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Dancing for Balanchine

Holding On to the Air: An Autobiography

by Suzanne Farrell, with Toni Bentley
Summit, 322 pp., $19.95

George Balanchine once told the dance historian Nancy Reynolds that when he set out to choreograph The Nutcracker in 1954 the one thing he insisted on to the money people was that he had to have a big, expensive Christmas tree, a tree like the one he remembered from childhood, loaded with treats, and all of them you could just reach up and take:

Pfefferkuchen, lebkuchen, everything like that is there…. Our tree was full of food—chocolate, oranges, apples. You just pick up from the tree and eat. It’s a tree of plenty. It represents food, plenty, life.1

This was not just what he wanted in a Christmas tree, but what he wanted in ballet: fullness, a horn of plenty, a kind of dancing from which energy would just pour and pour. Hence his often repeated dictum to dancers: “What are you saving it for? Do it now!” He wanted a big show.

He got it, too, by the patient labor of sixty years. Season after season, he taught dancers a new style of ballet dancing, both “packed”—full of complication, gradation, variation—and yet extraordinarily clean, quick, and natural-looking. This was his great invention and it has since become the reigning style not just at New York City Ballet, which he founded with Lincoln Kirstein in 1948, but across the United States. During his lifetime, he alone was the foremost purveyor of this style. If we look down the long list of Balanchine ballerinas—Alexandra Danilova, Tamara Toumanova, Marie-Jeanne, Mary Ellen Moylan, Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, Merrill Ashley, Darci Kistler—there is no question that for most of them the most important influence was Balanchine, his teaching. But as he aged, and then after he died in 1983, they had to look more to their predecessors. And for today’s young New York City Ballet dancers, the girls who, their braces recently removed, come flying forward now as the curtain goes up on Who Cares? or Symphony in C, the crucial predecessor is Suzanne Farrell.

Joining Balanchine’s company in 1961 at the age of sixteen, Farrell became, in Arlene Croce’s words, “probably the most important dancer who ever entered his life.”2 And as she developed, she also became, for her time, the most important female dancer in the lives of the majority of New York’s ballet audience. Last year, her right hip having been sacrificed to her art—its cartilage completely eroded, it was replaced with a plastic hip in 1987—she retired from New York City Ballet, weeping and bowing in a rain of white flowers. And this year she has produced her autobiography, Holding On to the Air, using as her coauthor Toni Bentley, also a former NYCB dancer and author of the successful 1982 ballet “diary” Winter Season.

Born in 1945 and christened Roberta Sue Ficker—if ever there was a name that begged to be changed, this is it—she grew up in what appeared to be the bosom of midwestern normalcy. Father worked for a meat-packing factory, Mother was a nurse’s aide. Together with their three daughters—Bev and Sug (short for Sugar, as daughter Donna was called) and Suzi (Roberta Sue’s nickname, hence Suzanne)—they lived in a four-room house in Mt. Healthy (really), Ohio, around the corner from Grandmother, who made her living hand tinting greeting cards for the Gibson Card Company.

When Suzi was ten, her mother, Donna Holly, asked her father to leave. Indeed, as Farrell later tells us, “for several generations no man in my family had managed to last, and most were bitterly resented.” Mr. Ficker wasn’t much missed, though, for by then the girls were completely caught up in their lessons, Bev in piano, Sug and Suzi in dance. Not that there was any money for lessons. But Mrs. Holly, an extraordinarily resourceful woman, always found a way. She wangled, she schemed, she paid in kind. In exchange for the girls’ first dance lessons she cleaned the teacher’s house. Later she managed to obtain full scholarships for all three girls to Ursuline Academy—Cincinnati’s most exclusive Catholic school, conveniently located down the street from where the girls took their lessons—in return for an arrangement whereby these three children would give ballet classes to their schoolmates. (“Sug taught the class,” Farrell writes, “Bev accompanied on the piano, and when I was old enough, I demonstrated.”) When as youngsters they gave backyard theatricals, she ironed every ruffle on their costumes. When as teenagers they needed to get out of school to see a performance or to be in one, she wrote sick notes.

