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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
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.
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.
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
Township, offers a new series of beginners’ classes in Swing Dance
and Tango, November 1. To register, call 609-882-6099.
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.
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.
host families for second semester foreign high school students. Visitors
arrive at the end of January and stay until June. Call Barbara Overton,
to help at the Mercer Unit office, 3076 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville.
Call Marion Zaben, 732-738-6800.
its 24-hour Parent Stressline. Volunteers can work from their own
homes. Call 609-243-9779.
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