The stage of the new victory is too small for classical dancing, the music is canned, the sixteen performers are a pickup crew of awkwardly disparate talent, experience, and skill. Yet the dancing is truly lovely. This was the first – and lasting – impression made by Suzanne Farrell Stages the Masters of 20th Century Ballet on the final leg of a modest tour that originated in Washington, D.C. While the New York City Ballet apparently has no use for her, George Balanchine’s last muse has received steady support from the Kennedy Center in her efforts to pass on her incomparable legacy.
Mounted and coached by Farrell, the performances of works by Balanchine – supplemented by some Jerome Robbins and Maurice Béjart choreography she’d also danced – were infallibly musical and suffused with the sweetness and openness of spirit that leads to the sublime. The interpretations of roles with a dramatic component were authentic, thought through, and felt. The mechanical pyrotechnic feats and depersonalized theatrical slickness that have become synonymous with ballet in our time were banished to the hell in which they belong. Not one of the performers comes close to Farrell’s own genius for dancing, but they have absorbed her approach to the art as well as values – about devotion to a world that extends far beyond oneself, about being available to the exigencies of the moment – that are not solely aesthetic.
This is all very well, but what next? Since her retirement from the stage in 1989, Farrell has proved over and over again – through her teaching and through her staging of the Balanchine repertoire – that she’s equipped to play a significant role in the effort to keep classical dancing true to its nature. No further trials are necessary. The urgent issue is implementing most effectively all she has to offer. There’s a rising sentiment among ballet fans that Farrell’s present ad hoc group should evolve into a permanent institution. But anyone aware of what founding a real company entails will see that matters of time and money caution against this route.
Farrell needs to be annexed, I would venture, to an already established company with a deep, ongoing commitment to Balanchine – or to three or four such companies that could share her services. Forget New York City Ballet for now; the home team had its chance and turned it down. Think Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet (which has already had a successful one-shot deal with Farrell). Think Helgi Tomasson’s San Francisco Ballet, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. Though all of these groups are run by astute Balanchine acolytes, they would benefit hugely from Farrell’s particular ability to make her dancers expansive, individual, and luminous. ABT’s house programs, I’ve noticed, carry notices of private funding earmarked to support the appearances of major artists. If Farrell is not a major artist, I don’t know who is. Her “appearances” may be behind the scenes these days, but they are, more than ever, consequential to the art she serves.