When Suzanne Farrell joined the New York City Ballet in 1961, George Balanchine immediately noted her incredible lyricism and technical skill. She quickly became his most celebrated ballerina, with many of his works refitted or created specifically to suit her. A few years after Balanchine's death in 1983, Farrell took it upon herself to stage his works around the world for companies like the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet. On Oct. 26-27, she brings "A Kennedy Center Millennium Project," which includes selections from Balanchine's repertoire, along with work by Jerome Robbins and Maurice Bejart, to the University of Richmond's Alice Jepson Theatre.
Farrell gathered 16 dancers from companies such as Dance Theater of Harlem and San Francisco Ballet to create a temporary troupe for the work's six-week tour. Also included are Richmond Ballet dancer Kristen Gallagher, who managed a leave of absence from the company to dance with Farrell, and Phillip Neal, a current member of New York City Ballet and Richmond Ballet School alumnus and frequent guest performer. Both embrace the absence from their respective companies for the honor of working with Farrell.
"Many friends have said excellent things about her, and I've found they're all true," Neal says. "She's great at communicating what Balanchine wanted in a dancer. She's got wonderful knowledge, an incredible ability to verbalize, and she's selfless. She really wanted dancers to look great and recognizes that everyone's unique."
Balanchine was a tireless reviser, constantly making choreographic changes to fit the stage, the dancer or a sudden inspiration. Neal recognizes the same tendency in Farrell. "There's no confusion for her about what [Balanchine] would really want," he says. "She relies on her intuition. ... He loved speaking in metaphor, lots of cooking analogies. He'd say stuff like 'This section needs more pepper.' She uses the same sort of analogies."
Farrell's excitement about the innovation of the choreographers selected for her program hasn't waned in passing years. "Every time I danced these ballets, and now every time I teach or see them, I find something new and find myself anew in them," she says. Since she collaborated for years with these men, this comes as no surprise. "Ballet should not only entertain but ennoble...," she says. "It should change our lives by giving them back to us with the added responsibility and luxury of seeing them in a new light."
The pieces Farrell chose for her program offer a variety from these master choreographers. "Divertimento No. 15 (Solos and Pas De Deux)," with music by Mozart, captures one of Balanchine's trademarks, the plotless ballet. Other Balanchine works she's selected are "Apollo," "Ivesiana" and "Tzigane." Included also are Bejart's "Romeo and Juliet" with music by Berlioz, a more abstract rendition of this famous ballet than some versions; and Robbin's famous "Afternoon of a Faun" with music by Debussy.
"Choreography is fragile," Farrell explains, "and the heartbeat of each ballet is even more fragile... as it is passed on from one dancer to another. As the beneficiary of every dancer before me, I respect this heritage." With that consideration in mind, Farrell will introduce the program and share insights formed by her close association with the creation of the works