Soon Mrs. Holly realized that if Suzi was going to be a ballerina, she had to go to where a big company was. To do that, though, a full scholarship was needed, for Mrs. Holly was still supporting the family on a nurse’s aide’s salary. Suzi auditioned for the National Ballet of Canada’s school, but they did not offer her a scholarship. (Farrell gives herself the pleasure of quoting the rejection letter from NBC’s august director, Celia Franca: “Her arm movements and positions are lacking in quality and line,” etc.)

Then came the second big chance. This was the year, 1960, when Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, the affiliate academy of the New York City Ballet, launched the scholarship program which, funded by the Ford Foundation, was to mean so much to the American “dance boom” of the Sixties and Seventies. Out across the country fanned Balanchine’s scouts, visiting regional ballet schools, picking out the most promising young teen-agers, and offering them scholarships to SAB in time for them to finish their training there. The scout who came to Farrell’s school was the regal New York City Ballet ballerina Diana Adams, whom Farrell had already admired in photographs in Dance Magazine. On the fateful day Suzi came to class and danced—“as if my life depended on it,” she recalls—and Diana Adams sat and watched and offered her nothing. As Adams later explained to the dance critic David Daniel, Farrell just didn’t seem to her strong enough: “Everything she did was very refined; it looked like dancing. And yet you couldn’t see it from more than ten feet away…. My problem was sort of like wondering how to get a tablecloth onto a table that was already set without moving anything.”3

But Adams had heard from Farrell’s ballet teacher that Mrs. Holly was thinking of taking her daughters to New York anyway, so she told Farrell that if she came she should call the School of American Ballet for a second audition. Farrell relayed Adams’s words to her mother, and on the strength of this, Mrs. Holly sold her furniture, packed Suzi and Bev and a couple of carton boxes into the family Ford—Sug stayed in Cincinnati, to go to college—and took off for New York. When night fell they pulled into a parking lot and slept in the car, Suzi on the floor in the back, with the bump in the middle. Rarely has so much effort been expended with so little guarantee of return. As Farrell puts it,

Had I needed tangible proof of hope, improvement, or success, I would never have become a dancer. Dancing is a profession based on belief, like a religion.

Her belief was exceeded only by her mother’s.

Her second audition was with Balanchine himself. Auspiciously, he accepted her into the school on full scholarship. The family moved into a one-room apartment in the Ansonia, a huge old pile on upper Broadway. The room had enough space for Bev’s piano and a trundle bed. The girls slept in the bed at night, the mother by day. (She worked nights as a private-duty nurse.) Since the curtains had to be drawn while their mother slept, the girls did their homework by candlelight. They ate at the Horn & Hardart across the street and used the toilet there, too, because the one that came with their room usually didn’t work. Suzi was now fifteen.

She stayed at SAB for only a year. In 1961 she was taken into New York City Ballet and began her astonishing ascent through its ranks and its repertory. Within a year she danced her first starring role, the Dark Angel in Serenade. Within two years she had her first ballet made for her (by John Taras, a longtime associate of Balanchine’s) and passed a far harder test as well. Balanchine had made a new ballet to Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra. This was a serial score, and the choreography was in keeping—full of complication and surprise. Balanchine had entrusted the pas de deux to two of his master dancers, Jacques d’Amboise and Diana Adams. Then, two weeks before the premiere, Diana Adams, whom fate must have intended as a dark angel in Farrell’s career, found herself pregnant and bed-ridden. D’Amboise suggested that they try to teach the role to Farrell. How they did it is hard to know, but in two hours in Adams’s living room—a space too small for Farrell actually to execute the steps, and with a floor too slippery for her to wear point shoes—while Adams lay on the couch and told her what to do, and d’Amboise clapped out the musical counts, the seventeen-year-old Farrell learned this very difficult role, and she performed it soon after to great acclaim.

