Encore of a Dance Diva
Suzanne Farrell ignited the ballet world with fiery abandon for nearly three decades on stage. At 60, she’s not about to wind down.
By Ellen Ashdown
Celebrated for thrilling abandon. Focused as a spotlight.
Crowned as George Balanchine’s most famous muse. Fired, famously, from his New York City Ballet.
Onstage, in glamorous gown, to receive a December 2005 Kennedy Center Performing Arts Award. In the studio two days later, in drab practice clothes, to teach FSU dance majors.
Suzanne Farrell is not so much a paradox as a pantheon. In a 45-year career of shape-shifting artistryand public personal dramasshe can declare, “There are no ‘if onlys’ in my life.”
If only a stage could see her like again.
Farrella tall(5-foot-6-inch) dancer whose lightning-fast moves in the 1960s revolutionized the 20th-century ballerinaalways tells interviewers she believes in “living in the now.” Believes, in fact, that nowness, openness to the moment and seizingsqueezingit, built her singular life.
So: What is Suzanne Farrell’s “now”?
She’s a Francis Eppes Professor of Dance at Florida State University. She’s also director of the rising Suzanne Farrell Ballet, official company of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and a teacher, every summer at the Kennedy Center and at her own upstate New York island, of aspiring teenagers who can’t believe their lucky nows. She is 60 years old, not looking it, and still pushing herselfand her studentsto the limits.
“Long-Limbed, Elegant Wildness”
Last December, Farrell became one of five creative and performing artists to be singled out for Kennedy Center honors. In a glittering theater filled with celebrities and politicians, the evening opened a time capsule of Farrell’s career. The gala capped an earlier awards ceremony at the White House.
Pencil-thin and dignified in understated black, Farrell sat in the first-row balcony among her fellow honorees: Tony Bennett, Robert Redford, Tina Turner and Julie Harris. (“Everyone was so down to earth,” Farrell said. “We exchanged autographs.”)
The President and the First Lady beamed and applauded from their own balcony vantage. (“President and Mrs. Bush knew that I taught at FSU.”)
Jacques d’AmboiseFarrell’s long-time partner at Balanchine’s New York City Balletbounced onto the stage to pay tribute to “Suzi.” (“It was a bit of a full circle,” Farrell realized. “I danced at the very first Kennedy Center Honors, in 1978, when Balanchine was honored. I also presented Jacques when he received his.”)
D’Amboise, silver-haired and sprightly, recalled the excitement of dancing beside Farrell’s force field: “She was like a demon . . . but also a goddess.” Again the combined contradictions, her “long-limbed elegant wildness.” He puts the complexity simply, “Even ballet looked different.”
The audiencewatching home movies of tomboy Farrell tumbling across the lawn and rare footage of her dervish turning in Don Quixotesaw a fearless, born performer. The vision segues into Farrell the director, watching her own company take the Kennedy Center stage to perform to Mozart. Her dancers execute the fast, intricate choreography with incredible clarity and cleanness. They finish and bow; Farrell rises to blow them, gently, an admiring kiss.
One last vignette not shown on television: “Robert Redford leaned over at dinner to tell me, ‘I want you to know that when I was studying in New York, I went to see you dance, and you’re the reason I went into the theater.’”
This ability to move people, to send a transcendent energy off the stage and into other bodies and minds, is Farrell, who in 2003 also was honored with the National Medal of Arts for her long and influential career in ballet. The words “courage” and “mystery” are as common in descriptions of her as “phenomenal technique.” It can’t be taught, but it can be tutored, excited, stretched. That’s what happened when Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine metfor better and worse.
Farrell auditioned for Balanchine in New York City in 1960, when she was 15 and he was 56. She was then Roberta Sue Ficker, newly arrived from Cincinnati with her mother, sister Bev (a pianist), a U-Haul of their worldly possessions, and not one nickel of family income. Farrell may be known for public reserve, but tears come when she remembers one moment at the Kennedy Center. Her mother passed away two years ago, and Farrell was so glad “to be able to thank her for giving up so much.”
Farrell is the youngest of three sisters, all artists, and all against the odds. She was born in Mt. Healthy, Ohio, into a family of womengrandmother, aunt, motherwho made their way without men, and by choice. Farrell was 10 when her parents divorced, and the split just seemed a longer, final absence for a father who traveleddelivering meat. At least it ended parental fights about foolish dance and piano lessons. (Decades later, Farrell reunited with her father, who shocked her with boxes of clippings of her career.)
