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Suzanne Farrell profile by Joan Acocella

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The January 6 New Yorker has an epiphany indeed -- an article by Joan Acocella titled "Second Act -- Suzanne Farrell returns with a company of her own." There is a photo of the young Suzanne in "Don Quixote" which has had me palpitating since I opened the magazine. Inevitably, much of the piece is about Balanchine. Acocella reveals that in 2005 Suzanne "hopes to stage the three-act Don Quixote. She also posits an interesting distinction between Balanchine and Peter Martins: "Where Balanchine was an idealist, a mystic of sorts, Martins was skeptical, ironical, up-to-date." She has a moving few paragraphs on the transformation of Peter Boal when he danced "Apollo" for Farrell. Not least, Acocella quotes Alexandra about the Farrell Company. All in all, I haven't been as excited about a New Yorker piece in a very long time. :)

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Note witty quotation therein from Alexandra, writing in Washington Post. I have been thinking about Joan's article all day. We'll never know, but I wonder if Suzanne Farrell had staged Balanchine's ballet's at NYCB, if we would have been ecstatic, or agitated. What one really wants is for things to be the way they were, and that can never be. In this dance is just like life, but more clear. I think that one can never equal the ideal situation of a choreographer watching his own work from the wings.

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Oh, not another, "You're making it all up and looking at everything through rose-colored glasses" post! A new little cousin for our old favorite, "Were Ulanova and Fonteyn really any better than Paloma Herrera and Yvonne Borree?" :)

Of course, one has every right to disagree with the idea that Farrell's stagings are sound, or imaginative, or whatever; I have no quarrel with that. But I think the implication that anyone who says they are is desperately trying to recapture a bygone age, etc etc, is a bit much. (My standard answer to the "Were Ulanova etc" question above.)

Yes, I think the same people would be making the same comments were Farrell staging at NYCB. If Balanchine were still there, she wouldn't be staging them, of course. I don't think she, or Villella, whose stagings are also excellent, or Elyse Borne, whose "Serenade" for Washngton Ballet was divine, are trying to recreate anything. They're trying to make the ballets look alive.

(I haven't read the Profile yet, so I can't comment on it.)

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I've been thinking about the article all day long too! First, what a wonderful thing it is to read Acocella's words on ballet in the New Yorker. Even if she writes about the pinky on the last girl in the last line of the corps, I want to read it. And I want her to write about it.

Secondly, it was wonderful to read about my all-time favorite ballerina, Suzanne Farrell. And the thought of the restaging of Balanchine's Don Q. is a delightful prospect, not one of dread. I think the variations and moonlight ballet were some of the most astounding choreography ever made - off-balance, creepy, heavenly - but I have doubts that dancers today could tackle some of it. Morris' variation, for example, with those lightning fast triple turns with little preparation, or Farrell's jumps where her body is leaning in the opposite direction. I'd like to see it.

That morality, mystery, or sense of doing something special is missed sometimes at the theatre now. Is it old fashioned? Yes, I think it's wonderful that dancers have better healthcare now, that they get educated for life after dance, but I miss the surrender to the dance that Farrell exhibited. There are still some dancers around who have that spark, imagination and musicality. And I'm sure they'd be more around if there were more coaches and ADs that could bring it out.

But I'm not criticizing NYCB coaches. I've seen Hendl, Leland and even Martins in action and I could see positive results. But I also believe that Farrell has a special way with coaching too. Although I didn't see her most recent stagings in October, I did see her company the last two seasons they came to the New York area and the performances in 1995. I've also seen her stagings at Miami City Ballet (Diamonds), the Kirov (Scotch Symphony), the Bolshoi (Mozartiana) and DTH (Prodigal Son) and the proof of her talent as a coach is right there on the stage. Was she perfect when she started? Maybe not. Everybody has to learn. But under SF, I've seen so-so dancers become good, good dancers touch greatness and great dancers do some of their best work. There has to be a reason why top dancers such as Peter Boal and Goh make the time to work with her. Alexopolous, Calegari too.

It would have been wonderful to have Farrell spreading her "Ballerina Polish" at NYCB. She wouldn't have had to replace anybody. Merrill Ashley was given a spot at the company, AND a title when she retired.