Life was considerably different for me after Movements,” Farrell writes. She was promoted to soloist, the middle rank between corps de ballet and principal dancer, and before the year was out, Balanchine made his first ballet for her. Meditation, to Tchaikovsky, in which a young woman, her hair unbound, appears to an aging man on a darkened stage, draws him into a dance of mounting rapture, and then leaves him once again. Meditation was only the beginning of the life that Balanchine now made for her. Within fourteen months of its premiere, she was cast in fifteen new leading roles, an unheard-of repertory for a soloist, let alone a teen-ager.

What did he see in her? As Adams had recognized at once, she had grace; her movement looked like dancing. She also had the body type that Balanchine favored—she was tall (five foot six), with long arms, long legs, and a small head—and she had become rapidly stronger. But there was something else. As Adams explained it to David Daniel, Farrell simply did whatever Balanchine asked for. Other dancers had a tendency to decide that they were one kind of dancer or another and to limit their efforts accordingly: they were adagio dancers and therefore couldn’t do allegro, they were technicians or dramatic dancers or soubrettes or whatever, and therefore couldn’t be asked to do what was different from that. But Farrell made no decisions about what she was.

Furthermore, she seems almost not to have understood how difficult Balanchine’s work was. The other dancers, when Balanchine gave them a combination of steps to do in class, would look at one another and laugh grimly before attempting it. Not Farrell. “She stood at the barre,” Adams says, “like a horse wearing blinkers and never once looked around…. If Balanchine said to do something, she never bothered to consider its difficulty or impossibility. She assumed it was possible, and she did it.”4

This might seem a small thing but it is not. It meant that with her Balanchine could go as far as he wanted artistically, or at least to the very end of her abilities, which was far indeed. Farrell herself appears to have accepted this unromantic attribute—her willingness to do whatever he asked for—as the thing that set her apart from the others in his eyes. “Perhaps he saw me as his muse,” she told Dance Magazine in 1985, “simply because I believed he meant what he said. Maybe just to have found someone like that seemed fateful to him.”5

This seeming passivity was based on a remarkable sense of self. From early on Farrell appears to have regarded her career as a sort of divine mission, a destiny that was sent to her and that, consequently, we would all simply have to acknowledge and cope with. Never does she seem to have felt that she was dancing for the audience. “I dance for God,” she said, “who gave me the gift of dancing.”6 She also danced for Balanchine. As for the public, “We’re stuck with each other,” she told the critic Holly Brubach. “You’re stuck looking at me, and I’m stuck being out there in front of you.”7

It is doubtful that any dancer has ever worked harder than Farrell—and with a disinterestedness such that, free of the lower forms of vanity (need for compliments, fear of looking foolish), she was never deterred from moving toward her chosen goal. She tells an interesting story of her first night as a member of New York City Ballet. When she came offstage after the last piece of the evening (it was Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes), the ballet mistress said to her, “If that’s the best you can do piqué turns, you’ll never last.” Any other sixteen-year-old, met a with comment like that after her debut performance, would have been utterly crushed. But Farrell’s reaction was anger: “I was furious…. Why had she waited so long to tell me?”8 Her ego is so great that she seems to have no ego.

What such a temperament means to an artist, in terms of freedom to experiment, opportunities to grow, is incalculable. Farrell appears to have been born with it, or almost. Whatever she lacked, Balanchine’s faith in her supplied. And that extraordinary confidence helped her to endure the isolation that came with Balanchine’s good faith. “Endure” is probably not the word, for Farrell had been solitary from childhood. The family itself was isolated—four females, making their slightly oddball way alone—and Farrell became isolated within it. Though the sisters were close when they were young, Farrell grew inward as she grew older. She didn’t confide in her mother or Bev or anyone else—“only God and Girl [her cat] knew all my thoughts”—and she liked it that way. She once said to William Como, editor of Dance Magazine, “I don’t feel that anything is really gotten out of doing something with someone.”