“I always thought I’d be a clown,” Farrell wrote in her autobiography Holding on to the Air (1990). Mother Donna’s ambitions were classier, though she’d never seen a ballet. No matter. Chicken or eggin the three sisters’ “carnival” performances for the neighborhood, or a mother’s relentless driveart was the aim. The girls’ lives became the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Donna nursed, cleaned, and babysat to pay for it.
And it paid off. Suzi, the family ham, abandoned comedy for ballet, surpassing her oldest sister Sugar (Donna), who went on to teach ballet. When New York ballerina Diana Adams came scouting for Balanchine, she didn’t choose Suzanne but, hearing Mrs. Ficker might move to New York, invited her to call. On that sliver of hope, Donna Ficker packed the U-Haul.
The master himself conducted the audition. In 1960, Balanchine was already an established genius, a Russian defector (later a naturalized American citizen) who had created, with arts-patron Lincoln Kirstein, the School of American Ballet in 1934. That seminal school fed dancers into the New York City Ballet (NYCB), which from 1948 through Balanchine’s death in 1983 (and still today) was the reigning company for a distinctive American classical dancer: leaner, quicker, cooler, leggier, edgier (unpointed or turned-in feet), yet smoother. Balanchine’s training and choreography gave American ballet a new definition: pure, streamlined movement for itselfembodied musicnot European story ballets like Sleeping Beauty.
Balanchine saw something in the still chubby-cheeked Suzi Ficker, who, without a pianist, hummed as she auditioned. It may have been the famous Farrell musicality. It also may have been desire.
A Man and a Woman on Stage
At 15 Farrell was on full scholarship, at 16 in the company (taking her stage-name “Farrell” out of a phone book), and at 17 dancing solo roles. Of her beginnings at NYCB, she wrote:
“I was, in certain respects, continuing my favorite childhood pastime: being someone else, someone more . . . important, more beautiful, and more worldly than just plain sixteen-year-old Suzi Ficker. But as I instinctively knew, I loved the stage not because it provided an escape from myself or my humdrum life but because when the curtain went up I could be whoever I wanted to be, and that was true freedomto be myself.”
For Farrell, dancing was living and the stage a world. But now her inherent collapsing of art and life took on another truth, in ballets that Balanchine made for her and eventually gave to her. Meditation (1963) and Don Quixote (1965) were story ballets, mirroring Balanchine’s personal infatuation and aesthetic devotion to his stunning new protégé.
Balanchine worshipped women dancing. Great ballerinas were not only his instruments, but his inspiration, his musesand his wives. He married five extraordinary dancers; Farrell wasn’t one of them. The title of an Academy Award–nominated documentary about Farrell’s lifeand her creative, chastely passionate, painful relationship with Balanchineis Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse (1996).
If Farrell was one in a series of loves and muses, she is acknowledged as the greatest and last. “She is the Stradivarius to my music,” Balanchine said. When he began putting ballet dancers onstage in leotards and without courtly narratives, audiences were upset. Where was the emotion? Balanchine’s response: You put a man and a woman on stage, it’s already a story. He was right, of course, and ballet changed forever.
His Meditation and Don Quixote were in some ways throwbacks because in Farrell Balanchine had found his perfect American dancer, and they were falling in love. In romantic Meditation, to a Tschaikovsky violin, an older man begins and ends alone, visited and left after an intense duet, by an ethereal girl in white. In Quixote, in which Balanchine danced the title role at 61, Farrell was Dulcinea, the aging knight’s ideal. He knelt to her. Farrell made headlines, in gossip columns as much as reviews.
“There will always be another dancer whose leg goes higher, who turns better, who jumps higher,” Farrell tells her FSU students today. “But no one has this.” She lifts her head elegantly, exposing her throat. “No one has your neck and your face, and if you don’t use it as your unique instrument, then to me you get lost in the whole sea of dancers.”
Such telling advice today, when the technical prowess of serious young dancers, like athletes, is astounding. But Farrell had the body and the moves. Her gorgeous legs kicked to the sky. Her back bent like water. Her jumps were huge. Her footwork and direction changes were rapid-fire.
Her musicality, too, was a gift that matched Balanchine’s, who was trained as a pianist and composer. Whether she was waltzing to Strauss, bounding “like a cartoon musical note” to Stravinsky, or vamping in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Farrell was the music. To her, “The musical beat becomes one’s own heartbeat.”
Most of all, perhaps, the Farrell distinction was adventure and abandon. Balanchine did not always want the carefully centered torso of classical dance. He wanted tilt, slant, dynamic danger. And teenage Farrell showed it to him. Her instrument and temperament brought “off-center dancing” to Balanchine style. She tried anything, and worked and worked on it. She didn’t hold back on stage. This was not chewing the scenery, ballerina-style. It was commitmentand electricity on a precipice.