Ah, maybe it is just as well Farrell has her own company. I only hope she brings the group up to the New York area every year :)

But regarding the article, it was interesting to read Farrell's view on dancing and performing. Her teaching reminded me of one of my french horn teachers, William Brown (ballet connection - he played in the orchestra during the Royal Ballet's visits to the United States). He was the teacher we all went to understand what our "real" horn teachers were trying to teach us. The part where Farrell is described tell her students to make every moment of a developpe interesting reminded me how I was supposed to make even a scale or a finger exercise musical. When Farrell talks about having her dancers stop looking in the mirror, I was reminded about Brown's constant instructions about forgetting the product, just concentrate on the process. It would be interesting to see how many of Farrell's summer students get into NYCB. I thought the company missed out on Amy Watson, a tall Farrellesque mover. But they have Sophie Flack. Didn't Teresa Reichlen study with Farrell?

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I enjoyed this very much. I also regret the less than frequent ballet coverage we see in The New Yorker these days, but this is nice, too.

We get far less of the devout-Catholic-girl stuff than I've read in previous profiles (and Farrell's own book) an omission for which I was grateful.

You have to do a little reading between the lines, but it's fairly clear from the article why Farrell is not applying any "ballerina polish" at NYCB, and both sides seem to have a case. (There is an odd addition to The Sins of Peter Martins: "[Martins] set up seminars where dancers talked about being working mothers." Deplorable.) The profile focuses on the present, fortunately, and the account of Farrell's method and manner as a coach is fascinating.

My understanding is that although Don Q was a deeply flawed work with a less than ideal score, there were many valuable, even great, things in it and if anyone stages it anywhere I'm on the next plane. It does seem to me, however, that to mount such a large and problematic work would be a challenging and difficult undertaking for a company of the first rank with unlimited resources at its disposal, which Farrell obviously doesn't have. I hope she succeeds, of course, but in less-than-ideal circumstances it could be grisly.

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Originally posted by Alexandra

[that Farrell's stagings are sound, or imaginative, or whatever; I have no quarrel with that. But I think the implication that anyone who says they are is desperately trying to recapture a bygone age, etc etc, is a bit much.

Well, I didn't mean them. I meant me. I want to live in the past of these ballets. They were just so beautiful

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Although I very much liked the parts of the article where Farrell discussed her coaching techniques ... I had the opposite reaction to many of those who posted above. I fear to offend Joan's many friends but --

I found little new in the article. It is generally "Elusive Muse" tacked on to (and interpolated with) a very positive review of Farrell's company's recent performances. I felt that the article lacks depth -- Not just nothing not already well known but, above all, little new insight or persepctive on any of it. Contrast that with a quick look at Arlene Croce's old profile of Edward Villella, where even an old fan of his who knew the subject well would -- I imagine -- have found much food for thought.

But I have been a little distressed by Acoccella's recent articles in the New Yorker in general these days, feeling that the subjects she has treated have somehow seemed to grow a little smaller than life, to find themselves somehow diminished in her hands. (I'm thinking of her piece on the Kirov last year in particular). Again, in Croce's pieces, things grew larger, even Croce's dislikes, and perhaps that also was a great distortion. I would say that the Croce/Acocella comparison was "invidious," except that because Accocella is Croce's immediate "successor in office" I think it is fair to compare.

The one exception to this general reaction of mine to Acocella's recent work is her excelllent recent review of a (very bad) biography of Primo Levi, where she showed great passion for her subject and deployed a great deal of forensic skill in unravelling just what was so execrable in the biography. Perhaps it was the engagement, the passion for her subject, that was the difference? And perhaps it was Croce's passion and engagement with her subject, her writing so very much from her heart, that forms a great difference? But not all the difference. In the end you have to be impressed with the insights of an author in order to find it truly rewarding to keep reading them.

Oh my Gosh, I've just realized there is a sort of parallell here: NYCB is not the same without Balanchine and the New Yorker without Arlene Croce. Balanchine and Croce, were they not joined at the waist? I would gladly be proven wrong. Happy New Years every one. I think I'll go to bed.