But once Balanchine began to concentrate on her more and more closely, and cast her in more and more roles, to the exclusion of other dancers, she found herself utterly friendless. In the book she tells the terrible story of how the dancer Patricia Neary, whom she liked and had roomed with on tour, not only had to give up to her her role in Concerto Barocco but had to teach it to her as well. Neary taught it, through her tears. “I learned the ballet but lost a friend.” Farrell says. Soon she had none left to lose.

All of this reached a climax in 1965, with Balanchine’s evening-length Don Quixote. To begin with, the ballet seemed to make clear what many had already suspected for two years, since Meditation: that Balanchine was in love with Farrell. Don Quixote was created not only for her, but about her. She was Dulcinea, with the haggard old Don seeking her, worshiping her, seeing her in the guise of the Virgin Mary. Furthermore, Balanchine himself played the Don at the premiere and on several other occasions as well. Finally, in case anyone was still in doubt—for Balanchine was forty-one years older than Farrell, and married to a unique and beloved ballerina, Tanaquil LeClercq, who was, furthermore, crippled, having been stricken by polio at the height of her career—in case there was any doubt that this unseemly thing was really happening, Balanchine and his Dulcinea appeared together on the cover of Life magazine, she smilling an uncharacteristically knowing smile, he gazing at her with love. (The cover is reproduced in the book.) Inside he was quoted as saying that Don Quixote’s story was that of all men: “Everything a man does he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life and you believe in something and I believe in a little thing like that.”

Don Quixote marked a transition in their artistic lives as well. Around this time, Farrell writes, they ceased being teacher and student and became “accomplices.” He would ask her for more and more daring extensions of classical technique; she would produce, and also offer her own, for his faith and curiosity emboldened her.

One day as I fell out of a turn into a backbend lunge he said, “Can you do that again, can you fall more…lean more…bend more?” I said, “Let me try,” and he countered, “Is it impossible?”… By now I knew nothing was impossible, at least physically [!], and replied, “No, it’s not. Let me work on it.” If I couldn’t repeat the movement immediately, we would leave those places sketchy until the next day.

What they produced together through this system was something new, which Farrell calls off-center dancing, where the foursquare horizontal/vertical of the academic ballet technique is thrown off kilter, tilted, made dangerous and dynamic. Actually, other Balanchine dancers before Farrell had done offcenter dancing. All his professional life Balanchine had been going after this look: it was his heritage from his youth in the Petrograd avant-garde of the Twenties, and it corresponded to the spirals and helices and flying arcs of his constructivist coevals. Indeed it can be said to be their dance equivalent. It was part of a shared idea of beauty—pure energy, clean lines, no ballast—born of the early century.

But in the course of her heated collaboration with Balanchine, Farrell carried off-center dancing further than it had gone before, and perfected its central image, the off-center turn. In this turn, which can make your heart stop the first time you see it, the dancer, in mid-pirouette, veers or (if it is Farrell) even lunges off balance, only to right herself again on the next revolution or simply to plunge forward into her next step. Whatever the recovery, the look is entirely different from that of a more academic style, where the dancer completes one step, and with as much “finish” as possible, before going on to the next. That look is like a string of pearls; this, like a fire spreading.

