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George Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive Project  Reports

Notes on Suzanne Farrell coaching Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra

by Leigh Witchel
DanceView, Winter 2002
copyright © 2002 by Leigh Witchel

It was an uncertain Sunday five days after the attack on the World Trade Center when the George Balanchine Foundation went ahead with plans to tape Suzanne Farrell coaching two ballets with which she is identified, Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Farrell was in the midst of preparing the ballets for her company’s season at the Kennedy Center and its subsequent tour. Bomb threats near her rehearsal space made undisrupted rehearsing impossible; there was no semblance of a normal routine at the time. Identification was required to enter the building where the taping occurred. It began with a minute of silence. Farrell broke it matter-of-factly. "Well, I have no idea what's going to happen. We lost a week."

Monumentum and Movements are almost always paired in repertory, yet were choreographed three years apart, 1960 and 1963 respectively. Both ballets were choreographed on Diana Adams, but Farrell assumed both roles, the lead in Movements even before the premiere due to complications in Adams' pregnancy. It was a role that cemented her artistic relationship with Balanchine and the following year he had her take over Monumentum from Adams, who was nearing retirement. The ballets were first performed together in 1965, and have been performed that way since. Neither ballet was a departure for Balanchine; both are continued experimentation with issues that interested him in works such as 1959's Episodes. The eponymous score of Monumentum is the same sort of modernist commentary on classical tradition as the final Ricercata of Episodes; Webern orchestrating Bach much as Stravinsky did with Gesualdo. Movements expands on the vocabulary of the Symphony and Concerto movements.

The two dancers scheduled to perform the ballet, Jennifer Fournier and Runqiao Du, are working for the first time with a pianist instead of a recording, and this is the first time they can cue the beginning of Monumentum, a silent downbeat to the conductor, correctly. Farrell offers background to the dancers and to us. "Diana told me it was like being in church, and then she said 'madrigals'. I didn't know what that means, but I do now." Stravinsky orchestrated three madrigals of Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, celebrated composer, lutenist, a brilliant harmonist and suspected of causing the murder of his first wife and her lover. The pianist, Boris Poliakine, is playing the reduction of Stravinsky’s composition made by Balanchine himself.

We're not seeing the dancers at the beginning of the process; they've already been taught the steps. Farrell begins by adjusting the couple’s placement in the room, moving them closer to each other. They begin to dance; she stops them about half a minute in. "We're late."

Farrell makes corrections. She aims for the concrete; how far, how close, what count, how to change feet, how to bend but in the process will sometimes brush awkwardly with the poetic. Her metaphors, though spare, are well chosen. "Calm exactitude." "Preciseness.” “Majesty." "Powerful calm." She describes the ballet and its inhabitants as being on a cloud from which "it's people looking down, not us looking up." But she can’t bring herself to name that place or perhaps she wants the dancers to discover it on their own. Heaven for her is as unnamable as the name of the Lord. It's obvious she distrusts words; there is always a long pause as she thinks of what she wants to say.

Monumentum is brief, probably under 10 minutes, and it moves at the grave tempo of a pavane. There is a lead couple and six couples within their court; their relationship to one another remains traditional and courtly with brilliant flashes of the unexpected. The men offer their hands; the women receive them. The couples whisper and they kiss. This tiny masterpiece is an eau de vie of the Italian Renaissance, a distillation of all that is humane, yet sinister of that time. It's heady perfection; something so concentrated and pure in expression that at times when I have seen it in performance I wanted to leave immediately after to retain the taste. The first madrigal is adagio in character, with a slow rotating promenade off-balance and many precise presentations of the man and woman's intertwined feet. At the end of the first madrigal, the woman walks alone in a slowly diminishing circle only to lean against the man's leg and ends kneeling on his back leg as he kneels facing away from her. She looks like the passenger in a tiny ferryboat being inexplicably asked to traverse the seas.

