously created around the notion of being off balance. It was her own hallmark in the ballet, a way of dancing off axis, seemingly out of control yet splendidly in control. Balanchine wove that effect into the entire production, she says.
"We're conjuring up windmills," she says, tossing her head back and flinging her arms, windmill-like, into the air. "The whole choreography is tilted as the Don's world should be. You want it to be tilted, you want that to be part of the plot."
What she cannot re-create for her dancers, however, is the intensity of the atmosphere in which the ballet was born. In her memoir "Holding On to the Air," Farrell refers to "Don Quixote" as a "public courtship," not just a metaphorical love affair but the beginning of a true romance between her and Balanchine, who was more than 40 years her senior. They never had much of a physical relationship, she writes, but the feelings were unmistakable, and the Don's pursuit of Dulcinea was the fullest expression of an otherwise reined-in passion.
"I feel that the ballet's existence is different now," Farrell says. "There was so much of our lives wrapped up in that story. It provided the catalyst for the ballet, and we don't have that now. But we have the ballet. The fact that that dynamic doesn't exist anymore is no reason not to do the ballet."
She leans her chin into her hand. "I want the dancers to find their own story. I can't give my story to them."
For one of the two dancers cast as Dulcinea, finding her own story comes easily. "I approach it more with a sense of tenderness and love, like [the Don] is more of a fatherly figure," says Sonia Rodriguez, Canadian-born but raised in Spain and steeped in the Cervantes epic. As she speaks during her lunch break at the studio, her eyes begin to water. "I recently lost my father, so I can get pretty emotional," she says quickly. In casting the petite, dark-haired Rodriguez, it's apparent that Farrell was not looking for a copy of herself -- nor does she spend time trying to get the younger dancer to move exactly as she did, Rodriguez says. "She really believes in just doing it and doing it. . . . She gives you all you need, all the steps, then she lets you find your own way."
If doing it and doing it is the Farrell way, at least she doesn't seem to waste a moment of the dancers' exertions. Her rehearsals are an exercise in no-nonsense efficiency. She has the dancers run through the ballet in its entirety twice in one day, spending extra time on solo roles and duets as well as on tricky moments between Dulcinea and the Don, performed by Bulgarian dancer Momchil Mladenov.
She asks the pianist to pause only occasionally so she can offer dead-on analogies to the dancers in a quiet voice. "Break out of the marble," she urges Heather Ogden, who will dance Dulcinea in the second cast. "Have you seen those Michelangelo statues in Florence? They call them unfinished, but I think they're finished. He meant them to break out of the marble -- " and she rises from her chair to stride forward like the Winged Victory, shoulders drawn back and arms reaching behind her. Her shoulder blades are impressively pliable; she can make herself surprisingly streamlined, like a cat squeezing behind a couch.
"Don't balance here," Farrell calls out to Ogden and Rodriguez at another point; it is the loudest remark she has made all day. "You've got to fall. It's not a lunge. That's one thing Mr. Balanchine was insistent on, and I missed it in performance and I felt awful. That's why I'm insisting you do it. Do it for me," she says with self-deprecating jokiness.
Joking aside, she knows the correction will sink in. Recalling that moment later on the hotel patio, she throws her arms back to illustrate the abandon she wants to see in the dancers. "Now they're going to make sure that they do it," she says with a satisfied grin.
Farrell is in her element, thriving on the challenge, being energized by the dancers and by the mammoth creative outlet of bringing "Don Quixote" back to life. And if it isn't a huge success -- if it doesn't enter the repertoire of major ballet companies, if it doesn't reveal the hidden genius that was overlooked 40 years ago -- that, Farrell suggests, is beside the point.
"I'm just out to give the world another wonderful ballet by Mr. Balanchine," she says. "Maybe it's not complicated -- not like 'Agon' or some of his other works -- but it is sophisticated in its own way. There is the craftsmanship of Mr. Balanchine.
"I look at it now . . . as being part of my growth as an artistic director," she says, then ducks her head and looks at the table. "Well, I can't even call myself that; it's kind of amusing. . . ." Her voice trails off.
An extra fillip, she is somewhat shy about adding, is that in revisiting this ballet she feels the presence of the man who created it. As his last muse, she may have led him to his destiny, but he also guided her, and, it could be said, continues to steer her to this day.
"I was deeply involved at the time we were doing it, obviously, but now I'm deeply involved in another way, and I love that profoundness. I like getting inside it. . . .
"It brings us together again," she says quietly, looking away. Asked if she feels she can still communicate with Balanchine, she seems uncertain how to respond. She shifts her shoulders, tilts her head and finally breaks into a small smile. "More metaphysically," she says. "I always feel close to him. The energy in making his ballets happen is the same kind of energy we had making them. I feel just as alive, only different. And it's great to feel that alive."