BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Suzanne Farrell was the greatest American ballerina of the late 20th century. With New York City Ballet, she was the muse of legendary choreographer George Balanchine, who created many ballets for her, including the lead in Diamonds, a 1967 role that she performed more than 100 times.
This fall, Farrell has been working with Sarasota Ballet to stage the work, along with her own company, the Washington-based Suzanne Farrell Ballet. In October, the combined companies gave seven performances of the ballet on programs at the Kennedy Center, and this weekend audiences in Sarasota and Clearwater have an opportunity to see them.
Diamonds, performed to Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony, is one of three movements from a larger work, Jewels, which was Balanchine's first full-length abstract ballet. It features sumptuous classical costumes and intricate patterns of movement.
"I call Mr. Balanchine's ballets 'worlds,' because each one creates a different world," Farrell said in a phone interview last week. "It's a world of majestic walking on pointe, beautiful walking, which isn't necessarily easy to do. It's beautiful formations, like the last polonaise, which is just so exciting. And it's the thrilling music of Tchaikovsky."
On Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano from Sarasota Ballet will dance the principal roles. Wall Street Journal critic Robert Greskovic, reviewing a performance at the Kennedy Center, said that "the couple galvanized Ms. Farrell's keen staging of the 34-dancer work."
Farrell, 66, also a professor of dance at Florida State University, brings a wealth of knowledge in the Balanchine repertory to young dancers, such as those in the Sarasota company. "I don't want them to be a carbon copy of me," she said. "I want to bring out their potential."
For example, Farrell made a statuesque impression onstage, even though she is only 5-feet-6. "I was a tall dancer," she said. "The girl who is doing it with Sarasota is shorter than I am, but she moves big. It's always interesting to see someone else do it."
Farrell encourages dancers to be "in the moment" of a performance, and not to become locked into an interpretation in rehearsal. "I caution them not to rehearse only one option in the studio, because the wonderful thing about live theater is that it's never the same," she said. "I've done the pas de deux (in Diamonds) many times. One time it will be 11 minutes long, and the next time it will be nine minutes long. Tempos change. Audiences are different. You want to be available to that."
The collaboration with Sarasota Ballet is part of an effort by Farrell Ballet to work with regional companies. "Sarasota is our fourth partnership since 2007," said Farrell, whose company celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. "My company isn't large enough to do Diamonds, so it worked out well that Sarasota was interested in doing it."
Diamonds and the other work on this weekend's program, Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons, will be performed with an orchestra, conducted by Emil de Cou. Only the Balanchine ballet will have dancers from both companies, 17 from each.
The Two Pigeons (premiered in 1961) is being staged by another great ballerina, Margaret Barbieri, a former principal with the Royal Ballet of England and a favorite of Ashton, who is sometimes referred to as the British Balanchine. Barbieri is wife of Sarasota Ballet artistic director Iain Webb.
"Having these two ladies both in the studio has been such a privilege for my dancers," Webb said. "I've probably met about 10 true ballerinas in my lifetime, and these are two of them. They just have something you can't teach. An aura."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.