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I just finished the piece and was, like Michael, most interested in the parts on coaching. Acocella seemed surprised that it wasn't all about steps, and I wanted to jump and yell, 'NO! IT'S NOT ABOUT THE STEPS! IT'S NEVER BEEN ABOUT THE STEPS!!!!" The dancers can figure out how to do the steps. It's all the other things that make the difference.

I was glad to have a recap of the history. I wonder if the current New Yorker could support more depth? When Croce was writing, half of the American ballet world, if not more, hung on her every word. They wanted to know every little detail. That's not the case now. I thought she was deliberately writing for a general readership -- an intelligent readership, but not a dance one. (A personal note: I hesitate to write this, but feel I should, as the "I know X is a friend of yours" has come up occasionally about Acocella or other critics. Although I like and respect Joan Acocella, we're friendly colleagues, not friends; we speak maybe twice a year. I could say the same thing about several other New York writers. And even if we were bosom buddies, anyone is perfectly welcome to post quibbles or negative comments as well as positive ones, about her work or that of any other critic, including this one!)

When you do a Profile piece like this, your guy is supposed to be the Only Guy in the World, but I do worry that we're getting to another polarized place -- Everything Peter Martins and his staff does is Bad; Everything Suzanne Farrell does is Good -- and this leaves out several other people who are doing good work.

I join in the voices that say, more dance pieces in the New Yorker, and more than just about Baryshnikov, Morris, Farrell. I hope there will be reviews, good or bad, of what's happening in dance in New York, 'cause, like, it's The New Yorker!

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I’d love to see dance coverage in every issue. But as Mel noted, in Croce’s day she had plenty to write about. If Acocella is assigned to write for the general public, is there enough quality work being done in New York or even in Washington for her to write more frequently?

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I think that if a magazine like the New Yorker carries regular coverage of any art form, it will develop a readership for that art form. I also think that the dance scene should be COVERED, for good or ill. Otherwise, there will be no record. (I now feel passionately about this after writing a biography. I often had six reviews of a single performance. Reading them, I could tell which were the people who knew very little about ballet, which were the ones who hated anything that didn't look like Martha Graham, or have sex and drugs as its subject matter, and which could look at a Balanchine ballet, say, and see what was there. Anyone trying to write about the current epoch 50 years from now will be out of luck!)

I think also people forget, especially those who have been writing for awhile, that the people just discovering dance RIGHT NOW didn't live through the past 30 years, either on stage or in print, and have no way of knowing the things that the writer presupposes they know. I remember when Croce stopped writing about the Stuttgart -- which played New York regularly back then -- I wondered why. So she hated Cranko. She thought the company wasn't very good. Then say so. You have to say it every season because every season there's someone new reading you. (Of course, then you fall into the Honest Abe Tobias trap. Write about what you believe, year in and year out, and people will call you jaded and negative.)

The newsworthy angle is a troubling one. A newspaper only wants what's new -- new work, new debut, new trend. This takes away any overview, any sense of perspective. Maybe the great performance of the season is Miss X's third "Chaconne". One of the greatest set of performances I ever saw were the last ones Nureyev did before he went off to film "Valentino." (The balcony was hung with signs that said, "Hurry Back, Sheikh!") He got his second wind at the beginning of the second series of turns in "Four Schumann Pieces" at the Saturday matinee, and you could see it. All of a sudden, the energy he'd been measuring had increased tenfold, and he poured it out in four pefformances that were as close to perfection as anyone I've ever seen has come. No one reviewed it. They were sick of Rudiballet then -- it was the period when he basically rented the Met and had been dancing for months, night after night.

I think a magazine should cover what's happened that season, but not be news-driven. (It takes a lot of dedication for the writer to do that; you have to go, if not every night, then at least 4 or 5 times a week. Not many people can do that; one is certainly not paid to do that.)

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I couldn't but to feel the undertone of the piece was that if NYCB wanted to get on the straight and narrow, they needed to hire Farrell.

I liked it but so many contrasts.

Perhaps I missed it, but does she ever explain Suzanne's change of heart regarding running a company?