Du received his original dance training at the Shanghai Dance Academy, but has been a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet for the past 11 seasons. He is handsome, elegant and at this point westernized. Fournier is from the National Ballet of Canada, where she was also a principal dancer. She's dressed in a pale faded pink leotard and tights without a skirt, rather than the usual white when this is performed. Fournier is matter of fact and a hard worker with excellent technique and facility. She's strong enough to correct her balance in a turn while she's turning through sheer willpower. She's not a naturally perfumed dancer, but she gains effect in Monumentum as she goes. There's an art to casting though, and if there is a weakness Farrell has shown as a coach it's in casting her own parts. Farrell is working independently without access to a major company or school; her pool of dancers is limited to who is available from their permanent positions with other companies. Add to the difficulty of finding a ballerina the much more difficult task for Farrell of coming to terms with what in these ballets made Farrell so appropriate for two works paired by composer but opposite by moods and calling it out of another dancer. It's understandable not to want to replicate herself but she has to at least find an analogue.

Fournier and Du run the first madrigal. On their first try the music affects more deeply than the performance. It's too early for Fournier to be vulnerable. Farrell's insistence on precision in the counts is important, but also makes it difficult to let go. Farrell sums up the run by saying, "Well, I'd like to do it again." Fournier offers, "You don't have to count this time."

In a letter of advice to Farrell before her first performance in the role, Adams quotes Balanchine, saying the character of the ballet should be "like a lamb." The second run yields more and shows us the activity and preparation necessary to reach the passivity of gentle innocence. A dancer works to control his or her effects, but part of Farrell's genius was the ability to allow the dance to affect her, to become a conduit and vessel for things greater than herself or any of us alone. She coaches more. Describing the position of the ballerina in the off-balance promenade to Fournier: "She's suspended by her power. Her wings, anyway." One does not need to believe in Heaven or angels to understand and believe in their presence in art or in the grace that they represent. In the end, the primary teaching tool in her arsenal is repetition and she asks to repeat the madrigal. The dancers do the first madrigal a third time and move on to the second.

The second madrigal has a brighter, more allegro character than the first, with overhead lifts and a Russian scuffing folk step bubbling up in the middle foreshadowed at the beginning of the movement by the woman's stuttering pointe work. It looks somehow completely appropriate in an Italian madrigal.

Farrell asks for more than steps from the dancers here; the corrections are about style and quality. "More proud, more majestic," and "Volume and responsibility in the arms." Before they run the madrigal a third time she puts it succinctly. "There's nothing more difficult than simplicity." As Fournier and Du dance, Farrell says nothing but stands in front of them with her chest proud as Balanchine would have wanted. She walks with them, sings and stamps the rhythm. They are trying so hard to go beyond where they can.

After a few runs, Farrell decides to restore the first overhead jété lift to what she recalled, which was a small toss where the man adjusted his hands to cradle the woman at the end. The lift is not at all standard like the present jété; it has a tossing and a twisting action to it. The twist is awkward and painful for Fournier; Du keeps catching her right under her ribs. Like pointe work, partnering is gender-specific in ballet and though someone might know what the result should look like, it's more difficult to correct the trickiest problems if you rarely lift someone or go on pointe yourself. They do it over and over. By the fourth time, Fournier gasps silently. By the seventh, she takes a sharp intake of breath whenever Du touches her. Farrell notices, but she was the sort who would keep dancing until it was right. She has an indefatigable capacity to rehearse, and seems not to see anything else in others.

They go on to the third madrigal, which joins the entire court on a single diagonal with the lead couple in the center. The women bend over in arabesque penchée; they flex their feet in unison and then swing back down in twos like the closing of a portcullis. The ballerina is joined by her six male courtiers who, in groups of two, toss her in arabesque into the waiting arms of another duo; she remains a still figure of triumph throughout. At the end the women fall to a split while the men stand over them but then bend both legs slightly as if a split were immodest. They offer their arms in salute to the unknown future.

Farrell offers that "Two is the magic number in this movement." The counts and accents, everything is on two. We have to imagine the geography of the dance, as well as the tosses of the woman into the waiting arms of men not there. The phantom corps affects the rehearsal. The dancers search through them at one point and Fournier is early.

Farrell finishes coaching the individual movements. "Did we get all that?" She pauses for thought again. Then she decides to run all three madrigals. The dancers begin. The sessions have exposed the trickiness of the partnering that seems so elementary on stage. Going under their arms, the two knock into each other. Farrell acknowledges the difficulty of that step. "That happens." She brushes her neck with her hand to get Fournier to expose hers. Fournier works to release herself, but certain tricky partnering still doesn't work. The last lean onto Du's leg in the first movement goes awry and she crashes to the floor. Farrell works on it and changes the angle that Fournier leans on Du's leg to make it more stable. The second madrigal is filmed with the toss restored. Fournier is still counting the opening of the final madrigal even as she gives much more of a performance than she had previously. Describing the tempo and rhythm Farrell conducts a four in the music and then makes a sign of the cross in the same rhythm. "It's a very powerful thing."

