Suzanne Farrell by Emily Fragos

BOMB 85 Fall 2003
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Suzanne Farrell leading a workshop at the Kennedy Center, late ’90s. Photo by Carol Pratt. All photos courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The purest paradigm of the Balanchine dancer, Suzanne Farrell relished performing boldly and off-balance, and the great choreographer created or reworked one masterpiece after another for her: Don QuixoteDiamonds (from Jewels), ChaconneMozartianaDavidsbündlertänze—in all, more than 150 roles in over two thousand performances with the New York City Ballet. In the course of those years, Farrell and “Mr. B” transformed the face of dance, experimenting and inventing, enlarging the scale and altering the speed and structures of ballet. Their passionate relationship, their break and reconciliation are movingly documented in the Academy Award-nominated 1996 film Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse(codirected by Deborah Dickson and the late Anne Belle) and in Farrell’s memoir, Holding On to the Air, which was reissued last fall by the University Press of Florida. As the dance critic Arlene Croce wrote after Farrell’s 1989 retirement, “In the extremes of its range, her technique was hair-raising. It seems safe to say we shall never see anything like it again.”

Given such an unparalleled career, it is astonishing to consider that Farrell’s most creative days are still ahead of her. Today she is artistic director of her own critically acclaimed company, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which embarks on a 15-city national tour October 2, culminating in the Tchaikovsky Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., December 2–7. She is also the world’s most sought-after répétiteur of Balanchine ballets and had just returned from Toronto and Buenos Aires before this interview. I had a warm, joyous conversation with Suzanne by phone to Florida, where she holds the Francis Eppes Chair in the Arts at Florida State University. “I am not a programmed person,” she told me. “One thought ignites another; like mirrors, the image never stops.” Her speech—swift, swerving, passionate, and witty—bore this out.

Emily Fragos Suzanne, as a poet, I feel very lucky because if I need consolation or inspiration, I just have to pick up a book. I can hold one of Shakespeare’s plays or Emily Dickinson’s poems in my hand and it comes alive. But your exquisite art, the dance, is so elusive and fragile. For me, dance lives in the body and the imagination of the dancer, and as time passes, beautiful dances can become diminished or distorted or even vanish into thin air. So on to my first question. You were George Balanchine’s greatest dancer and muse. It was a miraculous partnership. You learned enormously from each other. Twenty years after his death, what is the state of his work, his masterpieces?

Suzanne Farrell First of all, you’re right about the fragility of dance. So much depends on the individuals, both the dancer and the choreographer, and on the poetry and vitality they bring to the stage or studio at that moment. A score, a piece of music, will always be the way the composer intended it. The notes will never change. Words are written down and become the text of a great poem or a play. But choreography is subjected to many variables. If Balanchine ballets retain his integrity, his musicality, his energy, spirit, and lifelong philosophy—the right environment will hold them together.

EF When you work, do you feel his presence, his provoking?

SF Yes, but in a metaphysical sense. I first knew him just as a picture in Dance Magazine, as the person I wanted to work for. From the day I had my audition in New York, when that picture on the page came to life, when it was difficult to understand what he said because of his accent, to the days when he started to teach, and then to the days when we started to do ballets together, there was already a whole history of our spending time together. There was always admiration and respect for each other. We evolved from one dream to another.

EF Many dancers say that working with you is one of the most exciting experiences of their careers. They say that the experience reminds them of why they wanted to be a dancer, that you restore for them the purity of the art form, the excitement of dancing.

SF As you go on in life studying ballet for many years, you forget what first attracted you. Many dancers begin to feel noble simply because they come to class at all, when since they chose to dance, they should have this wonderful feeling unlike anything else in life: the state of balletic grace. And I caution my dancers and students alike not to focus on being a star or to demand the star treatment, but to remember the stars they had in their eyes that made them want to dance in the first place. Moreover, as you become experienced and perfect the technique, you have to remain vulnerable and not lose that wonderful innocence, that freshness. You can express the ballet technically well—but not necessarily very poetically.