Farrell speaks of their discovery with pride: “We…climbed through the walls of balletic convention to discover a whole new place to inhabit.” But at the same time things were beginning to go hard for them personally. Her power over him was very great. (She quotes a letter of his in which he signs himself “Pest” and draws a little black bug at the bottom of the page.) In casting, she pretty much had whatever she wanted. He would give her a copy of the season brochure, and she would circle what she was interested in dancing. “I ended up circling everything,” she says. Already by 1965 she was dancing “at least once every night, often twice, and had leading roles in twenty-eight ballets, one-third of the entire repertoire. For the audience, I had become unavoidable.” For the company as well, and it is not too much to say that she was hated. “I was a leper,” as she once put it.9

A point of particular bitterness was that Balanchine would often watch the company’s performance only until Farrell was finished dancing for the evening; then he would go to dinner with her, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. She says she protested to him about this and that he answered, “You know, dear, I give them a company, I give them ballets, I give them rehearsals, I give them class if they want to come. I already give them everything.” He was sixty-five years old and, as he knew, the world’s greatest ballet choreographer, yet he was still struggling professionally. His dancers found his classes too hard and went to other teachers. Many critics still called his work cold and mechanical. Much of the general public still did not know his name. (His fame in the Sixties was by no means what it is today.) If there was someone who loved and profited from his work and he wanted to go to dinner with her, he would.

Not just dinner, though. By 1967 he had taken a small apartment of his own. Now he and Farrell were together all the time: class, rehearsal, performance, dinner, even breakfast. (She would come over in the morning and bring him a cheese Danish. Then they would walk to the theater.) “We did everything but sleep together,” she says, kindly recognizing that this is a question the reader wants to ask. I think she answers it truly. He was three times as old as she, and although one wearies a little of her insistent portrayal of herself as a “shy, religious girl,” an unstained Catholic virgin, particularly when films of her at this age (e.g., the 1967 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) show a very sexy teen-ager, the sex was probably all in the ballets. As she very frankly states several times in the book, she was no particular friend of that side of life. Apropos of her first kiss, age seventeen—it left her unmoved—she says that in her family, “we never, ever, openly discussed…the intimacies between men and women, but I knew from observation that they were painful and usually unsuccessful.”

Surprisingly, she goes on to say that she fell in love with Balanchine, and “had amorous feelings” toward him. This is something that, to my knowledge, she has never said in print before, although she has given a number of seemingly candid interviews (including interviews after his death) on the subject. Furthermore, I wonder what kind of falling in love this is, when five pages later, responding to a suggestion that she meet someone her own age, she has acquired a boyfriend named Roger, and, three pages later, is engaged to him. In any case, all hell now breaks loose. Tears, rages, midnight rides to Long Island to consult Marist priests. In Farrell’s life this went on for several years; in her book it goes on for several chapters. At one point a dancer in the company says to her, “Why don’t you just sleep with him…. Is it such a big deal?” And callous though the suggestion is, you are not surprised by it. The only surprise is that the situation went on as long as it did—about four years.

Finally, though, Farrell made a break. Roger had been shown the door long before, but she had one other male friend, a soloist in the company named Paul Mejia. Eerily, he looked like Balanchine (hooded eyes, aquiline nose). Once the scandal got under way, there were even rumors that he was Balanchine’s son. Farrell says Mejia adored Balanchine and that was all they ever talked about: “Mr. B. and ballet.” This, however, made little difference to Mr. B. He was jealous, which of course drew Farrell and Mejia closer together. Mejia proposed. Then Balanchine proposed. But as for the latter, “it was simply too late,” she says. “Perhaps it had always been too late.” Now she speaks plainly:

I didn’t want to go home with George and be married…. I could not see what it would have given our work that we didn’t already have. I knew that I didn’t need to sleep with him to be cast in his ballets. He didn’t need to sleep with me to reveal my potential as a dancer…. Balanchine needed to choreograph to live, just as I needed to dance to live. Neither of us needed to be married to live.

But she had to be married in order to get out of this situation. (Also, by this time, “I thought I was in love with Paul.”) They had a small wedding on February 21, 1969, in a church two blocks from the theater. Balanchine was in Europe at the time. Donna Holly came to the wedding, wept audibly throughout, and then didn’t speak to her daughter for a year. (She had wanted her to marry Balanchine.) When the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, they found out that Balanchine had obtained a Mexican divorce from LeClercq two weeks before the wedding.