After a break, the dancers continue with Movements for Piano and Orchestra. There are five movements to Monumentum's three, but like it, the work uses a lead couple and a sextet of women, this time without their skirts or their partners. The corps is deployed primarily in two trios, and they have gone from being a court to being a swarm, a hive of buzzing insects. Stravinsky referred to Balanchine's "bee-like" women in Movements and provides serial music to match, relentlessly active and inscrutably purposeful, at once mathematically logical yet seemingly without logic. Poliakine plays a reduction by Stravinsky for two pianos, moving between the parts. Again, this is the dancers' first time with piano.

Farrell introduces the ballet by saying, "Every time before we did this, Jacques [D'Amboise] would be. . ." and then she hissed like a large, ferocious cat. Again, she's taught the steps to the dancers before the filming, so we are watching only a segment of the coaching after the initial explanation. The dancers begin to show the first movement. It is a cascade of notes and counts; one can see Fournier counting softly. Farrell stops them quickly to focus on where Du is looking. She gives him options. "Forward, but certainly not down" and then to express the quality she wants more of, she goes up to him and hisses as Jacques would have.

They go on to the second movement. Fournier's beautiful feet and precision suit the ballet. She shakes her head with uncertainty at one point as a detail in partnering gets hammered out. She indicates her weight held farther back than Du has it. "I need to be here." Of the Interpreters Archive tapings I've attended, this is the one with the most partnering issues. In each movement there seems to be a single detail that takes the bulk of the time. In the third movement it’s a shift of weight falling backwards. Farrell tries to get Fournier to fall backwards without a contraction. It’s much harder than it looks, and the man is necessarily in the way.

The third movement is filled with crouches, stammering runs and flexed feet. What's surprising when seeing the work dissected and repeated is how sensible what can be inscrutable in performance seems. The structure becomes clear. Farrell restored a long drag of the woman by the man on a curved path while she is in a crouch, something she hadn't recalled until she saw a film shot in 1963 before the ballet's premiere of a rehearsal conducted by Balanchine with Stravinsky in attendance. She looks at the restored step and says simply, "I like that." Rehearsing the fourth movement Farrell stops because she feels Du is looking in the mirror. “I’m just looking front,” he smiles. The dancers are starting to fatigue. Fournier is trying to follow the intricate counts, and Movements is firmly note-for-step, although sometimes Suzanne just sings “up, up and . . .” in rhythm. In a step for the woman in the fifth movement, five counts have five movements of the foot, and an extraneous one Fournier makes gets removed.

The fifth movement has striking images in it, the ballerina paws the ground with her foot like a bull and the man slowly reaches his hands toward her foot a little at a time as if it were forbidden contraband. Some of the biggest partnering issues are here. Du tries to pull Fournier back as she does an extension and she explains, more in fatigue and frustration than annoyance, “My hip can’t do it.” Du asks Farrell for any help possible. “I have no clue where her weight is at this point.” At a later point, he attempts to bring one foot against the other but Fournier’s foot is moving right into his path. His frustration is apparent and Farrell is accommodating. “If it doesn’t work there, don’t do it.” On the last run of the movement he slams his feet together and grimaces. Everything has been coached and filmed when the sessions end after three and a half concentrated hours but it would have been impossible to do more; the dancers are too fatigued and in pain to go on.

A single viewing in performance gives one little time to compare and contrast the paired ballets, but this coaching session provides an opportunity. Though choreographed three years apart and having utterly different characters, it's surprising how similar the palette of vocabulary is, and what the differences are. There are the same leaning promenades and stalking pointe work, but Movements is more closed off to the audience than Monumentum, with croisé or turned-in lines, crouches and knotty partnering of hands under limbs. Even the surprise overhead lift closing the first movement of Movements seems familiar after seeing Monumentum repeatedly, but here the position is bent rather than simple and open. On this Sunday, even a work as thorny as Movements seems reassuring in its clarity and order and Monumentum, even without its corps, is so moving. To watch this rehearsal and see this statement of logic, certainty and faith in this most uncertain of times is balm to the spirit.

 

 

 

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