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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.