Watching one of her diving entrances, even her mother and sister sat terrified that Farrell would shoot off the stage. She didn’tthough she might have: “Curious as it may sound,” she has written, “the fact that I ended up on the floor more often with Jacques than with any other partner was, to me, a sign of our success.”
All That Glitters
After 1965, Farrell was dancing every night in principal roles, learning 30 years worth of seminal ballets (she eventually danced more than 100), and having new ones made for her. The dazzling “Diamonds” section of Jewels (1968) was one of them. Here Farrell became the “white ballerina”: short tutu, chignon, sparkling tiara. “She was indeed in every way a diamond,” Richard Sias remembers. A ballet professor at FSU, now retired, Sias was in part responsible for luring Farrell to the university, through his friendship with her sister Donna. “She was glittering . . . different in every aspect as she performed, just like carats reflecting light. Glorious!”
But all that glitters isn’t diamonds. Despite the creativity and excitement of her on-stage collaboration with Balanchine, it was isolating off-stage. He was still married, in name; he was intensely possessive of her time; and she felt desperate. So Farrell fell in love with and married Paul Meija, another NYCB dancer, in 1969, while Balanchine was in Europe. She was 23. Balanchine, who had just received a Mexican divorce, was devastated.
Still, Farrell continued to dance all her roles until one “surreal” night only three months later. A last-minute replacement was needed for a role that Meija had performed many times. Balanchine did not cast him. Farrell impetuously sent Balanchine a message that if Paul didn’t dance, perhaps he didn’t want her either. Silence. Already in her makeup for the night’s gala performance, Farrell soon had her answer. The wardrobe mistress, crying, took away her costume.
Exodus & Return
Being suddenly homeless is not hyperbole for what Farrell and Meija felt. They were dancers without a company and repertory. They were dancers forbidden to use the studios for work. And only work could keep them sane.
Hard, constant work, in fact, is as central to Farrell’s genius as her talent. She doesn’t mind getting muddy. The newlyweds bought Cedar Islands, in even more disarray then their lives. No electricity, no water, littered with the trash of an old hotel: the physical labor of clean-up was therapeutic. Today, Cedar Islandsaka “Ballerina Island” by localsremains her “haven” (besides the studio) and the stunning site of her upstate New York summer ballet camp.
The other work they found was equally surprising: in Brussels, with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Béjart was known for avant-garde, highly theatrical worka good bit of it for bare-chested men. Skeptical about the foreign style, Farrell was nevertheless impressed by the dancers’ full-out energy and Béjart’s desire to create ballets for her. This sojourn with another great choreographer only deepened her dramatic gifts and range.
As d’Amboise marvels in Elusive Muse, “She came back better.” And in 1974, come back she did. Watching a NYCB performance while on summer break, she knew it was time. She wrote Balanchine; he answered; and she came back to the studios she had been literally locked out of five years before. (Meija did not. But operatic confrontations were over. Over the years he danced, directed, and choreographedSuzanne won an Emmy in one of his compositions, cordial with Balanchine throughout. Farrell and Meija’s marriage lasted for 30 years, ending in amicable divorce in 1999.)
For the next fourteen years, until her retirement in 1989, Farrell remained the prolific “Mr. B’s” leading muse, without the ache of romantic love. Before he died in 1983, their collaboration had brought to ballet a sultry gypsy in Tzigane, an Old World aristocrat in Vienna Waltzes, a heavenly being in Mozartiana, and the last dance of his life, her solo Variations for Orchestra.
Farrell said farewell to performing on a stage strewn with 5,000 dethorned white roses, thrown by an audience in tears. She frankly “feared oblivion.” Again, the solution was workand trusting in the now. Oblivion didn’t have a chance.
Farrell traveled the world staging the master’s work for other companies. Then came an invitation in 1993 from the Kennedy Center to begin an intensive local program for 25 hand-picked young teens. “I said yes because I’m always hopeful about ballet and dance. Auditions became national, now including Tallahassee, and then international. I’ve just returned from Japan. I always look for recruits for FSU as well.”
Teaching undergraduates and graduates as an Eppes Professorthe university’s endowed chairs for academic superstarsdid not happen until 2000. “It began as a sort of dreaming,” explains Libby Patenaude, chair of the Department of Dance. “Suzanne Farrell is the pinnacle of classical artistry. It was a real wooing process, because combining academe and her artistic life was such a novel idea. Getting her to visit made the difference.”
