Saving a dance for Mr. B

Special to The Times

Suzanne FARRELL is in a rehearsal studio, a setting she has been intimately familiar with for more than 40 years. She is working on a ballet by George Balanchine, a process that has also been part of the fabric of her being since the early '60s.

Back then, Farrell was on her way to becoming Balanchine's favored muse -- a unique, mold-breaking interpreter of his choreography who bonded with him in an artistic union that galvanized the ballet world and led to the creation of enduring masterworks. Now she is alone at the front of the studio, her back to the mirror, as an ensemble of young dancers navigates the intricacies of his movement under her guidance, focusing intently and eyeing her reactions hopefully.

This is the third and final week of rehearsal for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which has existed as an official company for three years and is preparing for its most extensive tour. It will make its local debut at UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday and Saturday in a program of four Balanchine works, including his 1956 "Divertimento No. 15," an exquisitely elegant and refined Mozart ballet that the dancers in the studio are working hard to master.

While she clarifies counts and monitors complex formations, Farrell is equally concerned with more subtle aspects of the performance.

"Eyes, eyes," she occasionally reminds the dancers, urging them to consider how they project. "They're coming into our world -- we're not going into theirs," she says of the audience. She encourages them to inhabit the music, curbing their tendency to rush and shaping the delicate moment at the end of the adagio when all eight principals "hover in the same tempo." A bit later, she points out, "There's more time there than you think."

Farrell had no master plan to become a company director. Indeed, some wondered whether her highly artistic, somewhat mystical personality would take well to the logistical and bureaucratic responsibilities of such a position. After retiring in 1989 from New York City Ballet -- where her illustrious career started in 1961 -- she began to stage Balanchine ballets through the George Balanchine Trust, which licenses them to companies worldwide. One of her first productions was "Scotch Symphony" for the Kirov Ballet, as part of its initial exposure to the choreographer's bracing, musically sophisticated repertoire. The Kirov version was a revelation when the Russians performed it in New York. A ballet that had become stodgy at its home company regained an impassioned energy, a bracing lightness.

The Farrell company has developed in an unusually organic, unforced way. Ten years ago, Farrell taught several weekends of master classes for local ballet students at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The response was so positive that she soon was conducting an intensive three-week summer ballet program at the center every August, selecting talented students from auditions nationwide. A supposedly one-time Kennedy Center venture in 1995 -- two programs of Balanchine repertoire she staged for members of the Washington Ballet along with established principals from New York City Ballet and elsewhere -- proved to be the beginning of what is now an ongoing project.

A unity takes shape

While some of Farrell's 34 dancers have been with her annually since 1999, others joined up after auditions she held shortly before rehearsals began. Several who were her students in the summer program became company apprentices and are now full members. Because right now the troupe works for only a few months each autumn, the principals and soloists have commitments to other companies as well. With only three weeks to pull together this year's three all-Balanchine programs, Farrell has her work cut out for her.

"It was pretty scary the first day," she acknowledges as she sits down on a studio chair for an interview, not even taking a break after a long day of class and rehearsal. "It was such a disparate group. And now there's starting to be a unity."

What she aims for, she says, is "a uniformity -- without them losing their identity. Some of the dancers haven't had much Balanchine in their repertoire, so it's not as though they've grown up in a company and seen these ballets every season. So I'm continually starting over. But that's good, because you re-see the ballet in different ways. It brings everybody together."

Farrell, 58, still looks every inch the modern ballerina -- svelte and elegant, radiating an aura not of diva importance but of existence in a rarefied realm. She speaks softly but with conviction. Her belief in the intrinsic value of ballet, of the work she did with Balanchine and of artistic expression comes through clearly.

"What I try to do in class is give them all the values, all the things that are going to happen in Mr. B's ballets. His teaching in class was no different than what he wanted in performance and vice versa. Class was where he learned about you. That's why he made the ballets that he did. 'Divertimento' is not a sweater that you put on and then you become that part in the ballet. It stems from how you live your life every second as a dancer. It's intrinsic, innate. So it starts in class."

