American Contemporary Ballet Pays Homage to George Balanchine

Take a master class—without the sore muscles

For a behind-the-scenes look at ballet’s greatest 20th-century choreographers, American Contemporary Ballet is debuting DANCE+DESIGN 2014: The Best in a Century on February 8 and 9. Artistic director Lincoln Jones will take the audience through George Balanchine’s Chaconne, with a pas de deux and variations performed by Theresa Farrell and Zsolt Banki and demonstrations provided by dancer Cleo Magill. Think of this as a lesson—without the sore muscles. You get to sit and observe, listen to a live string quartet, and enjoy a reception afterward with the artists. In April, Jones is planning a similar program that will examine the work of Fred Astaire. We spoke with Jones and Farrell, who is also the company’s associate director, about tracing Balanchine’s footsteps.

Why did you select Chaconne for this program?
Lincoln Jones: Chaconne is one of Balanchine’s lesser-known masterpieces, and it is a ballet that I think is going to become increasingly recognized as time goes on. I chose it for two reasons. The first was for the audience. DANCE+DESIGN is largely about helping our audience learn about ballet, and Chaconne is great for that. It is very pure. It isn’t complex, but it is masterfully constructed. The second reason was for the dancers. Chaconne is pure dancing but made of classical steps. There are no big tricks; the entire ballet rests on the dancers’ ability to musically shape the phrases.

How has Balanchine’s work, and this piece particularly, inspired you?
LJ: I’m very lucky to be a choreographer in the generation after Balanchine. He was so masterful in all aspects of his work. He has raised the bar immeasurably and set the path for years to come. I have learned everything from him. If I want guidance, I can simply look to his work. But it is more than that. Balanchine was the rare 20th-century artist who was a genius and master craftsman but who also had an unrestrained love for the world he lived in. His work is never cynical but full of life, as dancing should be. Even in the late works, like Mozartiana or Davidsbündlertänze, when he might be said to have been meditating on his own death, there is a longing for life. They are paeans to beauty.

What I’ve learned from Chaconne in particular, I think, is how much of the total choreographic effect of a ballet should be left to the dancing. Balanchine surrounded himself with highly individual dancers, and he provided each one with steps that suited them—steps they could really dance. They weren’t overly choreographed or imposed. It is similar to how a great dress makes you aware of the woman, not the dress. When you see a Balanchine dancer in a Balanchine ballet, you just see dancing. He once said his job was “to make the beautiful more beautiful.” Like the ballet, composer Christoph Willibald Gluck strove to make his music very pure, unencumbered by excess ornament. The original dancers Balanchine made the ballet for had something of that character, too. Suzanne Farrell’s dancing had a spine-tingling purity to it, and Peter Martins had an astonishing classical technique. When our dancers watch their performances on film, they just keep exclaiming, “How are they doing that?”

What should we, the audience, expect to see?
LJ: The ballet begins with a pas de deux that is both regal and cool, like royalty on the catwalk, and there is almost a Fred and Ginger quality to the dancers’ interaction. He is her devoted cavalier, but he dances with her. The variations that follow are a back and forth competition between the same two dancers and contain some of the fastest footwork in the Balanchine canon. There is a buoyancy and joy in these dances that should not be missed. I am going to be taking the audience through the ballet, showing them various ways the steps interact with the music. Cleo Magill will dance the demonstrations. The dance is a killer, so I can’t have Theresa demonstrating throughout the talk and then dance the performance as well. She wouldn’t survive.

Balanchine’s ballets are known for being very demanding on the dancer. The intricacy, the technicality. How did you prepare?
Teresa Farrell: There have been many challenges. I have definitely had to build up my endurance and speed for this role. My variation is almost entirely quick pointe work and turns. The pas de deux calls for a calm regality that does not come naturally to me. To prepare I spent a lot of time watching [footage of] the great dancer Suzanne Farrell perform this role and then comparing her performance to mine. This can be a very painful process, but I have grown so much through it. Lincoln spent a lot of time with me working on my rhythm. It was alarming how steps that initially appeared so simple contained a whole other level of subtle expression.

How do you feel as you’re performing this role?
TF: Balanchine’s work is what inspired me, and still inspires me, to want to be a dancer. I love his idea of beauty and how he put steps to music. The main thing I feel dancing this ballet is happiness. I love the music and how the choreography complements it. There is this part at the very end when my partner and I rejoin each other after dancing our solo variations—the music returns to the first theme and we do a combination of skipping and hopping in arabesque. It is so simple, but how it pairs with the music makes it like heaven to me. It makes me feel light in my chest.