“I have behind me seventeen years of dancing these ballets and learning from them. I’ve lived my life in them and through them,” Suzanne Farrell says fervently of the mostly George Balanchine repertoire she performed so luminously at the New York City Ballet more than a decade ago. “You might say they were my education in life.” Now Balanchine’s last ballerina-muse has reprised some of her favorite pieces for her current project, Suzanne Farrell Stages the Masters of 20th Century Ballet, at the New Victory Theater November 17 to 28. This engagement is the final leg of a small tour that begins in Washington, D.C., at the home of the project’s sponsor, the Kennedy Center. The choreographers represented are “Mr. B” with a leavening of Jerome Robbins and Maurice Béjart.
“These are the people I worked with,” Farrell states guilelessly but firmly, squelching any quibbles about the masters list. Farrell, who has been teaching, staging, and coaching since her farewell performance in 1989, has mounted pieces using a chamber-size group of dancers picked up from the ranks of budding professionals and seasoned veterans (the latter, she explains, “for temperament”). Her guiding purpose is to give the choreography she’s chosen vibrant life and ongoing growth. “What good is a ballet if it’s not performed?” she asks. “Repeated performances of a ballet make it live. Otherwise, it becomes frozen in time, a memory, a ghost.”
The ghosts of Farrell’s own performances are certainly potent for New York’s passionate ballet aficionados. Anatomy and personality made Farrell a voluptuous dancer rather than a facsimile of the balletic icon that dates back to the Romantic era – the gossamer, asexual sylph. Under Balanchine’s inspired tutelage, however, her very lushness became sublime. Her specialty was adagio dancing – slow, sustained, profoundly musical, and utterly removed from pedestrian concerns. When she danced, Farrell had the air of being someone’s vision – Balanchine’s, certainly, and her viewers’ as well.
Her method of conveying “her” ballets to a new generation is emphatically person-to-person. “I teach the choreography myself,” she says. “This is the way I learned and the way dances were passed on traditionally – from body to body.” She frowns on the use – common today – of videotape as the main conduit of information. “I may sometimes use video to refresh my own memory, but I don’t like it. It’s flat. It doesn’t let you see the surge of energy or the sculpture of the body in space.” While Farrell teaches the steps of a work, she imparts the qualities she wants to see in performance and a sense of, as she puts it, “the world a particular ballet exists in,” since she believes interpretation and atmosphere to be essentials, not adornments. At the heart of her instruction lie two elements that were critical to her power onstage: an understanding of the oneness of dancing and music and an instinct – flagrant at times, heroic always – for taking risks.
Farrell refuses to allow her protégées to imitate her own performances – remembered or mechanically recorded. “I don’t pick dancers who look like me,” she points out, “but rather people who have the right instincts for the essence of the piece and a willingness to let go of who they are and become something they could be. Try to replicate my ‘effects,’ ” she observes, “and all you get is distortions. I want dancers to bring themselves to the ballets – their bodies, their energies, their imaginations. Mr. B always trusted his dancers and gave us that freedom. I want to pass that on.”
One might well wonder why Farrell must be limited to such modest circumstances for transmitting her deep personal knowledge of Balanchine’s work. “There is no answer,” she declares when asked directly why she has been exiled from her former kingdom, the New York City Ballet, by the administration that succeeded Balanchine. Under the leadership of Peter Martins, once Farrell’s perfect onstage cavalier, the NYCB has invited little input from Balanchine’s former favorites, who would seem to be obvious custodians of the canon. Many dance enthusiasts are unable to make their peace with this situation, but Farrell seems determined to do so: “If I’m not wanted, I don’t want to be there. Actually,” she adds, as if the idea had just occurred to her, “I’ve grown so much by leaving.” One recalls that she spoke similarly of her sojourn with Béjart, when personal reasons forced her out of Balanchine’s realm for a time.
“Balanchine can exist anywhere people really want it,” Farrell says with ingenuous fervor, reflecting the spirituality that suffused her dancing and the moral commitment evident in every aspect of her life. Still, more pedestrian souls will harbor reservations about her claim. The NYCB was the instrument forged to perform Balanchine; its rich resources – of talent, wealth, prestige, and a grand theater – are not insignificant to that work. Farrell has shown admirable courage and ardor in finding alternative means for passing on her unique legacy. Yet the best response to her artistry and steadfastness might be a welcome mat at the stage door of her old home.