Blinkered as usual, Farrell thought everything was now resolved, but Balanchine had a surprise for her. It was true that she didn’t have to sleep with Balanchine to be cast in his ballets, but that didn’t mean that the person she chose to sleep with instead would be cast in his ballets. Mejia did not have a large repertory, but what he had he began losing. Finally one evening when Mejia was not given a role that he felt was his due—Symphony in C, third movement—Farrell issued an ultimatum: if Mejia didn’t dance in Symphony in C that night, they would both quit. To her utter astonishment, Balanchine took her up on it. Not only was Mejia not added to the casting sheet for Symphony in C, but Farrell, who was to have danced the second movement, was stricken from it, and as she was sitting in her dressing room preparing for the evening’s performance the wardrobe mistress, weeping, came to take her tutu away. Her resignation had been accepted.

She seems not to have believed it at first. She told The New York Times that Balanchine was being bad, and that was what the problem was: “All of a sudden he’s acting unadmirably and I can’t dance for him when he’s acting that way.”10 She also went—with Mejia—to the theater one night to use a studio to practice in. They were turned away. Eventually it dawned on her. “I was a dancer without a job, and I felt as homeless as any bag lady.”

This story, from Mt. Healthy to the loss of her position as the leading dancer of the finest ballet company in the world, forms the main trajectory of Farrell’s narrative, and occupies two thirds of the book. The remainder, though it represents twenty years, is told in a more summary fashion: four years in Brussels, dancing in the corny ballet-extravaganzas of Maurice Béjart; return to New York City Ballet in 1975 (she wrote Balanchine, asking to come back, and he said yes); marital strains (her career prospered, Mejia’s didn’t); a miscarriage; new roles, new partners; finally, Balanchine’s death. When Farrell and Bentley can’t think of a way to connect the events, they just leave a linespace and keep going. It’s like turning the pages of a photo album: here’s me getting my honorary doctorate at Yale, here’s me getting my hip replacement. It’s nice, but it’s not a story.

And that is true to Farrell’s vision. Her book is about her relationship with Balanchine, personal and artistic. (Its preface consists of a description of Meditation—the aging man, the young girl, the love that cannot be—and concludes by saying that with this ballet Balanchine “choreographed our lives.” Then the book starts.) When she returned to him in 1975, their romance did not resume. By this time he had formed an amitié amoureuse with another of City Ballet’s principal dancers, Karin Von Aroldingen, but other woman or no other woman, that period in their lives was over.

All that was left was the dancer it had produced. For many who saw her, including me, that dancer was the greatest ballerina in the world, and launched on the greatest stage of her career. For before she left City Ballet in 1969, Farrell, with all her great gifts, was also capricious and showy (“carelessly vulgar,” wrote Arlene Croce 11 ), a problem that was probably due not just to her youth but to her difficult relationship with Balanchine. Now, six years later, she was chastened—more selfless, more refined, but without any loss of daring. She was ready to become what she and Balanchine had worked on together, and she did. This is not something that I suppose she should be expected to describe. She is not a dance critic, and fortunately, she does not go in for the here-are-the-nice-notices-I-received quotation parade that makes the usual ballerina memoir such hard going. But this, her art, is the real story of the late years, and it can be at least briefly sketched.

There was, to begin with, her virtuosity—kick-the-ear battements, endless balances, “six-o’clock” arabesques penchées, triple soutenu turns—all of which gave her and the steps she did extraordinary authority, immense theatrical power. More important still was her off-center dancing: astonishing pirouettes, during which, furthermore, she showed not an eyelid flicker’s worth of concern over whether her partner would be there to catch her at the end. As a rule he was, though there were close calls, and a few terrifying occasions when we thought that this time she was truly going to pitch herself into the orchestra.

