The ethereal Suzanne Farrell talks about her career
By Valerie Gladstone
Picture Editor: Phyllis Levine
Suzanne Farrell is a dancer's dancer, a choreographer's ideal, a critic's dream, and the public's star. Yet she chooses to live in a walkup on Columbus Avenue. "Fifty‑six steps," she specifies as she lets herself in the front door. Although a lifetime of dancing has left her with a painful hip problem, she doesn't mind the climb. Upstairs, the large duplex is a haven, filled with plants that thrive on the sunlight and her care. (One of the few things she brags about is her‑ability to keep African violets in bloom year round.) She spends most of her time a few blocks south, at Lincoln Center, rehearsing and performing with the New York City Ballet. From the age of fifteen, when the great choreographer George Balanchine auditioned the young student from Cincinnati, until his death, in 1983, Suzanne Farrell was his inspiration and partner in the development of the most glorious ballets of our time. Alone now, she carries on in his spirit, still dancing with unmatchable insight and flamboyance.
At the age of forty-one, she knows her time at the top is running out. Some ballerinas, like Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Alonso, have changed the rules about a ballerina's career, continuing in such parts as Giselle, Juliet, and Swan Lake's Odette and Odile well into their fifties, but their repertoires do not demand as much as Farrell's. Though she is not saying how much longer she intends to dance, her audiences know it cannot be for many more seasons. No one wants Farrell to go; nor does she.
"I think dance is probably the most difficult life " she says "but it is also the most wonderful. I still have as much fun as I did at the beginning. Everybody thinks it strange that I've not gotten bored or tired, but dancing is all I ever wanted to do."
Her talent shone the moment she joined the New York City Ballet, in 1961, and she has proven in ballet after ballet that she can make any movement unimaginably beautiful and mysterious. Despite her early fame, Balanchine's unabashed fascination with her, and the niche she has carved out for herself in twentieth-century art, Farrell has remained reserved, wary of the world outside the theater. As she puts it, "I always say, 'I was born, took some classes, and became a ballerina.'" Mindful, perhaps, of her place in dance history, she weighs her words, as if for posterity.
Back home on Columbus Avenue, she talks of the eight cats that once kept her company. Now she has four: Geisha, Little Bear, Lancelot, and Camille ‑the last a theatrical Persian nicknamed Bébé. They have a room of their own, called Kitty City.
"Mr. B. started me on cats," Farrell explains. "When I was seventeen and just learning the role of Titania in Midsummer Night's Dream, I had terrible trouble getting the pas de deux with the donkey. 'Don't you have any animals at home to talk to?' he asked. 'No,' I replied." She mocks the shy adolescent she was then with a most winsome "no."
"The cat in our neighborhood deli had a litter, and I took one of the kittens. I named her Bottom"‑like the donkey in Midsummer Night's Dream‑"and did start talking to her. She was with me practically my whole career. Next to God, that cat knew more about me than anyone." Farrell pauses and smiles gently. Without makeup, her dark hair pulled back, her face appears as delicate as a young girl's. She looks wise but untouched.
"I'd always tell Bottom what was going on in my life, and she'd sit and listen, and when she thought I was wrong, she'd hiss at me, like hsssssss. Then I'd know I'd better think that over."
Balanchine did not like his female dancers to have lovers, husbands, or children. Other loyalties, he thought, would dilute their concentration. Though a high degree of discipline inevitably remains, the atmosphere at the New York City Ballet, under the joint leadership of Peter Martins (who retired from dancing three years ago) and Jerome Robbins, is somewhat more relaxed now than in Balanchine's time. Balanchine expected his dancers to be as consumed with ballet as he was. Farrell is, and she frowns on those who are not equally committed.
"I can't understand dancers who have other interests, like shopping or collecting," she remarks. "It must take energy away from their dancing." Sometimes Farrell's voice is tremulous, but the passion of her convictions is unconditional. "I don't see why some dancers take classes elsewhere," she continues, decrying a practice that is not altogether uncommon, "In the end the most important thing is to learn how to work faithfully by yourself. If you are Catholic, you go to the Catholic church. If you are Jewish, you go to a synagogue. It is only confusing to do both."
The first ballet school Farrell (then known as Roberta Sue Ficker) attended was in her hometown of Cincinnati. Her older sisters, Donna and Beverly, attended the Cincinnati Conservatory, Donna to study dance and Beverly to study music. "I just brought Suzi along because I didn't know what to do with her," says Farrell's mother, Donna Holly. "She was always such a tomboy, the opposite of the way she is now. I couldn't keep her clean. Usually when she'd disappear, I'd find her up a tree."
Farrell remembers, "At first I just took class as something to do. The best part was the first fifteen minutes of acrobatics. But eventually my teacher gave me a sense of the wonderful spirit of the theater by showing me the importance of fantasy. I'm thought of as a cool and unemotional dancer, but inside I'm not. As soon as I hear music, something in me starts to vibrate."
