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This column by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

October 27, 1999. All rights reserved.

Nicole Plett on Suzanne Farrell

If the classical ballet stage is a brightly illuminated

canvas for the most emotionally fraught dramas of the Western imagination,

ballet’s backstage world comes in a close second.

Everything George Balanchine touched, in life and in death, was freighted

with meaning. As were his relationships with his principal dancers

(three of which resulted in marriage).

Even within the context of Balanchine’s long lifetime of drama, Suzanne

Farrell emerged as one of the more precipitous peaks. His most cherished

muse throughout the 1970s, her love for and eventual marriage to Paul

Mejia effectively banished her from the company for five years. The

prodigal dancer eventually returned to resume her lofty position,

but Mejia never danced with the company again.

Among Farrell’s innumerable stage triumphs — Balanchine created

23 roles for her — she will always be remembered for her role

in one of Balanchine’s first ballets, "Apollo," created in

1928 for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris to a commissioned score

by Stravinsky. In an uncanny feat of time travel, her performance

gave the impression that this extraordinary all-American girl from

Cincinnati had stopped time to assume the role of the Greek muse Terpsichore,

goddess of the dance and companion to a young, virile Apollo, at the

dawn of Western civilization.

In the years following Balanchine’s death in 1983, the rumors about

Farrell’s gift for bringing Balanchine’s works back to life onstage

grew in direct proportion to critical dissatisfaction with Balanchine’s

anointed heir and former Farrell partner, Peter Martins. Martins’

husbanding of the New York City Ballet’s artistic patrimony continues

to come in for relentless criticism.

Now Suzanne Farrell has found her niche as a repetiteur for the George

Balanchine Trust, an independent organization founded after his death

to oversee the worldwide licensing and production of his ballets.

Under the auspices of the Kennedy Center, she has staged works by

Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Maurice Bejart for a national tour,

"Masters of 20th Century Ballet." The performing ensemble

of 16 was handpicked last May from an audition pool of some 230 dancers.

The program at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Friday,

October 29, at 8 p.m., features Balanchine’s "Apollo," as

well as excerpts from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and "Ivesiana."

Also featured is one of Farrell’s signature solos, "Tzigane,"

a fantasy on a gypsy theme, choreographed in 1976 and inspired by

Ravel’s music. The concert includes the love scene from Bejart’s "Romeo

& Juliet," and Jerome Robbins’ 1953 re-visioning of "Afternoon

of a Faun" to the music of Debussy.

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Roberta Sue Ficker was identified in

1960 by a representative of the School of American Ballet as a promising

student and began taking class on a full scholarship, funded by the

Ford Foundation. One year later, at age 16, she took the stage name

of Suzanne Farrell and became New York City Ballet’s youngest member.

Within a year, she was a member of the lowly corps de ballet who could

frequently seen dancing principal roles. She was promoted to soloist

in 1963, partnered in those years by the young Jacques d’Amboise.

Singled out for her innate musicality combined with an unusual combination

— a will for perfection combined with a willingness to accept

any challenge.

In 1965, as a principal dancer, she played Dulcinea to Mr. B’s Don

in a full three-act "Don Quixote," choreographed for her and

the first major work premiered at NYCB’s brand new home, the State

Theater at Lincoln Center.

Years later, in a talk to a group of dance critics shortly before

her retirement, she recalled, without any subtext or self-congratulation,

how Mr. B. had devised a particularly difficult and unconventional

movement sequence in a new ballet that paired two seemingly impossible

movements. "He asked me if I could crouch down and take big strides,"

she recalled, cheerfully, acting out with her hands the awkward movement

requirements, continuing "and I said, `Well yes, I could try to

crouch down and take big strides’" — which she did, forging

another link in the choreographer’s innovative ballet vocabulary.

"One of Balanchine’s great gifts was in giving each of his lead

dancers leeway to interpret his ballets in way that helped personalize

them. In other words to allow each dancer’s individual essence to

shine through," says Mary Pat Robertson, director of Princeton

Ballet School. "Now that we can no longer enjoy Farrell as a performer,

it should be interesting and rewarding to see how she is passing on

her understanding of these ballets to others."

Farrell directs a master class for 25 advanced students from area

dance schools at the New Brunswick studios of the American Repertory

Ballet at 3:30 p.m. on the day of the performance. "I’m very excited

that the most experienced dancers from our pre-professional program

have this opportunity," says Robertson. "The essence of really

wonderful dancing is taking risks and making it fresh for yourself,

and for an audience. The question is, can that kind of boldness and

musical and physical audacity be taught to others?"

Farrell’s marriage to Paul Mejia in 1969 disrupted but did not break

the bond between choreographer and muse. She returned to her partnership

with Balanchine in 1975, after which she continued to inspire some

of his most highly regarded ballets.

After making a remarkable comeback from hip socket replacement surgery

in 1987, Farrell returned to the stage until her retirement in 1990.

"A dancer should probably end her career as she ends every performance,

with a silent bow," said Farrell at her last performance. She

was showered with thousands of white roses.

Suzanne Farrell Stages Masters of 20th-Century Ballet,

State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311.

Pre-performance question and answer session with Farrell at 7 p.m.

($6). $20 to $32. Friday, October 29, 8 p.m.

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Participate Please

New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden offers "Home School

Days" for families who want to include the aquarium as part of

their science, ecology, and conservation lessons. The aquarium specializes

in involving visitors in the exhibits while they learn about the more

than 80 resident species. This year’s designated home school days

are November 9, December 14, February 8, March 14, and April 11. Call

800-616-JAWS.

Actor’s Dance Studio, 1012 Brunswick Avenue in Lawrence

Township, offers a new series of beginners’ classes in Swing Dance

and Tango, November 1. To register, call 609-882-6099.

Trenton Arts Connection is preparing a Cultural Resource

Directory in cooperation with Artworks, TAWA, and the Mercer County

Cultural and Heritage Commission. The directory of visual artists,

literary arts, performing artists, and cultural organizations will

serve as a guide for those seeking to commission artistic talent as

well as to heighten public awareness of cultural resources within

the greater Trenton area. To be included, call 609-695-8155.

Princeton Youth Fund is accepting applications for grants

from organizations that provide programs for young people in Princeton.

Applications and inquiries should be sent to the Princeton Youth Fund,

PO Box 1240, Princeton 08542.

Academic Year in the USA (AYUSA) is interviewing prospective

host families for second semester foreign high school students. Visitors

arrive at the end of January and stay until June. Call Barbara Overton,

800-251-4938.

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Volunteers Wanted

The American Cancer Society is seeking office volunteers

to help at the Mercer Unit office, 3076 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville.

Call Marion Zaben, 732-738-6800.

Parents Anonymous of New Jersey needs volunteers to staff

its 24-hour Parent Stressline. Volunteers can work from their own

homes. Call 609-243-9779.


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