EF You’ve often said that dancers are ennobled, a special breed of person. There’s also a lot of humility in the dancer. You have to start every day at the ballet barre, doing—

SF —what the beginners do. Dancers don’t use anything other than who they are in the sense that we are not machines where the volume can be turned up or amplified. We have to do it all visually and energetically. I say to the dancers, “Ladies and gentlemen, please turn up the volume in your movement; you have to turn up the volume, the technicolor in your eyes.” We are our own technology, our own instruments. There is no cinematographer, no editor, no sound track to enhance. You will have days when you don’t balance as long, or you don’t turn as many times, or you can’t jump as high. That’s where your response to music and space comes into play. I want to teach my dancers to have a facility to use another vocabulary, just like a writer searches for a better word. We should have that kind of thesaurus in our technique, the ability to delve deeper into our dance voice. It’s much more visceral, much more vulnerable. And that makes many people uncomfortable.

EF Yes, I understand.

SF After I had my hip replaced and once I could walk again, I went back to the studio to begin again to learn. I couldn’t get my leg very high off the floor, but what was a temporary limitation became an adventure, and I relished every centimeter that my leg went higher. I rediscovered how truly wonderful it was to be able to move and found new ways of moving because I had a different body. You can get very comfortable behind your technique, but some of the most subtle and most profound stagecraft I’ve learned has come from non-dancers, or a dancer who’s not technically so good but does something fresh because they don’t have a technique to masquerade behind. There are many different ways of intuiting life-altering dynamics, and they have nothing to do with how high your leg extends.

EF I saw your company perform for the first time a few years ago; it was Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, music by Mozart, of course, and when the curtain went up there was a real gasp in the audience because of the beautiful stillness of the dancers onstage. And then they began to move. If I could find one word to describe it—there were many words, but I would pick lucidity. The dancers were radiant; they seemed lit up like Christmas trees. How do you draw that kind of elation from your dancers?

SF I think of my company as a coral reef: it’s very fragile and takes time to build; it changes color and strength and it’s very breakable. I have to handle it with care, in the right environment, without destroying something that the dancers might want to bring to their role. This requires trust and honesty alongside experimentation. Mr. B and I experimented. Otherwise you just repeat what’s already been done. When you’re a dancer it’s natural to want to put your best self forward, and so you look in the mirror and work very hard at showing your best to the audience. But I don’t believe you can be an honest dancer and spectator at the same time. The dynamics of every performance are different: you’ve lived a little longer, the tempos might have changed slightly, your partner, the interaction, the audience are different. It’s better to work with what I call different options. You have to leave yourself vulnerable to the moment, spontaneous.

Also, I’m not constantly correcting my dancers. They usually know when they’ve made a mistake, and if you continually correct someone, they will feel limited and fear any movement that has not been sanctioned. They become ciphers. A technical problem can be fixed, but a thought-process problem or an emotional limitation becomes insurmountable. I usually withhold comments until there’s been a cluster of things that have started to chip away at the work process, the performance, the rehearsal. Usually they stop dancing because they become uncomfortable, and then I say, “Well, as long as we’ve stopped … ” I also wait to see how they’re going to develop their rehearsal, because it’s not always immediately apparent. If nothing’s happening, then I say, “I don’t understand where you’re going with this.” I believe the more you reveal yourself to an audience, the more mysterious you will become. The less you reveal, the less interesting you are. Every night I put my life out there on the stage in front of everyone. I couldn’t not give everything. And it was noted, “She’s so mysterious.” But if you work at being mysterious, it just comes off as disingenuous. I want to help them in this process.

EF They say a great poem is like a prayer: the voice is compelling, consuming; it does not misspeak, and it’s very intimate. When I saw you perform, I felt that your dancing was like that, utterly compelling and very honest.

SF Well, I always needed to move to beautiful music. As a child, I danced in our living room, but would stop if anyone watched; it wasn’t the applause or the attention. I would have been happy dancing even if no one saw me. I needed to dance; I only dreamed of being a ballerina. This meant I never became bored or unhappy with dance. Yes, I had unhappiness in my life, but dance never betrayed me. I think it’s a shame when people say, “Oh, I’m so tired of dancing”—you know, life is hard; it’s meant to be a test, but while you’re studying for that test, isn’t it nice to be dancing. There should always be happiness and comfort in responding to music. This attitude has allowed me to be a better teacher, and to bring fresh energy to the studio and to the dancers.