But what made all this so amazing and drastic was that she did these things with no break in the musical momentum. Or, not with no break; continuity was the least of her achievements. Rather, she unrolled these marvels, plunging from feat to feat, as part of a grand musical design. That anyone could actually do those steps was surprise enough, but that, while being done, they could be phrased so beautifully, left one agape.

And she did something else besides: she never ceased to be a classical dancer. Always, within her spiraling and lunging, dipping and twisting, you could still see the outline of the danse d’école—its verticals and horizontals, its orchestration of opposites, its boxlike positions of the feet, its vaulted arms. These shapes, classicism’s “rules,” lived within her dancing like the skeleton within the flesh, and gave it completeness: she was both wildness and harmony, courage and wisdom.

Because of this richness in her dancing and its counterpoise of our two main ideas of beauty, harmony and wildness, Farrell, more than any other dancer I have seen, embodied the transcendental aspect of ballet, its ideal character. “Taglioni danced what Kant thought,” wrote André Levison, the great dance critic of the Parisian Twenties. I wish he had seen Farrell. (Farrell herself is by no means unconscious of this aspect of her dancing. I was interested to discover in her book that the fact so many of her roles have her, at some crucial moment, pointing offstage and upward—pointing, as it were, to some distant truth—is partly her doing. For example, her great pointing gestures in Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze” and in the Walpurgisnacht Ballet—she finishes the latter mounted on her partner’s shoulder and pointing into the wings almost as if to say, “Charge!”—were both her ideas, implemented with Balanchine’s approval. But by this time, indeed since Don Quixote, where the big scene between the Don and Dulcinea ends with her pointing their way offstage, he had taught her that she was a spiritual guide. As she says regarding the woman that she came to be in Balanchine’s work, “I don’t know if I became her because she was really me and Balanchine saw that long before I did, or if I became her because Balanchine wanted her, needed her, and in me found a body and a mind willing to risk being her.” In any case, it was a joint project, and this takes nothing away from Farrell.)

By dancing in this way Farrell revivified the Balanchine repertory. Ballet lives from season to season. It is not permanent; it must always be given new life, with new performances, born of their own day. This was Farrell’s achievement. She did not inspire Balanchine to make masterpieces. She came too late. (The only indisputable masterpiece that he made expressly for her was his last, Mozartiana.) But he had already made many masterpieces, together with scores of ballets that were merely wonderful: a whole dance world, as Bach made a whole musical world. Farrell’s achievement was to give them a new life and to set a kind of style that would enable others coming after her to sustain that life. Balanchine’s works may—must—eventually find a different style, just as Bach is now played differently from the way it was played for Bach. But for my time Farrell set the style, and it was incomparably exciting.

In doing this she acted as living testament of the truth that Balanchine had tried for so long to establish: that dance was a complete art, independent of narrative. Wit, heroism, the soul’s peril: all were there, in the dancing itself. A nutcracker might figure in a ballet, or a fairy’s kiss, but they were not necessary; great ballets could be made with no characters, no narrative. Thus in the wake of the story ballets of the Forties and Fifties, whether the Snow Maidens and Graduation Balls of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo or the psychosexual thrillers of Antony Tudor at American Ballet Theatre, Farrell, simply by being the dancer she was, helped Balanchine raise ballet to a status comparable to that of music.

Her book is in certain respects a disappointment, as, in my experience, are all ballet autobiographies, with few exceptions (Lydia Sokolova’s Dancing for Diaghilev, Bronislava Nijinska’s Early Memoirs, Alexandra Danilova’s Choura). The greater the artist, the more one longs for an account of how it all came about, when in truth art and account giving are different matters, with no necessary relation. In Farrell’s case two subjects that deserved fuller discussion are her musicality and her religion. As noted, there is a lot of shy-Catholic-virgin business in this book, which I believe is sincere, yet she makes no attempt to explain what she sees as the relationship between her faith and her art. In consequence, her religiosity simply hangs over her like a little halo, giving no sense whatsoever of what was in fact the bolt-of-lightning intensity of her spiritual eloquence on stage. As for her musicality, she says what I imagine is the essential thing, that she tried to climb inside the music, and give it sway over her:

Sound is not music’s sole attribute, it has an energy of its own, and sometimes that energy requires more time. I think it is this interaction and respect for the music that binds a dancer inside it, forming a true musical movement.