I liked the "explanation" Suzanne gives as to why Balanchine constantly changed his ballets and his "now" mentality. I think that spontaneity is missing, not just from NYCB, but from pretty much everyone right now.

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Originally posted by Calliope

Perhaps I missed it, but does she ever explain Suzanne's change of heart regarding running a company?

I think so. It wasn't a sudden decision, but a gradual one, and it's in the piece in the sections discussing her work with the Kennedy Center.

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While for many of us, the Farrell story is well-known, many of the magazines' readers might not know it. The piece was listed as a profile and put in the middle of the magazine for general reading, not in the critics' section under dancing. Acocella also describes certain ballet steps in a way I don't think she would have if she was writing for a dance publication.

I did notice that JA quotes from Farrell's autobiography and the film, but I can imagine, as a writer, what might have happened. Sometimes, you just don't get the access you need to get a full profile. I don't know, but maybe Farrell talked to JA for just 30 minutes and let her watch rehearsals. From what I've read and been told, Farrell doesn't grant interviews easily and prefers to talk to writers she knows. Maybe that's a black mark on her perfect image... But now JA has to write the promised profile. She has to fill in the gaps with interviews with other people and quotes from Farrell's book and film. Of course, I'm not sure that is what happened, but I've had it happen to me and you do what you've got to do.

I agree with Alexandra in that I hate to paint the picture that if you're pro Farrell, that you're anti Peter Martins and staff. As I said, I've seen excellent work done by certain coaches at NYCB. And sometimes I worry that articles such as the one on Farrell or Homans' reviews only make the powers that be at NYCB get more defensive. I'm sure Barnes will be dispatched to the front shortly :(

Regarding Don Q - I was worried when Farrell scheduled La Sonnambula two years ago. Even Scotch Symphony. I just didn't know if she had a real corps de ballet and soloists to do the variations in the party scene. But La Sonnambula was well done. It was true, the corps and the demi soloists didn't bowl me over, but I could imagine that if they kept working together, the ballet would be extremely well done. So, I guess I would like to see at least the Act III dream ballet staged, and then add the Act II party scene and build the ballet up from there.

Ideally, I think the best chance for a permanant Suzanne Farrell Ballet company would be for her take over an existing small school-company. Right now, the troup seems like the early Balanchine-Kirstein ventures. They didn't have a lot of performances, but when Balanchine called, dancers came. They wanted to work and work with him. Farrell isn't Balanchine in that she is not a creator of ballets, but she does have something that dancers want (or should want).

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It's true that the account of Farrell's career follows a path already outlined in Holding On to the Air and Elusive Muse, and it does feel like a retread, but much of that information would be unfamilar to many general readers. And Farrell is not a figure like Baryshnikov who's had half a dozen books or more devoted to his life and/or career and gets lots of media attention.

I think Calliope may be right about the undertone. (And one did get the impression of being presented with a New and Improved Suzanne, more collegial, less divalike and "standoffish.")

I would hope that people will find ways to praise Farrell's efforts without using her as a stick to beat Martins with. (I'm not suggesting that Acocella intended to do that.) Parenthetically, it's interesting that it was another New Yorker article, David Daniel's "In Balanchine's Footsteps," which took the gossip about Farrell's underuse by the company public and is said to have played a part in precipitating Farrell's dismissal from NYCB.

The dance scene in New York may not be what it used to be, but I'd agree emphatically with Alexandra that true or not, that issue is beside the point. A lengthy profile of Farrell is great to see, but there are hardly any reviews of her troupe or NYCB (or other companies) to put it into some kind of context. You need coverage of the daily events, however uninspiring, to put a Big Event like the Kirov's bringing "Jewels" to town into perspective. And it seems to me that a magazine like The New Yorker is there to do things like that.

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I've been trying to keep a low profile on this thread, but I feel it necessary to say that Suzanne has never been "standoffish." Despite her onstage daring, she used to be extremely shy, and some misinterpreted her behavior for aloofness. She is stilll shy, but not as badly.

I had the same thought as dirac -- the last time the New Yorker did a piece about her, NYCB fired her. That can't happen this time. I also agree that one shouldn't use Farrell to beat Martins with. She's way above that.

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