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Saving a dance for Mr. B

Suzanne Farrell, his onetime muse and star, burnishes the George Balanchine legend in directing her own troupe, due for a local debut.

November 02, 2003|Susan Reiter | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Suzanne FARRELL is in a rehearsal studio, a setting she has been intimately familiar with for more than 40 years. She is working on a ballet by George Balanchine, a process that has also been part of the fabric of her being since the early '60s.

Back then, Farrell was on her way to becoming Balanchine's favored muse -- a unique, mold-breaking interpreter of his choreography who bonded with him in an artistic union that galvanized the ballet world and led to the creation of enduring masterworks. Now she is alone at the front of the studio, her back to the mirror, as an ensemble of young dancers navigates the intricacies of his movement under her guidance, focusing intently and eyeing her reactions hopefully.

This is the third and final week of rehearsal for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which has existed as an official company for three years and is preparing for its most extensive tour. It will make its local debut at UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday and Saturday in a program of four Balanchine works, including his 1956 "Divertimento No. 15," an exquisitely elegant and refined Mozart ballet that the dancers in the studio are working hard to master.

While she clarifies counts and monitors complex formations, Farrell is equally concerned with more subtle aspects of the performance.

"Eyes, eyes," she occasionally reminds the dancers, urging them to consider how they project. "They're coming into our world -- we're not going into theirs," she says of the audience. She encourages them to inhabit the music, curbing their tendency to rush and shaping the delicate moment at the end of the adagio when all eight principals "hover in the same tempo." A bit later, she points out, "There's more time there than you think."

Farrell had no master plan to become a company director. Indeed, some wondered whether her highly artistic, somewhat mystical personality would take well to the logistical and bureaucratic responsibilities of such a position. After retiring in 1989 from New York City Ballet -- where her illustrious career started in 1961 -- she began to stage Balanchine ballets through the George Balanchine Trust, which licenses them to companies worldwide. One of her first productions was "Scotch Symphony" for the Kirov Ballet, as part of its initial exposure to the choreographer's bracing, musically sophisticated repertoire. The Kirov version was a revelation when the Russians performed it in New York. A ballet that had become stodgy at its home company regained an impassioned energy, a bracing lightness.

The Farrell company has developed in an unusually organic, unforced way. Ten years ago, Farrell taught several weekends of master classes for local ballet students at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The response was so positive that she soon was conducting an intensive three-week summer ballet program at the center every August, selecting talented students from auditions nationwide. A supposedly one-time Kennedy Center venture in 1995 -- two programs of Balanchine repertoire she staged for members of the Washington Ballet along with established principals from New York City Ballet and elsewhere -- proved to be the beginning of what is now an ongoing project.

A unity takes shape

While some of Farrell's 34 dancers have been with her annually since 1999, others joined up after auditions she held shortly before rehearsals began. Several who were her students in the summer program became company apprentices and are now full members. Because right now the troupe works for only a few months each autumn, the principals and soloists have commitments to other companies as well. With only three weeks to pull together this year's three all-Balanchine programs, Farrell has her work cut out for her.

"It was pretty scary the first day," she acknowledges as she sits down on a studio chair for an interview, not even taking a break after a long day of class and rehearsal. "It was such a disparate group. And now there's starting to be a unity."

What she aims for, she says, is "a uniformity -- without them losing their identity. Some of the dancers haven't had much Balanchine in their repertoire, so it's not as though they've grown up in a company and seen these ballets every season. So I'm continually starting over. But that's good, because you re-see the ballet in different ways. It brings everybody together."

Farrell, 58, still looks every inch the modern ballerina -- svelte and elegant, radiating an aura not of diva importance but of existence in a rarefied realm. She speaks softly but with conviction. Her belief in the intrinsic value of ballet, of the work she did with Balanchine and of artistic expression comes through clearly.

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