Holding On to the Air: An Autobiography
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
Nancy Reynolds, Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet (Dial, 1977), p. 157.↩
Arlene Croce, "Balanchine's Girls: The Making of a Style" (1971), in After-images (Knopf, 1978), pp. 421–422.↩
David Daniel, "Diana Adams on Suzanne Farrell," Ballet Review (Winter 1982), p. 10.↩
David Daniel, "Diana Adams on Suzanne Farrell," p. 14.↩
Nancy Reynolds, Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet (Dial, 1977), p. 157.↩
Arlene Croce, “Balanchine’s Girls: The Making of a Style” (1971), in After-images (Knopf, 1978), pp. 421–422.↩
David Daniel, “Diana Adams on Suzanne Farrell,” Ballet Review (Winter 1982), p. 10.↩
David Daniel, “Diana Adams on Suzanne Farrell,” p. 14.↩