Don Quixote

  • 18 August 2006

This article is from 2006.

Suzanne Farrell talks to Kelly Apter about her new production of Don Quixote and her symbiotic relationship with legendary choreographer George Balanchine.

He made a ballet star out of her, she made a legend out of him. And between them, George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell made dance history. Russian choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet, Balanchine created some of the most important dance works of the 20th century. With her incredible technique and musical ear, Farrell was the inspiration behind many of them, as seen in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Elusive Muse.

Of all the roles she danced for Balanchine, Dulcinea in Don Quixote was one of Farrell’s finest hours as a performer. Plucked from the corps de ballet at the tender age of 19, she danced opposite Balanchine himself in the 1965 premier. Over 40 years later, Don Quixote will finally be performed in the UK, only this time it’s Farrell not Balanchine at the helm.

Formed in 2000, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet is one of the finest exponents of Balanchine’s work. Who better to pass it on than the woman who was there in the rehearsal studio when it all began? Back in the 1960s, New York City Ballet was a hotbed of young dance talent - so what made Farrell so special in the eyes of the man they call Mr B?

‘I once asked him what he saw in me,’ recalls Farrell, ‘because I was surrounded by lots of other wonderful dancers, there was a lot of competition. But I think I heard the music the way he did - the subtleties and all those underlying currents of energy that lie in and around the notes.’

Based on Cervantes’ 17th century novel, the ballet follows a Spanish knight who seeks adventure, but despite his good intentions ends up acting rather foolishly on a number of occasions. Young servant girl, Dulcinea is a beacon of light for the Don, much as Farrell was for Balanchine.

‘Mr B had read the book both in Russian and English,’ explains Farrell. ‘And although he couldn’t use everything in there, all the sections in the ballet were lifted directly from the novel, although not necessarily in the same order. He chose the passages which were easily readable by an audience, and went with the music.’

Featuring 52 dancers, an elaborate set and costumes and a cast of local extras, the sheer scale of Don Quixote means it is seldom re-staged. But after an absence of 25 years, Farrell finally felt the time was right to resurrect it, and the ballet opened to great acclaim in Washington last year; tying in nicely with the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ novel. Unlike many narrative ballets, Don Quixote has survived the test of time, not least because it eschews extravagant storytelling gestures for genuine raw emotion.

‘I have always thought it was a wonderful ballet,’ says Farrell. ‘And having staged so many of Mr B’s works, I have also found that no other ballet makes a dancer move in quite the same way as Don Quixote, it’s very full-blooded. The story is not told through pantomime, but through the desperation of the choreography.’

Don Quixote, Edinburgh Playhouse, 473 2000, Sat 26-Tue 29 Aug, 7.30pm (Sun mat 2.30pm), £7.50-£40.

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