Serenading Tucson

A busy week of dance events is highlighted by a performance of George Balanchine's works.

The tilting pillars in the lobby of the UA's new Stevie Eller Dance Theatre mimic the dancers' movements in the opening scene of "Serenade," the first ballet George Balanchine ever staged in America.

Those entranced by this architectural rendition of a dance in steel will get a chance to see it live, in the flesh, next week. On Tuesday, Balanchine's prima ballerina, Suzanne Farrell, sends her live dancers onto the stage at Centennial Hall to perform the actual dance. (See below for other local concerts in a busy dance week.)

One of four works on an all-Balanchine program to be danced by the 3-year-old Suzanne Farrell Ballet, "Serenade" introduced Balanchine's neoclassical style to the world in 1934. And it's important in Farrell's personal history as well.

"It was the first ballet I got thrown into," Farrell said by phone last week from Tallahassee, where her company was starting a three-month tour. (Farrell also is a ballet professor at nearby Florida State University.) "A ballerina was injured, and I learned it quickly. I was 16 years old and in the company (New York City Ballet) just 10 months."

Even now, when she hears the music--Tchaikovsky's Serenade in C major for String Orchestra--it reminds her of how nervous she felt as a teen presuming to dance the great choreographer's signature work. But luckily for the young dancer, "Serenade" is an ensemble piece, for 20 women and six men, so she was not alone on stage. Her own troupe is full of stars, she said, but she selected the piece for them in part because it's a "tribute to the whole company."

Farrell might have been nervous when Balanchine plucked her from the corps, but she soon became one of his most important dancers. Tall, long-legged and slender--as Balanchine preferred his ballerinas--she almost single-handedly changed the body shape considered de rigueur for ballet. And her amazing technique forever raised the barre for all ballerinas.

Now 58 years old, Farrell danced much of her 28-year-career with Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, where she was the last, and possibly the greatest, of his dancer-muses. (When she married someone else, Balanchine's jealousy forced her to move with her husband for some years to Maurice Béjart's Ballet of the 20th Century in Europe.) Balanchine called Farrell his "Stradivarius" in tribute to her extraordinary musicality, and he choreographed many of his late works specifically for her. Probably the most important figure in American ballet, Balanchine drew both on his classical Russian training and on American modernism to create a new form of abstract ballet mostly devoid of narrative. He died in 1983, and Farrell today is better positioned than anyone else to make faithful stagings of his works.

Three of the four Balanchine works she selected for the Centennial Hall program are set to Tchaikovsky.

"I love Tchaikovsky," Farrell said. "I grew up with him. His music is so impassioned and inspiring. So did Mr. Balanchine. He loved choreographing to the music of his own countryman."

"Tempo di Valse," or "Waltz of the Flowers," is an extract from Act II of Balanchine's 1954 Nutcracker. Presented several weeks before the annual onslaught of full-length Nutcrackers, the piece is a "beautiful little gem" that can "get lost in the seasonality of the ballet," Farrell said. Normally, she wouldn't dare to trim one of his full-length dances, but Balanchine himself set a precedent by presenting "Waltz of the Flowers" alone at a 1981Tchaikovsky festival.

"I second the motion," she said with a laugh. "It's stunning choreography."

The third Tchaikovsky piece is the pas de deux from Balanchine's Swan Lake, a "beautiful, bravura tour de force."

Balanchine choreographed only two works to Mozart over his long career, believing the composer's music to be so beautiful it had no need of dance, Farrell said.

"But he was so taken with this music"--Mozart's Divertimiento No. 15--that in 1956 he set a piece set to it. "It's exquisite, the first gem on the program."

After years as a star ballerina, Farrell said she finds it satisfying to run her own company, though it's not something she had planned on.

"I never anticipated having a company. When I danced, I danced. I didn't think about the future. At retirement (in 1989), I had to think of what to do. I had already staged ballets for the Balanchine Trust.

"And I like working with dancers. Part of the ballet is you, and part of it is them."

When she left the stage, Farrell first worked as a ballet coach at her home company, New York City Ballet. But the current company director--and her former dancing partner, Peter Martins--shocked the dance world by firing her in 1993, ostensibly for financial reasons. Farrell then accepted an invitation to teach at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and developed a well-regarded workshop for advanced young dancers. Eventually, she started staging performances.

She got such a good response to a 1999 presentation of works by Balanchine, Béjart and Robbins that she started her own troupe the following year, under the auspices of the Kennedy Center. She gathered dancers from her own workshops and from such companies as the New York City and the Royal Canadian National Ballet. The new job has given her a different appreciation for the mentor who did so much to shape her career.

"Now that I'm in this position, I realize Mr. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein (general director of NYCB) were doing all the necessary things behind the scenes so I could do what I needed to do--be the best dancer I could be.

"Now my place is to do the best I can to let my dancers be the best dancers they can be. It's come full circle."

TUCSON'S OWN BALLET Tucson this weekend becomes the first local company to perform in the new 300-seat Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, which has just won a second design award, this one an Honor Award bestowed by the Western Mountain Region of the American Institute of Architects. (The UA students opened the theatre in a gala concert earlier this month.) Guest stars John Gardner and Amanda McKerrow of American Ballet Theatre join the pros and advanced students of the local troupe in three performances of Swan Lake Act II and Firebird Suite.

The town's modern dancers celebrate Halloween and All Souls' Day with a two-night No Frills Dance Happenin' in the Zuzi Theater in the Historic YWCA. This low-key event showcasing choreography by a host of local artists will include a trapeze dance lesson at intermission for brave volunteers from the audience. Highlights of the evening will be a new duet by Kevin Schroeder, a fine dancer formerly with 10th St. Danceworks, set to live brass music, and a spoof of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" by the members of ZUZI! Dance Company and NEW ARTiculations.

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