Thursday, May 10, 2007

Suzanne Farrell and Tzigane


Suzanne Farrell left the New York City Ballet in 1969, and joined the Ballet of the Twentieth Century, Maurice Bejart's company based in Brussels. There can be no denying that her absence was mourned, not alone by Balanchine but by her partners, colleagues, and public. It is unprofitable to speculate whether such a departure should be interpreted as courage, treason, or a refusal to submit any longer to conditions that seemed at the moment confining, as well as a desire to explore alternatives in new capacities and possibilities. Such separation is sometimes necessary...Farrell returned in the winter [Winter 1975] before the Ravel Festival to dance with an extraordinary freshness and greatly increased technical brilliance. The years spent with Bejart, a talent and energy far more loose or instinctive than Balanchine's seemed not only to have heightened her physical proficiency, which had always been large, but to have increased her emotional projection, which had heretofore seemed smoldering.

The first new work Balanchine composed for her was Ravel's Tzigane. Essentially a "gypsy number," it commenced with a five-minute solo of surpassing physical demands and emotional intensity. The music is not exactly a Hungarian cousin to the composer's Bolero, but its nightclub overtones cannot be ignored...This music gave Balanchine, with his every-ready tact, the opportunity to invent a star turn for Farrell. It framed her extremeties of abrupt angularity and off-centered plastic posturing in all their fiery contrast to her natural "classic" grace and ease, her steely fragility and chill authority. In a perverse pattern of steps, Balanchine turned the familiar hungarisch idiom of opera-house Lisztian divertissements inside out. Its positioning was so odd, the sequences in their reversal so unexpected, that what might have been rejected as parody was transformed into assertive rehabilitation. Farrell did not impersonate a "gypsy;" her body played with theatricalized elements of wildness, caprice, longing, and arrant independence which could be read as intensely secret and personal. Was part of this an echo of her own wandering, of the fact she had at last returned to her tribe's encapment, while proclaiming her own increased identity and independence?

In any event, Farrell's reappearance marked a rise in the company's spirits, another chapter of growth...There is no doubt that a powerful personage throws off an aura, sometimes of positive, less often of negative, energy. Farrell's peculiar qualities, the impression these have made in a variety of ballets, have contributed something unique to our repertory. Like other powerful artists she invests her own mystery, an enclosed alchemy of power, vulnerability, the control and conscious manipulation of tension. When she dances it is not only a body in motion but an apparatus analyzed and directed by operating intelligence. It is as if some sort of radium slumbers but is always present and ready in her corporal central; when ignited, it glows to white heat. It enables her to transcend occasions, patterns, appearances. It commands recognition but is not always easy to read. Balanchine has been able to provide a habitation in which this core is fired, or can activate itself.

Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein's the New York City Ballet (1978)

In the early days of my career, I was always this virginal girl in white. I liked that, but the tom-boy in me always wanted to be a little contrary. I used to wish that I could play the black swan instead of the white swan, or the evil girl instead of the good girl. So when I came back to the company, this was the first thing Mr. Balanchine did for me. I was curious to know how he would see me. Tzigane means "gypsy", it's Hungarian.

I thought he'd give me something very technical, but the first thing he had me do is sort of mosey on stage in this sort of indifferent quality. I thought this was very strange. "I'm not sure if I want to look like this. What are people going to think? They expect me to dance." And then I said, "No, he's always presented you very well, and you believe in him. Let's try something that hasn't been done before." So we started working on this ballet.

It was a lot of fun to be a gypsy. By then Mr. Balanchine and I had become comfortable with each other, and frequently he would say, "Oh, you know what I want. You fill in." That was very nice of him, but also a big responsibility. Because it had to look like what he might do, be in the same flavor, and the same character as what he might do, and wonderful that he trusted me enough to say, "Oh, Suzie, you do it." It was quite thrilling, and gave me a lot of freedom in a world that has a lot of discipline. At one part in the choreography, he said, "Oh just stand here and do something, and then start turning."

As the ballet starts out, I'm dancing to a solo violin. There is not even a conductor. I don't even see the violinist. He's down in the pit, and there is just a single spotlight on my face. The rest of the stage is dark, so it is very lonely. In fact, it is probably the loneliest I've ever been. Even lonelier than walking down the streets of New York by yourself. To be in front of people, you have to look interesting, have to go from one side of the stage to the other, portray something, but you don't even have the sound of an orchestra to fill the void. Just this one lonely violin and myself. I start to dance. And it stays this way for about five minutes. It was a long solo.

Suzanne Farrell Interview, 1990, Academy of Achievement

I learned a lot from being with Béjart, and George saw that. After all, George taught me the thrill of acquiring information and seeing how that could work in dance forms. To not have learned anything, to have wasted that time, would have been ungrateful, un-Balanchinian and dishonest of me. And if I had learned nothing with Béjart, George and I could never have been able to go on to what we did. He would have been so far ahead of me, I never would have caught up.

When Mr. B started working on a ballet for me, there would be no one in the room except Gordon Boelzner at the piano, George and myself. He would show me a little something and I would try to imitate or shape or decode what he indicated—he would always indicate, not command, and I would try. Choreography is not born as choreography; it grows out of a suggestion or movement indication and then it gets shaped into choreography. Rarely would he say, "That's not what I wanted." He would put the ball in my court and allow me to run with it, but he trusted me and didn't say, "That's not how I would have run with it, if I were you." Sometimes he would have a mistake become part of the choreography. Not that every mistake that happens can be put to music and become beautiful, but he made us see life differently.

Someone once remarked, "Oh, you're a dancer, you're up onstage, you don't like to face reality," and that hit such a nerve because I feel that life is more real onstage. I mourn artifice. I have this little theory that the arts were invented because life didn't measure up to what it was supposed to be. If life were wonderful, we would all dance, we would all sing, we would all be poets, we would all paint. As it is, the arts are the hospitals for our souls, so they need to be of the best integrity. I have a theory that George devoted himself to ballet because it served as his visa out of Russia during those horrific times. Ballet gave him his existence and his salvation outside Russia and nurtured his genius, and that's why he never got bored and why he became so prolific. You can't be flippant about genius. The mind sets you on a path to be the best. You must work at making your life work for you; you are responsible to posterity.

Good theater should always send people away feeling changed.

I'm not obsessed with ballet; I'm passionate about ballet. Some people don't want to have passion because it's too revealing, or they feel that if they're passionate about something or someone, they've lost control, or it will control them. I think passion is such a wonderful word, and such a wonderful feeling. To feel so alive! When they say that George was obsessed with me, it has such a negative connotation. But was he obsessed or passionate? I believe if he had been truly obsessed, the ballets we did would have been different—they would have been darker.

Suzanne Farrell, interview with Emily Fragos, Bomb Magazine

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

" Someone once remarked, "Oh, you're a dancer, you're up onstage, you don't like to face reality," and that hit such a nerve because I feel that life is more real onstage. I mourn artifice. I have this little theory that the arts were invented because life didn't measure up to what it was supposed to be. If life were wonderful, we would all dance, we would all sing, we would all be poets, we would all paint. As it is, the arts are the hospitals for our souls, so they need to be of the best integrity. "

I have always suspected that. The arts, when they are works of genius, are those points when life and perfection meet just for a moment. Fascinating insights. Thank you for posting this.