Mystique in Spades


Our Correspondents

Suzanne Farrell revives a rare Balanchine ballet. 


Balanchine rehearsing the original production of Gounod with Maria Tallchief.

“Make the tempo be your pulse.” This remark by Suzanne Farrell—at a lecture/demo this past Sunday at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts—was both an instruction and a philosophy. Farrell, who was George Balanchine’s last great muse and is now, among other things, the artistic director of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, was there to stage an early rehearsal of one movement from a Balanchine work she’s reviving this fall and to answer questions about bringing lost works back into repertory.

Gounod Symphony was not lost, exactly. Made during the Wanderjahr period of late 1957 and early 1958, when Balanchine returned to his company after having left to nurse his polio-stricken wife and prima ballerina, Tanaquil LeClercq, it has languished compared to the other masterpieces he spun out in such short order: Agon, Square Dance, Stars and Stripes. It fell out of repertory, is rarely performed, and never caught on as an audience favorite, although critics have always been captivated and intrigued. What relation does it bear to its three magnificent counterparts, all so modern, so innovative, so American? What relation to Bizet, as it’s nicknamed, Balanchine’s eternally popular Symphony in C of 1947, his other large-scale tribute to Paris Opera Ballet? What to his other “French” ballets? Was it beyond the company’s performance abilities when it was made? And for audiences, not showy enough? Too restrained, raffinée? Whatever it hasn’t, Gounod certainly has mystique in spades. 

Farrell intends to mount three of the original ballet’s four movements. “Ballets are memorable, not memories,” she said, a remark greeted with a universal murmur of appreciation. This will be her version—not set in a garden, as it has been—with new costumes, reconstructed with the help of a silent video of an early performance originally made to help the Paris Opera Ballet restage the ballet a year after its creation.

Sunday’s showing was of the second movement, less than six minutes long and of remarkable sophistication. The two lead dancers had been rehearsing since Wednesday, the eight-woman corps just since Friday. The choreography’s measured, aristocratic air, a clear Baroque inheritance, is mellowed by a heavily rosaceous Second Empire perfume. Eight women in pairs dance a fugue in the middle of the movement, and at one magical point they pass a wave across the back of the stage, as if their arms were being stirred by a humid evening breeze. The ballerina is so haughty and aloof that she must reside on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Suddenly, at the end, her cavalier ducks beneath one of her extended arms, she collapses over his shoulder, and he carries her off: a ravishment in every sense.

Farrell had fun coaching in public. About a little sequence the ballerina does on her own, she said, “Do it because of him, not for him.” She instructed the corps to reach over their heads with their arms from left to right as “from sunrise to sunset, to make the biggest possible movement, and on daylight savings time.” These pleasing notes seemed exactly right.

Farrell doesn’t like to rehearse with mirrors because “you only see yourself from one angle, and there’s only one person in the audience, maybe, who will see you from that angle.” She also believes every performance should be different—that’s what makes it live. “I never knew what I would do when I got out there because I hadn’t lived that moment yet.” She’s just begun to stage Gounod, and was reluctant to say much in the way of particulars—she hasn’t lived that moment yet. But soon she will. And luckily, so will we.

 Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and one of the Daily’s correspondents.