When Farrell was nine, her parents were divorced, and her mother, a nurse, took on the whole responsibility of raising three daughters by herself. "We struggled and we were poor," says Mrs. Holly, "but being poor is nothing to be ashamed of."
In ballet school Farrell found friends with whom she could act out her fantasies. As the tallest ‑on full pointe, she stands about five foot eleven‑she not only got the boys' roles; she got to be boss. Soon she founded what she christened "the New York City Ballet Juniors." The New York City Ballet had captured her imagination when she saw the company in a performance of Balanchine's Symphony in C in Bloomington, Indiana. "Everyone danced, not just the principals," she says, explaining the fascination. "My only dream had been to dance; I didn't necessarily have to be the ballerina. I just wanted to go home every night fulfilled from dancing. The New York City Ballet looked like a place where that would be possible."
Today, some members of the company seem irritated by what they see as Farrell's self‑righteousness and overzealous clinging to Balanchine's ideals. Andersen, a principal dancer with whom she was memorably paired in Balanchine's late masterpiece Mozartiana, says with concern, "Suzanne's commitment is almost scary. She doesn't seem to see beyond her dancing."
Farrell remains the company's undisputed queen. After Balanchine's death many wanted her to take over the direction of the company, but she demurred. Martins, the partner she'd love to have back onstage dancing, and Jerome Robbins have her full support. She offers advice only when she feels it is called for.
Though it is now impossible to imagine Balanchine's history without Farrell, she came to him relatively late. The School of American Ballet, the official training ground for the New York City Ballet, accepts children at eight, and many dancers advance to major careers without having studied anywhere else. Farrell arrived there on the recommendation of Diana Adams, one of Balanchine's most memorable dancers of the fifties. The Ford Foundation was funding scholarships, and Adams and others went scouting around the country for applicants. Farrell was asked to New York to audition for Balanchine himself and won a scholarship on the spot. It was her fifteenth birthday.
When she got to the city, with her mother and her sister Donna, all the small family could afford was a one‑room apartment in the big, old‑fashioned Ansonia Hotel, on upper Broadway. Because they had only a hot plate, no kitchen, they ate out every night at the automat. For entertainment, they went to the movies. Farrell's mother's plan was that if she did not make it into the New York City Ballet, she should audition to be in the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall. "People told us that it took six years to make it in New York," says Mrs. Holly proudly, "but we did it in two and a half."
At her audition with Balanchine, Farrell danced a section of Glazunov's The Seasons as choreographed by her teacher, Marian La Cour. (She hummed the accompaniment.) Balanchine was charmed. No one can know how much of her potential he saw at that first glimpse, but it was probably a lot. He was in the habit, in his most productive periods, of making his dances for a particular favored ballerina. Four of them‑Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil Le Clerq‑he married. A fifth, Alexandra Danilova, was his companion when he left Russia. At first the seventeen‑year‑old Farrell was not aware that she was the new focus of his attention.
"Maybe I was more willing to follow him than anyone else," she offers. "Unlike the older dancers, I didn't have a reputation to lose, I was willing to go overboard. People think he told me special secrets about dancing, but what I learned from him, I learned right in class."
Far from being a puppet who only carries out instructions, Farrell saw that it was up to her to learn, use, change, enlarge, or qualify the patterns Balanchine gave her. Without her, they would have been different‑and might never have been made at all.
Soon after she and Balanchine began working together, he began to rely on her, both as his muse and as a new friend. He took her out to restaurants and amused her with stories of his acquaintances‑particularly Stravinsky, whom she later met‑reminisced about life in Monte Carlo with the Ballets Russes, and talked to her about fine cooking. Farrell, for her part, offered him America. She took him to see the Mets play the Cincinnati Reds. Baseball, she reports, bored him.
A muse on retreat. Farrell summers in the Adirondacks with her husband, Paul Mejia, and her menagerie from town.
In 1963, when Farrell was seventeen and a half, and still technically a member of the corps de ballet, Balanchine choreographed Stravinsky's Movements for Piano and Orchestra for Diana Adams. Before the premiere, Adams became pregnant and had to withdraw. So, she taught Farrell the fiendishly tricky part in her living room, and Farrell went on. She has never danced anything but leading parts since.
Arthur Mitchell, who has since gone on to found Dance Theater of Harlem, had been with the New York City Ballet since the 1950s, but many of his most striking performances came when Balanchine teamed him with Farrell, notably in the spiky Agon, set to the Stravinsky score of that name. "She was always quiet," Mitchell says, "more to herself than other dancers, but we had a good relationship as people as well as dancers. She was wonderful to partner‑musical, very fast, fearless, and in rehearsal, never any temperament."
