Interview: Natalia Magnicaballi of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet Discusses ‘Forever Balanchine: Farewell Performances’

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I had the pleasure to sit down with Natalia Magnicaballi, principal dancer with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, to talk about her work with the company and the upcoming concert series: The Suzanne Farrell Ballet: Forever Balanchine: Farewell Performances. The conversation focused on the rehearsal process and the artistry necessary to bring the delicate and ephemeral art of dance to the stage and to preserve the masterworks of George Balanchine.

Natalia Magnicaballi in Tzigane. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Jane Franklin: Can you talk about the dancer in the rehearsal process?

Natalia Magnicaballi: We are in the studio with Suzanne from 10 am to 6 or 7 pm Monday through Saturday. We have an hour and a half class every morning that she teaches, then a fifteen-minute break, then straight into rehearsal, then a half-hour break for a quick lunch. Her coaching involves a lot of one-on-one work, which is wonderful.

Do you learn choreography directly from Ms. Farrell or use video to learn or to help recall choreography?

We don’t watch videos at all. Suzanne passes the choreography to us directly. She knows every single ballet upside down, every single count in the ballet. So she is very precise when she teaches the choreography, with the counts, and on top of that how she would like to see you approach it. She gives you freedom to approach it, too, but she’s very precise choreographically.

If, after she teaches the choreography to us, she wants us to see something very specific about a step, she will share a video on her computer. But that video will be black and white with no music. She always goes to the oldest video she can find. So she just shows you pieces after you know the whole thing.

Do the dancers ever work independently?

You usually do that with her. She’s in front of you all the time. Every rehearsal is with her, especially with the principal dancers. It’s very intense, rewarding work. She gives so much; you give her back so much. So there’s no need to step outside and do anything more than we do with her. Rehearsals with her will be like two hours, have a little break, and come back. We don’t use mirrors; she usually covers the mirrors with the curtains. So you have 100 percent feeling of what you do on stage. She developed your freedom, your way of being a performer a 100 percent. There’s no holding back. That’s why it’s very exhausting. We’re not together all year round but because the days are so long and we are all in the studio all the time. It’s pretty exhausting but so very rewarding that you want more the day after.

Does she have other dancers from New York City Ballet come in as guest artists?

I’ve been with the company for 18 years. I think it was 2003 we had Peter Boal join the company for one or three years. He was full-time with us. He was not considered as a guest in the company. He worked every day with us. We have Heather Ogden, she’s from National Ballet of Canada. We also had from National Ballet of Canada Chan Hon Goh and Jennifer Fournier. Every time people come, they are full-time with us and they are part of the company. We don’t have guest artists. Every single dancer that is in the company is chosen by Suzanne and we are here because she wants us to be here.

The company doesn’t work all year round. Is that correct?

Correct. I’ve been here with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet for 18 years and I’m a principal dancer with Ballet Arizona and I’ve been there for 15 years. I joined Suzanne Farrell in 1999 and Ballet Arizona in 2002. When I joined Ballet Arizona, I always let it be known to my director that I was coming to work with Suzanne whenever she needed me so we tried to make it work over all these years.

Natalia Magnicaballi and Michael Cook in Gounod Symphony. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

How long have you been in rehearsal for this particular series? Tell us about the program you’ll be performing. What are your favorite roles?

We’ve been together for five weeks, but all these ballets were already in our repertoire. Gounod Symphony was performed last year. I’m very grateful to bring back Chaconne. We haven’t performed it in seven or eight years. That’s a very dear ballet for me. Suzanne passed it to me and I’m very honored to have been dancing that ballet for all these years. We have Meditation that also is in the repertoire. I dance that with Michael Cook, and then Tzigane. Those are ballets that are special to me.

Why is it important that audiences see this closing series of performances?

Personally, I feel that this is the closest you can get to Balanchine. She was very special to him. The way she passes and restages is amazing. She’s not just restaging them, she’s keeping them alive. That’s very important. There are many companies that have one Balanchine piece in the repertoire perhaps set by people that didn’t work with Mr. Balanchine. Maybe they did for a little bit, maybe they were in the chorus. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m just saying that what The Suzanne Farrell Ballet does on stage comes directly from what she felt as she was taught by him. That’s very unique, her vision, and her way of setting the ballets. That’s what makes this company, her company – The Suzanne Farrell Ballet – very special. That is my humble opinion; that is what I think and what I see in all these years of being around what I love to do.

What is next for Natalia Magnicaballi?

It closes with the Kennedy Center. But my ties with Suzanne will always be there. I’m sure I will keep in touch with her. My ties with her will never end. I’m the ballerina I am today because of her. What’s next? Nutcracker-mania is coming. I’ll be finishing my season with Ballet Arizona. Lots of work ahead but this next week is very special for me.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet: Forever Balanchine: Farewell Performances plays through December 9, 2017, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, visit the box office or purchase them online.

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Jane Franklin
Jane Franklin received a MFA from The Ohio State University as a University Fellow and certification from the Laban/Bartenieff Institute for Movement Studies. Jane Franklin’s choreography has been presented at multiple venues and festivals in the mid-Atlantic region and southwestern US and internationally in the UK and in Mexico. A recipient of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region Creative Communities Award, Jane has developed innovative and collaborative projects combining dancers with the round wall skateboarding community, with a life size kinetic sculpture, with the architecture of a specific site, with dogs & owners, and with interactive live video and sound for numerous public art projects.