Suzanne Farrell Ballet Gears Up for Rarely Seen Gounod Symphony

George Balanchine’s Gounod Symphony is one of those ballets that seems to have fallen through the cracks, for no good reason. This 25-minute work, set to Charles Gounod’s lively first symphony, has largely faded from popular repertoire. (It was last performed at New York City Ballet in 1993, and by the School of American Ballet in 2007.) But this fall, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is bringing Gounod back. It will receive its company premiere October 21–23 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in rehearsal (Courtesy The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in rehearsal (Courtesy The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)

At its premiere in January 1958 at New York City Center, its cast of 32 was led by Maria Tallchief and Jacques d’Amboise. But the dancer most closely associated with the lead ballerina role was the French-born Violette Verdy. This makes sense, since there is something very French about Gounod, a kind of brilliance and formality associated with the Paris Opéra. (Some have linked it to Symphony in C, also set to French music.) Its choreography overflows with brilliant patterns made up of clean, bright, intercrossing lines. Verdy compared it to the gardens of Versailles, and, in fact, the sets designed by Horace Armistead had a garden theme; they were originally used in NYCB’s production of Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas. For The Suzanne Farrell Ballet premiere, however, the ballet is getting a new look. Though she won’t reveal any details, Farrell says the concept “will allow us to see the choreography better.”

Farrell will be staging it, though she never danced it herself. Her tools are “an old, silent archival video in black-and-white” starring Diana Adams and Jacques d’Amboise, and of course the Gounod score. (She staged the ballet once before, for the School of American Ballet, in 1991.) Since there were no archival videos of the ballet on YouTube for her dancers to study, everyone in the room was seeing the steps for the first time, as if it were a new ballet. As she puts it: “It’s almost as if the ballet were being created now by Mr. B.”

Not long ago, for World Ballet Day (Oct. 4), the company filmed an open rehearsal:

It turns out that the premiere will also be a kind of farewell. Recently the Kennedy Center, which funds The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, announced that the company will disband after final performances in December, 2017. Farrell’s role at the Center hasn’t been fully defined, but she will continue to serve as a teaching artist as part of the Center’s expansion, which includes new studios, a lecture hall and more. She’s not wistful, but, as she recently told The Washington Post: “I’m very proud of my dancers and everything we’ve done, and I’m grateful for that.”  —Marina Harss

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