This is certainly true of her dancing but to give so small an account of musicality, compared with so long a tale of her romance with Balanchine, is to misrepresent her achievement, and his.

The book does not disdain sentimentality. Where is the cliché police at Summit Books? We actually get Farrell dropping a tear, over Balanchine, into a Venetian canal. We also get “having your dreams come true can be dangerous” and “she is his destiny, he is hers, but fate intervenes” and “when Mr. Balanchine held my foot in his hands that day, I felt that he was holding my life…he had strong, warm hands.” This last vignette makes one glad that Max Beerbohm is not alive to do an illustrated edition. And to go with the clichés, there is, as always in ballet books, no end of portent descrying, lucky-charm-into-bra-tucking, and other gypsy nonsense. In one episode Farrell discovers that her cat has died: “I lifted her little body and looked at the calendar.” Well, what else would you do upon picking up your dead cat? And sure enough, the calendar reveals to her that it is George’s name day, and of course it was George who suggested that she get that cat, so that must mean….

Farrell is probably as forthright as, in conscience, she can be about certain matters: the Béjart company, the vicissitudes of her marriage, and indeed her breakup with Balanchine. In all these cases, however, there are moments when we strongly feel that we are getting the hand-tinted Gibson Card Company version and that she would have done better simply to keep her silence. Here, for example, is what she says of Mejia’s reaction to Balanchine’s agreeing to take her, but not him, back into the company and of her accepting this arrangement: “when he heard what had happened, there was no friction between us.”

Yet Farrell has no confusion about the central emotional drama of her story—the relationship with Balanchine—and is able, in the end, to give it its true value: tragic but not entirely. Theirs, after all, was a love that could not be not because of religion or family but because for these two people the real life was in their art. This was sublimation with a difference. There were tears, but they came to an end, and art went on. As vague as Farrell can be about other things, she is clear about this: “If he had thought at one time that he wanted something I couldn’t give him,” the reality was that “he did get everything…everything I had to give, the best of me.” This is not nobility speaking, or stiff upper lip, but truth. Balanchine knew it too. When asked by his biographer Bernard Taper about his love for Farrell, he simply replied, “It’s all in the programs.”

  1. 1

    Nancy Reynolds, Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet (Dial, 1977), p. 157.

  2. 2

    Arlene Croce, “Balanchine’s Girls: The Making of a Style” (1971), in After-images (Knopf, 1978), pp. 421–422.

  3. 3

    David Daniel, “Diana Adams on Suzanne Farrell,” Ballet Review (Winter 1982), p. 10.

  4. 4

    David Daniel, “Diana Adams on Suzanne Farrell,” p. 14.

  5. 5

    Farrell on Farrell,” interviewed by William Como, Part 2, Dance Magazine (May 1985), p. 45.

  6. 6

    David Daniel, “A Conversation with Suzanne Farrell,” Ballet Review (1978–1979), Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 2.

  7. 7

    Holly Brubach, “Pas Seul,” Ballet News, (October 1983), p. 18.

  8. 8

    Farrell on Farrell,” Part 1, Dance Magazine (April 1985), p. 65.

  9. 9

    Farrell on Farrell,” Part 2, p. 44.

  10. 10

    Richard Shepard, “Who Will Succeed Suzanne Farrell?” The New York Times (May 14, 1969), p. 35. In the autobiography, however, her account of the resignation is uncomplaining.

  11. 11

    Farrell and Farrellism” (1975), in Afterimages, p. 121.

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