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Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Apollo, 2001. From left: J. Fournier, B. Huys, and N. Magnicaballi. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

EF You once told me that for you dance is more real than the “outside” world, which doesn’t always measure up.

SF Someone once remarked, “Oh, you’re a dancer, you’re up on stage, you don’t like to face reality,” and that hit such a nerve because I feel that life is more real onstage. I mourn artifice. I have this little theory that the arts were invented because life didn’t measure up to what it was supposed to be. If life were wonderful, we would all dance, we would all sing, we would all be poets, we would all paint. As it is, the arts are the hospitals for our souls, so they need to be of the best integrity. I have a theory that George devoted himself to ballet because it served as his visa out of Russia during those horrific times. Ballet gave him his existence and his salvation outside Russia and nurtured his genius, and that’s why he never got bored and why he became so prolific. You can’t be flippant about genius. The mind sets you on a path to be the best. You must work at making your life work for you; you are responsible to posterity.

EF You have also said to me that there is nothing a dancer can feel or experience that you do not understand, because you have experienced both the highest dance summit and the lowest emotional valley, and all the gradations in between.

SF Perhaps this is why my dancers and students realize how much I truly care. I don’t brood. I’m a happy, positive person and like to work in that atmosphere.

EF When you were dancing you expressed everything with your beautiful limbs and with your body, by moving to music, but now that you don’t dance anymore, you have to use language to convey. Have you found it exasperating to switch modes of expression?

SF When I was onstage I knew that I only had to account for myself. How I danced was who I was. I can’t do that now. I have to find more ways of communicating the ballets to my dancers because it’s them out onstage. For instance, in Agon and Apollo there are passages where several times Mr. B altered, reinforced or clarified the choreography because certain steps had started to erode. I have had several versions of experience in these ballets since I was 17 years old, and I draw on these resources and come up with the appropriate one for the particular case in point. So it’s not that I’m changing his ballets. These are options that he wanted at one time. And I discussed this with him on many occasions.

When Mr. B started working on a ballet for me, there would be no one in the room except Gordon Boelzner at the piano, George and myself. He would show me a little something and I would try to imitate or shape or decode what he indicated—he would always indicate, not command, and I would try. Choreography is not born as choreography; it grows out of a suggestion or movement indication and then it gets shaped into choreography. Rarely would he say, “That’s not what I wanted.” He would put the ball in my court and allow me to run with it, but he trusted me and didn’t say, “That’s not how I would have run with it, if I were you.” Sometimes he would have a mistake become part of the choreography. Not that every mistake that happens can be put to music and become beautiful, but he made us see life differently.

EF When I watch some of Balanchine’s great choreography to Stravinsky—and usually Stravinsky just makes me nervous—it’s whoosh! I am carried away. I can hear the notes, I can hear the instruments, I can hear the emotions that are going on. So much is lost to me without Balanchine’s choreography.

SF Well, that was one of the reasons that Mr. B choreographed to Stravinsky. It’s not the sort of music that people listen to in their living room. Stravinsky was a great mentor and friend, and Balanchine wanted people to appreciate him. Some people had a problem with Agon. They thought the music sounded too harsh. The choreography doesn’t try to modify or mollify the music—it justifies the harshness, it explains the music.

EF Stravinsky loved your dancing.

