The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which for the past 15 years has showcased the works of Farrell’s mentor, George Balanchine, and which is bankrolled by the Kennedy Center, will shut down after a final series of performances in December 2017, the center has announced.
In a brief phone interview, Farrell, the former New York City Ballet star, said that in conversations with Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter over the past two years, Rutter “invited me to explore the possibilities of the new expansion.” The arts center’s expansion project, scheduled to be completed in spring 2018, will include additional classroom, rehearsal and performance spaces. Farrell said that she and Rutter discussed a return to teaching in the new studios.
“I love to teach,” said Farrell, 71, speaking from the campus of Florida State University, where she is a dance professor and where she has been rehearsing her dancers. “And I always try to evolve as an artist.”
“It’ll be an enormous and exciting undertaking to have more full-time teaching at the Kennedy Center,” she added.
But just what Farrell’s future position will be at the center is unclear. Asked what “full-time teaching” would mean, Farrell demurred. “That’s still in the planning,” she said.
Farrell’s troupe grew out of her teaching initiatives at the Kennedy Center. Some of her leading dancers were students in her summer workshops, and Farrell gradually added more from other companies. Many of them took time off from full-time jobs with those troupes to perform for Farrell and what was essentially a “pickup” group.
The number of dancers varied from season to season depending on the repertoire. Farrell had between 16 and 46 dancers, employed for five to 16 weeks each season. Touring was rare; mostly the group performed at the Kennedy Center. This season the company is at its largest, with 46 dancers preparing for performances Oct. 21-23 at the center’s Eisenhower Theater. The budget has ranged from $1 million to $1.4 million annually, according to the center.
But the impermanent structure posed a serious challenge to the artistic quality. Farrell is renowned for her deep knowledge of the Balanchine canon and for her ability to convey the nuances of its mastery. Yet for this company, the results onstage were often uneven, as can only be expected when dancers gather for a few weeks of rehearsals, dance a limited number of performances and then scatter until the following year.
“Well, that’s what it was,” Farrell said, gently. “I take what I am given, and you make the best of it. I’m very proud of my dancers and everything we’ve done, and I’m grateful for that.”
A major contribution arising from the Suzanne Farrell Ballet is the Balanchine Preservation Initiative, to preserve rarely performed works by the choreographer. Farrell formally established the initiative in 2006, although she had been reviving such works since 2001. For the upcoming performances, her dancers will assay an updated production of Balanchine’s “Gounod Symphony.” The ballet, with a cast of more than 30 dancers, will have new costumes and “a new concept,” Farrell said.
With her current large ensemble, and preparations for a big new production, why end the company now?
“I don’t think I have an answer to that,” Farrell said. “It seemed a wonderful opportunity. It just seemed like the right time, to live in the now.”
Asked the same question, Rutter emphasized that Farrell would continue to be an “artistic partner” at the center.
“It was not an intent to say, ‘We are ending this company, we are ending this work,’ ” said Rutter. Farrell’s troupe was billed as “the Kennedy Center’s own ballet company.” Rutter said she was not looking to replace it with another.
“This is centered on Suzanne,” she said.
“Suzanne has done a really beautiful job with her company, and she has built a dedicated following of artists through her teaching,” Rutter said. “As we are ramping up our work in terms of sketching out the programming that will take place in the new spaces, it was clear to me that we wanted Suzanne to have a role there. The role of teacher was one we really wanted to expand on.”
For her part, Farrell has a philosophical approach.
“I don’t look at it as an ending,” she said. “I look at it as a new beginning.”