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Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell (for adults)

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I recently attended this class and while it looks like the next one - scheduled for February 28 at Kennedy Center - is already "sold out" it's likely there will be another one next fall. I would definitely recommend it, though I'd really prefer, at my rather advanced age, to have been an invisible participant.

The class made it much easier to see why the company's dancers perform the way they do. Ms. Farrell gave corrections but always with kindness, a light touch, and a sense of humor. Her sense of humor was one of the markers of the class, which I hadn't expected at all. Demonstrating the start of the tendu combination, she showed a tendu front, tendu side, tendu back, and on the fourth count "just hold and smile that you made it that far". Watching her demonstrate developpes at the barre was also a bit of a revelation - I've never had a teacher demonstrate that step at the barre beginning with her head on her chest and then unfold her head and chest slightly upwards while the leg extends. It was rather like watching a flower unfold, and it reminded me so much of watching her dance full-out years ago. It definitely encouraged me to dance more fully in class (I still take class but on a basic level, and this is a regular class format).

For one of the center combinations she taught us a little piece of Theme and Variations, which was quite wonderful as she had the pianist provide the correct music for us (Tschaikovsky's final movement of Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G Major) She didn't tell us what it was in the beginning, but when she explained (and when we had all had a chance to make a bit of a mess of it) the class breathed a collective sigh of happiness. It seemed most of those present had experienced Theme and Variations, though from an audience perspective. It was encouraging to watch Ms. Farrell, when transposing this series of steps for us to the left side, actually had to think about it for a minute. I felt a bit less clumsy!

Another unexpected part of the class was her reference to Louis XIV - not once but twice. I was expecting more Balanchine-history than origins-of-ballet history. Perhaps many teachers think that way but until then I've never heard one express it that clearly in a class setting.

Toward the end of the class she emphasized to us how important it is not to get stuck in thinking one particular step usually follows another particular step. She said that to keep the company fresh she was devising combinations based on their next tour destination. She said that one combination she created seemed particularly odd-looking to the dancers, but that when she explained it spelled out G-E-T-T-Y-S-B-U-R-G they understood!

I had to travel several hours to attend the class - it was well worth it.

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I'll second that, Victoria! It was like being there. As a matter of fact...

The only downer was the part about the next one being sold out. And here I was trying to get back in shape! *sigh*

But was there any accompaniment? Piano or boom-box, maybe? Just wondering about that part of her method.

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To be dancing a bit from Theme and Variations without knowing it! That must be an unforgettable moment. :)

Farrell sounds like a remarkable teacher, not just a remarkable ballet teacher.

Did the class get a chance to try the "Gettysburg" combination?

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Bart, I think you've hit on exactly the point - after just one class I had the sense that she's a wonderful teacher. Of course she is unique in her ability to visually demonstrate the steps, but also she was able to correct individual students in a way that didn't discourage or embarrass them (I've had teachers who do both, as probably many have.) It seemed like people felt free to make mistakes, and to feel comfortable, which was remarkable under the circumstances. Partly that was because her sense of humor but partly is was her generous and warm demeanor which really "carried" the class along. It helped that we had a lovely accompanist on the piano. The pianist looked quite familiar to me, but I still can't recall where I've seen her before.

As for the combinations, unfortunately she did not teach us "Gettysburg" though she did mention that she needed to create one or more steps free-form that would correspond to the more unusual letters in that combination - I believe "Y" was one of those letters. Apparently her company members were baffled by the inclusion of the "Y" step (what was it exactly and what was it doing there?) until she explained it. The "Y" step she showed us, with both arms raised, looked rather jazzy-looking and reminded me of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Most of the class fit a standard format, starting at the barre (plies, tendus, ronds de jambe, frappes, etc.). I personally struggled with the grand battements, as every single battement she gave us (front, side, back) started and ended with a tendu. When you're my age you need every bit of energy to get that working leg going!

In the center, she gave us a combination that (if memory serves) started to the right: glissade, jete to the right, and then to the left glissade, pas de chat, glissade, jete, and then to the right glissade, pas de chat, ending with a sous-sus. For the jumping combination she just gave us a simple series of changements and echappes, but emphasized carrying the arms softly throughout. I believe she said "no flapping" which made the class (and indeed we were somewhat guilty of some flapping) laugh quite a bit.

Please do give the class a try if you're in the DC area. It's not a large class at all - about 25 people.

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Reading your posts, Victoria, is both delightful and a little painful. Back at the time of the first Balanchine celebration ('93?) Farrell gave a talk about her art, and she spent a fair amount of time describing Balanchine's classes. Someone asked if she'd be willing to give a "Balanchine" class, and Suzanne eagerly agreed. A bunch of us signed up for it at the end of the seminar. (I believe I had stopped taking class by then, but I was willing to give it a try).

A few days before the class was to have met, I received a phone call. I don't remember whether the planned venue was no longer available, or if Farrell had to leave town, but I was never notified of a new date and suspect it simply didn't happen. I guess your lucky classmates have that extremely eager audience member who asked for a class to thank for planting the inspiration for these demo classes. If he's reading this, I'll happily extend my thanks, even though I never had the experience -- except vicariously through you, VP.

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I feel your pain, carbro. Yes, the Balanchine Celebration at NYCB was in the Spring season of 1993. Given this timing, it seems probable that Farrell's class did not come off because by then she'd been fired by her erstwhile partner, the Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins. Sorry to bring this disgraceful mattter into this otherwise glorious subject.

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