SF I grew up with Stravinsky in a way. My early premieres were to his music. We had several little hallway chats; it was great fun. One time, we had been working on Variations, the first version, in ’66, and Stravinsky was in town. George invited him to come watch a rehearsal. He brought out a little stool for Stravinsky and placed it in the center of the stage; only the work-light was on, and there was nobody in the audience, so it was just like a little party, with George and Stravinsky. I was the dancing girl, as in “Bring on the dancing girl!” And he said, “Suzi, do some Variations for Igor.” I began the five-minute solo, and then they talked in Russian and seemed to be having a good, conspiratorial time. I stood there not knowing what was going on, and then Mr. B said, “Why don’t you do a bit of the very difficult cadenza from Ballet Imperial.” So I did that, and then they talked some more. Mr. B thanked me and I went to my dressing room. Shortly after, there was a knock on my door and it was George. He thanked me again, and told me that Stravinsky enjoyed my dancing. I said, “Oh, I’d love to tell him how much I enjoy dancing to his music.” George said, “If you run, you can catch up to him.” Stravinsky was slowly walking toward the theater exit, cane in hand. As I ran after him I called out, “Mr. Stravinsky, Mr. Stravinsky, I just want to tell you how much I enjoy dancing to your music.” He patted me on the head and knowingly said, “I can tell. Thank you, dear.”

EF (laughter)

SF What Balanchine did becomes more vital, more important, not only to the dance world but in a way also in holding the world together. Good theater should always send people away feeling changed. Everybody I met in the audience during that wonderful era when Balanchine was working and everything seemed so right with the world said how their lives had changed, no matter what walk of life they came from. We can’t recapture those days, but I want to bring that same sense of urgency and importance to the time we’re living in.

You know, Stravinsky and George loved discussing the difference between time and timing. Timing can be slowed down or speeded up as an image on a movie screen, but time and our life goes on—the universal clock. We can never alter time. It will always be a 24-hour day. Stravinsky and George loved pointing out the importance of time.

EF Balanchine had such a curious imagination. He could take inspiration from virtually anything: orange groves, belly dancing, Botticelli paintings, birds flying, cats leaping—

SF Neon signs.

EF Everything.

SF He explored ideas while ironing shirts, too. The things we’re confronted with every day have a rhythm, a timing, a statement, these neon lights that flash in a progression and then at the end there’s an arrow, and it points to McDonald’s. I remember traveling in our car as a child from Cincinnati to the mountains for vacation. To pass the time I would memorize billboards. It was a good game. I could only see the sign for a short time, and had to remember all the text on the board. At some point it got to be annoying because I couldn’t not look at something and memorize it. I got on my own nerves. But later, when Mr. B was working on a ballet, something would just spill out of his body; he could rarely duplicate it, so I tried to see precisely what he wanted the first time. This billboard technique particularly came in handy in those late pieces, because George was so ill.

EF You finished two solo works for him.

SF I did, but that came over years of being soulmates. Also, there was no difference between what he taught in class and what he wanted in rehearsal and performance—it was the same belief system. You could not take one part of what he wanted and reject the other. You cannot semi-believe. Many people thought his classes were too difficult. They’d rather have taken someone else’s classes. But that left them unprepared and only scratched the surface of what Mr. B wanted. He would not have bothered teaching class if there hadn’t been something important to be derived from it or if he didn’t want to go further with his own choreography. Nevertheless, Mr. B would never ignore a dancer on those grounds, although it limited his capacity to develop them.

EF I have had the privilege of watching you teach. The door opens and you come in swiftly, and sometimes you take a turn around the room; all eyes are on you from head to foot and then you begin, and you often give unexpected combinations. You seem to want to pull the young dancers out of learning by rote. What is it that you want to impart? What do you want them to take with them, not just from that class but for the rest of their lives?

SF It depends on the student. Every student is individual to me. It’s up to me to find out what they need to have their dancing be their thumbprint. As I said before, there are many layers that make up a person, and sometimes I have to strip some of those layers away in order to find out who they are before rebuilding them. Not in my image, but as who they should be. I love to grow peonies, and they start with these tiny buds. One morning I saw ants on the buds, and I flicked them off with my finger—I didn’t want any imperfection on my peony buds. And then I read somewhere that you need those ants to eat away the bud’s shell, because that’s how the petals open. Mr. B ate away those shells from us, those preconceived, protective notions that we have. That’s what I try to do with my dancers. When the peonies open up, I bring them into the house. They stay beautiful for a few days, but once I accidentally bumped into the vase and literally hundreds of petals fell onto the floor. I was amazed at the miracle of how many layers, how many petals were inside this one tiny bud. Mr. B wanted to open our eyes to the many possibilities there are within us. He really was such a humane person; he truly cared about people.

