Legendary dancer doesn’t rest on her laurels

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times

HER DANCING was sublime, her celebrated autobiography a spellbinding glimpse into the creative process.

Tall, angelically beautiful and sumptuous in movement, Balanchine ballerina and muse Suzanne Farrell danced with an almost palpable intelligence, setting a deliciously high standard at New York City Ballet.

Now, as artistic director of her own company, George Balanchine’s muse and interpreter says she wants to take her own dancers to “another level.”

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company performs at Zellerbach Hall Friday and Saturday. The program promises much: “Divertimento No. 15,” “Serenade,” “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” and “Tempo di Valse” from “The Nutcracker.”

“I want to take all the ballets we do and my dancers to another level,” Farrell says, in the same light, tawny voice viewers will remember from the 1997 documentary, “Elusive Muse.” She spoke on the phone in between rehearsals in East Lansing, Mich., where her company was performing.

An awestruck Maria Tallchief, who preceded her in the company and in Balanchine’s affections, compared Farrell to “quicksilver” in a role Balanchine created for her: that of Dulcinea.

Farrell danced her last at age 44 in 1989, showered with roses by a loving New York audience.
Since then, she has been staging ballets and teaching. She launched the Farrell Ballet first as a touring company based at Lincoln Center in the nation’s capital, now newly rooted there as a permanent company.

Even her critics say there was likely no one closer to Balanchine — he once told her, “You are the other half of my apple” — and he created more than 20 ballets for her, beginning with “Meditations,” a passionate duet that spelled out his intense feelings for her, when she was 18

The Farrell national tour heralds a year of international festivals, new ballets and special programs celebrating the 100th anniversary of Balanchine’s birth (the legendary choreographer died in 1983 at age 79).

“Nobody worked with Mr. Balanchine longer than I did,” she says. “It doesn’t make me better, it just puts me in a position to have that information, information to draw on.”

That information includes Balanchine’s own insistence on keeping his dances fresh, recreating and reinventing.

“I don’t want to keep his ballets just alive in the sense of memory, I want them to be memorable,” she says. “His dances, even if they were old, they had an immediacy, an urgency — a life in the present.

“Even ‘Apollo,’ which he did in 1928, he kept revisiting. He said it was the ballet in which he learned to eliminate. When you’re young and you cook, you want to put everything in that cooking pot. You don’t have to put everything you know about ballet into one ballet.”

She declines to critique other companies’ interpretations of Balanchine ballets. However, she does say generally there are “misinterpretations, oversimplifications.” She was abruptly fired from the New York City Ballet in the early 1990s by artistic director Peter Martins, her longtime partner, after openly lamenting that she was given too little to do, despite her wealth of “information.

“The steps are only one aspect of (Balanchine’s) dances,” she says. “If you teach the steps without the musicality, it’s not Mr. Balanchine. If you have the musicality without the philosophy, it’s not Mr. Balanchine. It has life, breath, a circulatory system.”

Farrell sees very little dance, but enjoys theater and always takes note of how other kinds of performers claim stage space.

No mirrors
Born Roberta Sue Flicker in Cincinnati, she went to Manhattan with her mother and sister to train with the New York City Ballet, and at 16 joined the company. Her big break came when another dancer got pregnant before the premiere of Balanchine’s “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” and Farrell was chosen to replace her. She was an instant hit.

While she was still technically on staff at the ballet in the early 1990s, James Wolfensohn — a die-hard fan since his days as an investment banker in New York, when Farrell would frequently dance more than one role a night — offered her support to launch a program at the Kennedy Center. She began teaching a three-week summer program called “Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell.” Since then, she has also joined the faculty of Florida State University and teaches there for part of each year.

“I’m always telling my students, ‘Don’t look in the mirror! Don’t look in the mirror!’ You can’t be an honest performer and a spectator at the same time,” she says. “Also, what’s in the mirror isn’t the true reflection of who you are. I take my students to the National Gallery, and we see Monet’s paintings of Notre Dame. You see the real thing, then you see the reflection of Notre Dame in the Seine. It’s different, there are those wavy lines from the water.”

Farrell commands the kind of fearless risk-taking from her dancers she used to embrace on stage. But as ABT great Cynthia Gregory commented in her talk at Herbst Theatre last year, the extreme-sports trend that has taken hold in many companies sometimes stops short of artistry.

“We have excellent dancers nowadays, but they are not necessarily more interesting because of it,” Farrell says. “A dancer needs a mind, a vulnerable intellect, the ability to tap into her musicality. Where you are in time, where you want to be in time — all those things play into your performance.”

Because she looked so seldom in the mirror herself, staging ballets after her retirement brought some surprises. She had been dancing the role of Terpsichore from the age of 17, accompanied by two female dancers and one male.

“Suddenly, there was this extra girl in the way,” she says, laughing. Although Farrell never performed a role the same way twice — in his own autobiography, Martins spoke of it as her “genius” — her own dancers bring their own surprises to roles she has danced, which she says will happen with care and nurturing.

Your life, in dance
In a generous gesture characteristic of Farrell’s complete devotion to the works, she cast ABT alumna Christina Fagundes in “Meditations,” in which Balanchine “had choreographed our lives.”
“Fagundes . . . was down to earth — a mezzo type — and she did ‘Meditation’ in her own way,” New Yorker writer Joan Acocella wrote. “When Farrell danced it, the ballet was something that happened to the man; when Fagundes danced it, it was something that happened to her.”
Farrell loves this.

When she watches her dancers, “I often think, ‘Gee, why didn’t I think of that?’ ” she says, laughing. “I want their contributions.”

Inevitably, just as often, a young dancer will not, cannot, bring more to a role. Farrell says she doesn’t expect them to bring 20 years of experience to a part — and inevitably, more life means more life to bring to the dance.

Yet, “as you perfect your craft, you lose that vulnerability.”

“You need that innocence and freshness,” she says. “I tell my dancers, every time you come (to perform), think of it as the first time you came.”

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