For five years nothing disturbed Balanchine's friendship with Farrell. It helped that she has never paid attention to backstage gossip and did not miss the companionship of her fellow dancers. "I just put blinders on and go my own way," she says. But in 1965 Balanchine choreographed Don Quixote, a specific homage to her, in which he himself appeared as the mad knight to her Dulcinea. The ballet had a dark, obsessive side many viewers found unsettling, and it signaled a change in the relationship between the choreographer and the dancer. They entered a period of amazing creativity, with Balanchine mounting one new ballet after another for her, from the opulent, neoclassical Diamonds, costumed in sparkling white, to the spicy Gypsy movement "Rondo alla Zingarese" in Brahms‑Schoenberg Quartet. In those years, the choreographer asked his ballerina, more than once, to marry him, but she said no.
Outside the theater, she felt closer to Paul Mejia, a soloist with the company. Outraged, Balanchine began to cut down Mejia's roles, not realizing that Farrell was as independent a person as she was a dancer. In February 1969, she and Mejia were married. The situation grew increasingly strained, and in May, Farrell and Mejia left. The dance world was thunderstruck.
The young couple went to Belgium and joined Maurice Béjart's Ballet of the 20th Century, whose critical standing among American dance watchers is not high. Béjart's aesthetic of sex and glitz, often laced with pop philosophy from the East, is a far cry from Balanchine's sleek neoclassicism; but like the serious student she has always been, Farrell put her mind to the tasks before her and took on many new assignments, ballets that must have seemed to her formless or blatantly melodramatic. In the process her dancing gained new dimensions. Though many had feared Béjart would spoil her, Europe had simply broadened her perspective.
Farrell's return to the New York City Ballet was handled quietly, as befits a family matter. In the summer of 1974, without fanfare, Balanchine granted her request to come back. These were not the best of times. Many felt that during Farrell's absence, Balanchine had lost his genius. Clive Barnes, the dance critic then invested with the power of the New York Times, stated in print that he should turn his company over to younger talents. Farrell's return proved the announcements of Balanchine's creative demise to be vastly premature. Together they resumed their partnership with even greater intensity than before. "I was thrilled," says Danilova, who now teaches at the School of American Ballet, "when Suzanne decided to take classes with me before going back into the company. Even then she had an ethereal quality, as if she doesn't belong to the earth, like a goddess. There isn't that kind, of poetry in dancers now."
Since returning from their six years in Belgium, Mejia and Farrell have not had the opportunity to work and live together as they did there. In 1980, Mejia joined the Chicago City Ballet as choreographer and associate artistic director. He still divides his time between cities. Farrell is matter‑of‑fact about their almost constant separation: "If I'm in the theater all day, I wouldn't see Paul if he were in New York, and if go to Chicago and am not dancing as a guest with his company, what would I do? Because we do such physical work, it's important we do it while we can."
Four years ago, however, Farrell and Mejia started a ballet camp on their private island in a lake in the Adirondacks. About twelve students come for four weeks to take classes. If they like, Mejia will also teach them to sail. Farrell, the camp cook, serves salads, fruits, yogurt, and other healthful foods and helps her husband at the barbecue (although she is a vegetarian). She likes teaching here and at the School of American Ballet. "I like the children's freshness. You always learn from them, too.” She has no children of her own, though. "If I had a child, I'd want to be with it," she explains. "I wouldn't want to give it to somebody else to care for." To have a baby takes at least a year out of a dancer's life, and a year in a dancer's life is a long time.
Farrell glows when she talks about the island, the lake, the crickets, the wildflowers in the spring. It makes her happy to think that her cats can run free there and to remember how Bottom loved to swim, go boating, catch fish. But back in New York, she easily resumes the routine that has sustained her for twenty‑four years. She still gets up early to listen to the news, does her chores, and is ready to set off for the theater by nine. In her dressing room she has coffee, reads the newspaper, and gets her feet ready for a stiff new pair of pointe shoes by resting them in a used, stretched‑out pair. Class is at 10:30; rehearsals will fill most of the afternoon, with only a short break before the evening's audience arrives, hoping for magic. Even for one who never had any wish but to dance, it is an unforgiving career. "It's hard," says Farrell, "to get out there onstage every night and ask three thousand people to like you."
If she is not performing, Farrell usually doesn't stay to watch, "I like the feeling of the movement going through my body; I don't get that if it's going through someone else's." At home she may read, listen to Beethoven or Gershwin, or relish the silence. If Farrell thinks about a time after she stops dancing with the New York City Ballet, it's only to wonder if she should then try dancing and singing on Broadway. More often she'll lie in bed, surrounded by her cats, and imagine how she wants to look in the role she is learning or restudying, getting the image fixed in her mind so that she has something to start with the next morning. She has always made magic one day at a time.
Valerie Gladstone is the coauthor, with Robert Maiorano, of a book on George Balanchine's last masterpiece, the ballet Mozartiana.