George Balanchine’s “Don Quixote” – The Movie
New York City Ballet filmed by Bert Stern
A Millennium Stage Presentation at the Terrace Theater
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
September 5, 2007
George Balanchine’s “Don Quixote” – The Movie
by George Jackson
copyright 2007 by George Jackson
It is dark, so dark sometimes that memory must help the eye to see, yet undeniably this film hasn’t just shadows but mystery. The dancing is so mercurial in spots that ghost images trail in the wake of bodies, conjuring up futurist canvases. Bert Stern shot Balanchine’s “Don Quixote” ballet on the occasion of its gala preview at the New York State Theater the evening of May 27, 1965. It looks, though, like a movie made 60 years earlier. That the sound track is thin, scratchy, rings hollow and seems added on, actually enhances Nicolas Nabokov’s music. The black and white camera work documents aspects of the drama and captures some marvelous dancing. This is not, though, a true record of the ballet. Subtleties of the staging are lost. So is the complex craftsmanship. What emerges on screen is narratively simple despite stylization. Stern has made a new work based on Balanchine’s unfinished masterpiece, one that stands in the best tradition of the old silent flicks!
This first public screening, part of Kennedy Center’s free Millennium Stage series, drew a sizeable crowd to the Terrace Theater - evidence that the balletomane isn’t yet an endangered species in Washington. There was applause for the two women who introduced the event - Suzanne Farrell, the film’s female star and key consultant, and Jacqueline Davis, representing the New York Public Library as producer. At the start, it took people time to adjust to this moving picture’s old fashioned perspective. Farrell’s first solo, as Marcella the cruel shepherdess, didn’t prompt the live audience in the Terrace to clap as it had the audience recorded on the soundtrack. The solo is remarkable, as choreography and as dancing, with the ballerina using her legs almost as if they were stilts with diminished knee action and a sense of precarious balance.
The first applause for dancing by the live audience came during Act 2 as Gloria Govrin tore into the Rigaudon Flamenco duo with Arthur Mitchell. Govrin’s large, lush proportions, generous scale of movement and what seemed to be the scene’s brighter lighting made an impact. Govrin was also in top form as the Night Spirit in Act 3, but the effect on screen was less due to her black costuming against dark surroundings. The dancing of the other Act 2 divertissements shimmered (Patricia Neary turning the fouettes her mother had insisted on with Conrad Ludlow and Kent Stowell as her Danza della Caccia cavaliers; cute Suki Schorer’s and handsome John Prinz’s finesse in the Mauresque; the Courante Sicilienne with Sara Leland, Kay Mazzo, Carol Sumner, Frank Ohman, Robert Rodham and Earl Sieveling). After Govrin, though, it was Patricia McBride in the Ritornel who most appealed to the live house. McBride exuded not just light but also warmth. (Colleen Neary, still a student, was McBride’s fan bearer.) The ultimate dancing in Act 2 is Farrell’s as Dulcinea, the apparition of love. Proud and unbending as was her Shepherdess, her Dulcinea has come to console the Don and seems the incarnation of Neigen - a German concept that means bending as in bending towards, arching as to embrace, plying comfort. What eloquent pointes, what an astonishing stretch! And what suffering she endures seeing the Don humiliated.
Nuanced, mutable and subject to feelings is the Pas de Action of Act 3. It is for a group of maidens, 17 of them with Marnee Morris and Mimi Paul in the lead. Paul looks gorgeous and dances superbly, radiating dignity and temperament. Morris fascinates with her intricacy, yet she’s odd. Interwoven with the group and singled out is Farrell’s Dulcinea, plunging thru a rainbow of moods. Her line is serene, supple, assertive, frenzied and suppliant as Balanchine’s choreography displays what he must have considered to be the facets of classicism. Of the men in this dancing (Francisco Moncion, Frank Ohman, Anthony Blum), it is Blum whose vigor astonished me.
Balanchine’s characterization of the Don is dignified and straightforward. Seemingly based on the old Maryinsky mime tradition, it is sparser, and reads easily and clearly on the screen. As had been pointed out by Farrell, there are moments when Balanchine steps out of character – looking into the wings in Act 2 to see what detains McBride from taking her curtain call, and at the end when the Don is supposed to be dead but Balanchine reaches for the kneeling Farrell’s hand. Undoubtedly, the choreographer thought these were things the theater audience couldn’t see but forgot about Bert Stern’s two camera approach and its different view.
There’s talk about a showing over the Public Broadcasting System and making commercial DVDs. More than the recent live staging, the movie deserves to be seen.