Farrell is clearly savoring the ongoing nature of her enterprise, the fact that she has something to build on. Much as she enjoyed sharing her insight into Balanchine with the many companies that have performed her stagings, she had to leave after each premiere and move to her next assignment.

"This allows me to do my work better," she says, "because it allows me to take it to the next level and it allows them to grow. That's the way I grew with Mr. B. You got out there every season and had something to build on. You can't learn that kind of stagecraft in the studio. You have to learn to live on the spot and think in the moment, and that happens in performance."

She is comfortable enough with her venture to speak of plans and goals, such as having 40 dancers working on 30-week contracts. "That's a nice size, because I like to have everybody dancing, not sitting around. We're small enough to tour, but we're not a chamber group. We're big enough to do full ballets, and there are lots of people out there who have never seen these ballets." Of course, live music -- in these times, a luxury that the troupe has for only its Kennedy Center performances -- is on her wish list as well.

In 2005, Farrell hopes to mount a production of Balanchine's 1965 full-length "Don Quixote," in which she originated multiple roles. One of the most intense expressions of the choreographer's fascination with her, it has not been seen in 25 years.

"It's been in the back of my mind for a while, and the fact that I have a company makes it more of a reality," she says. "I think the world is probably more ready for it than they were back then. Certainly no other company has it."

Twenty years after his death, Balanchine's repertory is alive and well, danced by troupes large and small. The Balanchine Trust has been generous in licensing his ballets and fields an impressive roster of approved repetiteurs (most of whom, like Farrell, were members of City Ballet during his lifetime) who stage them everywhere from Melbourne to Miami. With the centennial of the choreographer's birth in 1904, more than 60 companies worldwide will be performing Balanchine, many in special tribute evenings.

Presenting Balanchine works that few if any other companies offer is clearly a Farrell priority. The two works that form the middle portion of the Royce program qualify -- and both have deeply personal significance for Farrell. "Tzigane," the first ballet Balanchine created for her after she returned to City Ballet in 1975 from a five-year exile, begins with a five-minute solo for a Gypsy-like ballerina. Farrell, dancing to Ravel's meandering violin line with an air both sultry and otherworldly, made it something incantatory that felt improvised on the spot.

"Variations for Orchestra," created in 1982, marked the final collaboration between Farrell and Balanchine, who was already ill. It is set to a quirky Stravinsky score that the choreographer had previously used to make a 1966 solo for Farrell.

In 1982, she says, "he wanted to do it again for the Stravinsky Festival. I felt so bad that I couldn't remember more of the original choreography. He said, 'That's OK. I understand the music so much better now.' And he liked the new version. I could intuit things that he wanted by then." For her company's production, Farrell has added some lighting effects she devised.

The 1928 "Apollo," the fourth work on the Royce Hall program, is a Balanchine-Stravinsky ballet from the opposite end of his career -- the earliest example of his choreography still being danced. Blazingly contemporary in its time, it has lost no luster. Farrell, who performed its lead female role of Terpsichore, muse of the dance, with Apollos of several generations has given it an atmospheric, subtly detailed staging.

As a primary keeper of the Balanchine flame, Farrell might be expected to be heavily involved in the official celebrations of his centennial. But while New York City Ballet, with which she has had no ties for a decade, will focus its season around that occasion, she will probably participate only in panels at Harvard and New York's Museum of Television & Radio. Mostly, she is content to keep doing what she loves and does so exceptionally.

"I'm always celebrating Mr. Balanchine," she says with a slight laugh when the centennial is mentioned. "I don't need a landmark number. It's natural for me to celebrate him every day."

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Suzanne Farrell Ballet

When: Friday and Saturday

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA

Price: $30-$55

Contact: (310) 825-2101

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