Farrell remembers: “I immediately felt, ‘This is something I should find time to do.’ I have quick instincts and faith in them. I loved the campus, the old buildings, the weatherall of the ‘outside’ elements. Then when I experienced the department, I liked the faculty and students. I saw their devotion and hard work. I’ve always been impressed with university life, the dedication that people have in pursuit of more knowledge and wisdom. In a way, being here is my ‘crash course’ in college.”
The Most Exciting Place
It’s a December class in the magnificently renovated, state-of-the-dance Montgomery Hall, housing the Department of Dance and the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography. The pianist mischievously slips into elaborate versions of “Silver Bells” and other holiday standards. Slight and commanding (more Farrell contradictions), Farrell moves with glorious carriage about her classroom“one of the most exciting places to be,” an homage to mentor Balanchine’s tenacious approach to teaching.
She is not remote. She stands directly in front of a girl at the barre, helpfully mirroring her with the correct turn of head and shoulders. (“Yes!” Farrell approves.)
She gently encircles a neck with two hands, lifting the head another queenly inch. (“Notice that in photos people usually tilt their heads? Straight ahead is a mug shot.”)
For a demanding grand jeté (big leap) sequence, she gets between two dancers and holds their hands while they practice as a trio. (“We’ll get this by osmosis.”)
She wants students to radiate energy and self (“You are doing it but not loving it”) and also to know the science of her corrections (“Your fifth position on pointe must have no space between. [Legs drawn together and crossed.] It is the stable trestle X-shape, or a dagger stabbed straight into the floor. That’s how to be steady.”)
She makes them laugh. (“Offer yourself as important to the audience. Would you buy a head of lettuce that’s old and brown?”)
Farrell’s schedule allows her to be on campus for several weeks each semester and to teach all of her department’s ballet technique classes for majors. “One thing Suzanne made clear during our waltz to an appointment was that she was not interested in being a symbol,” Patenaude said. “She likes to work hard. She also wanted to teach more than advanced students . . . get her hands on freshmen.”
A dance degree at FSU is certainly no waltzit’s a nationally known, rigorous program in fine arts training, the distilled, finely tuned product of a dance program that began some 70 years ago. Majors take a liberal arts curriculum, as well as dance history, theory, repertory and music theory. And this atop rehearsals, performances, and studio classesin both ballet and modern dance, every single dayuntil they graduate. In sum, it’s a banquet for Farrell’s famous appetite for hard work.
Terence Duncan, an MFA student, has compound experience with Farrell. As a former member of her company, he chose FSU for his graduate training before knowing Farrell was teaching here. “So often, dancers are put down in front of a video to learn repertory. She brings her experiences . . . to the table every time you’re in the studio. That personal transference is incredibly rewarding.”
Put another way: “Repertory is the dancer’s literature, our body of work,” said Patenaude. “To have access to Balanchine repertory with all of Suzanne’s training is an incredible educational benefit. No other university program can claim it. They may get to perform one piece every few years. Our students perform Balanchine repertory every year at her direction. It’s unheard of.”
Tilting at Time
One of Farrell’s boldest moves in 2005 was an elaborate tribute to yesteryear. On the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ novel, she restaged for her company the evening-length Balanchine’s Don Quixote, a controversial masterpiece not seen since 1978. The production (57 dancers, giants, windmill, horse, donkey, staircases, carts, sumptuous new costumes) was an association with the National Ballet of Canada.
This summer The Suzanne Farrell Ballet goes to Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts and to Scotland for the Edinburgh International Festival. Also two annual seasons in Washington are on tap with more to come. All this from a ballet icon who, in her first year at FSU, admitted that she had “no great burning desire to have (my own) company.”
The flowering of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is another instance of nowness with benefits neither the dance world nor FSU expectedthe consequences of a quest to excel that has marked Farrell all her life.
But any quest can be lonely. Farrell knows she had a narrow youth. Her birth year is the cusp of the Boomers. “With ballet, you have to focus at a young age. My contemporaries were sitting in Central Park, trying to find out what they wanted. I’m glad I focused. Now, if I wanted to change, I would have the discipline to do anything I choose.”
Discipline? Change? Suzi Farrell is now overseeing every aspect of a major re-creation: choreography, dancers, music, scenery, lighting, wardrobe, tour, fundraising, publicity. And 40 years ago, when she first danced Don Quixote, she wasn’t one Dulcinea; she was five. In her legendary performance, Farrell danced five different women: servant, shepherdess, guardian spirit, damsel in distress, Madonna.
Which character is she? Which role is really hers? None of them. All of them. And no doubt more to come. Farrell’s focus never wavers: no ‘if onlys.’