- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

Forty years ago, when George Balanchine created a vivid, full-length version of “Don Quixote,” his personal life was thrust into high relief. As he dramatized Cervantes’ story of the pursuit of a romantic ideal of love and chivalry, he was echoing that story in his own life. The 61-year-old choreographer not only had cast 19-year-old Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea, making her a star overnight; he had fallen in love with her.

Mr. Balanchine illuminated those feelings memorably onstage in the idealized role he created for Miss Farrell (even dancing the title role opposite her on opening night) and revealed them to the world with these unguarded words, “My interest in ‘Don Quixote’ has always been in the hero’s finding an ideal. I myself think that everything a man does he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life, and you believe in something, and I believe in that.”

Miss Farrell, who inspired those remarks, is about to bring that ballet back to life for a new generation. She says of Mr. Balanchine: “It’s a very moving statement. I think the ballet is one that people need morally today; looking for your goal and staying with it says everything about him.”

It also says something about Miss Farrell’s own vision that she has embarked upon such an ambitious project as the lavishly staged “Don Quixote” that opens Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Her own company of 37 is supplemented by 18 dancers from the National Ballet of Canada, which is co-producing this “Don Quixote” and will perform it in Canada next year.

In spite of such support, “Don Quixote” is making huge demands on her. She is restaging a ballet that has not been danced for 27 years, with only a blurry black-and-white film shot surreptitiously for reference purposes, and a score by Mr. Balanchine’s friend Nicolas Nabokov (cousin of novelist Vladimir Nabokov) that has never been recorded.

It is a formidable task, not only of re-creation, but of teaching such a large ambitious ballet in just five weeks — and singlehandedly.

Two dancers who are members of the Washington Ballet are part of Miss Farrell’s company: Runqiao Du has been with her group since its inception five years ago, and Erin Mahoney is joining it for the first time. The two, who became engaged a week before they joined the company in Canada, are astounded at Miss Farrell’s grasp of the operation.

“She teaches every class,” Miss Mahoney marvels. “The first week, [ballet mistress] Susan Pillare was here to set some of the group dances, and Suzanne worked with the principals. But since then we’re all in the same studio, and Suzanne does everything — our daily company class and all the staging.”

“We cannot stop talking about it. She knows every single part,” Mr. Du says. “Yes, I’m sure she did her homework, but I’ve never seen anyone work like this. You ask her about counts in any section of this full-length ballet, and she’s absolutely clear. Over the years, I learned many ballets from her. But with a ballet this big, you’d think she’d be consulting notes or videotapes, but no — nothing. It’s all in her head.”

Miss Farrell makes it all sound natural. “The choreography is clarified for me when I hear the music because I just know how Mr. B would have phrased it,” she says. “I learned it in my body — and I learned through looking. I wanted to know that whole world I was dancing in, and I wanted to be with him. When I wasn’t dancing, I was sitting next to him, watching.”

The choreographer and his dancer were drawn together by the fulfillment both found in dance, their strong response to music and their deeply held religious beliefs.

“Don Quixote” is rife with religious symbolism. Dulcinea, the idealized woman, appears in many guises. Recalling Mary Magdalene, she washes the Don’s feet, then dries them with her hair, later to reappear as the Virgin Mary.

Mr. Balanchine’s uncle was a Russian Orthodox priest, and the choreographer revered the church’s sacred rituals all his life. “That was taken away from him during the Russian Revolution,” Miss Farrell says, noting that when “you cling to your religion, it becomes even more important.”

She recalls that they seldom talked about their beliefs but were aware of the bond. “He would see me in Blessed Sacrament Church that I went to on Broadway and 71st Street. There was a statue there of the Blessed Virgin — he copied that for the way I held my hands in the opening section of ‘Mozartiana.’”

The dancers rehearsing in Canada are aware that their work is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“We’ve all read her autobiography [“Holding on to the Air”],” Miss Mahoney explains. “We all realize how important this is.”

“One day the two of us were watching a rehearsal,” Mr. Du says. “Dulcinea is mourning the death of Don Q, and Suzanne was showing the gestures for that scene. She’s still very elegant; she still looks like a ballerina. She knelt and covered her face with her hands. Then she said softly, ‘Now he’s gone, you’ve lost him.’ You couldn’t help feeling the scene was a metaphor of her and Balanchine. To see her demonstrating something like that [was] like watching history.”

WHAT: Suzanne Farrell Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Don Quixote”

WHAT: Wednesday through June 26

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House


PHONE: 202/467-4600

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