EF I used to see him on the street carrying his groceries or going to work in a blue blazer and neat gray slacks, and he always looked content, very relaxed. When I think back on it now, it’s amazing: he would be waiting at the corner with a lot of people who didn’t know who he was. I mean, here was this towering figure of the 20th icentury, and no one recognized him. And he didn’t seem to need the recognition. Imagine Picasso or T. S. Eliot being that down to earth.

SF Maybe it’s because you have to be an observer of people when the medium you work with is humanness. Picasso could put his canvas in the corner and it would be the same when he came back to it. The dancer, the human body, is constantly changing: it alters with time, with emotion, with humidity, with health. It’s lived one day longer. You shouldn’t ever assume that a human body or a dancer will be predictable.

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Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine in Don Quixote, mid-60s.

EF Let’s talk about two of the late masterpieces, Davidsbündlertänze and Mozartiana. When you danced Mozartiana you told Balanchine, “I believe this is what heaven must be like.” Was he choreographing his own mortality?

SF I wouldn’t put those words in his mouth. He was at a disadvantage because he was not well, and his body was failing him. It must have been heartening when I made that statement because it helped him see things more clearly.

EF He must have been very pleased with that comment.

SF I think so. Well, I know so. There was a visual change; his eyes started to twinkle. I hadn’t planned on saying that; it just sort of came out of my mouth. I mean, Mozartiana is such a difficult ballet—most people would say it’s a devilish ballet to have to dance. But I felt there was this pervasive calm in spite of all the difficult technical aspects; it almost possessed you. And I think my saying this made it easier for him. He was always taking care of us, and I felt that he would always be here with me. But right then he needed me to help him see differently.

EF He choreographed one of his most mesmerizing pieces for you in Davidsbündlertänze.

SF I had watched some of the rehearsals for the other couples. They were all very intense, technical, and exciting. And then it was time for Jacques [d’Amboise] and me, and as you know, Jacques was in the later part of his career, older and almost retiring. George said, “Well, Jacques, maybe you can lift Suzanne,” and Jacques said, “Oh, I’m sorry Mr. B, I’ve got bursitis in my shoulder,” and George said, “Okay, then maybe you can kneel and Suzanne can do something around you and support herself on you while you’re on your knee,” and Jacques said, “Sorry George, I’ve got a bad knee.” So every time Mr. B tried to give us something, there was an obstacle. I had images of the other couples in my mind and how they were doing all this wonderful choreography and we couldn’t come up with anything we could do. I got upset—not at Jacques, because he was always a wonderful, kind partner all my life. I was just desperate because we couldn’t seem to do anything. I telephoned Mr. B the next morning in tears and said, “I’m sorry you have to work so hard to make Jacques and me look like something.” And George said, “Oh, that’s all right. I have to work hard to make everybody look like something.” And I feel we turned out to be the best in the end. It was unique. Not just steps. It was original, because sometimes life forces you to be original, although it doesn’t work if you contrive to be original.

EF How did he come up with that incredible lift, when Jacques carries you off?

SF Yes, I find it haunting. I support myself partly, with one arm over Jacques’s shoulder so the weight is distributed, a different way of lifting. And then we disappear. This would not have been devised for a healthy body. I am also thinking of the second act in Don Quixote, after Don Q has been crucified and terrorized by the aristocrats. I am behind him, and I put one hand over his eyes and with the other hand point him toward his destiny. It was downstage in a diagonal to stage right. Mr. B clearly wanted to point in that direction with this symbolism. I was showing Don Q where to go, but it was also a direction we would go in together. And then in Davidsbündlertänze at the end of my fast variation, George had me going across the front of the stage in a series of turns. He didn’t quite know how to finish it, so he had me point to the same downstage exit. This is where he would always stand to watch performances. But now I was alone pointing in that direction. I took that as symbolism: “I’m with you, but I’m not with you.” A lot of my life has been lived on that diagonal. Maybe he saw me as a diagonal girl.

EF Some people say you cannot create great art without obsession. You love something so much, you almost resent it at times.

SF I’m not obsessed with ballet; I’m passionate about ballet. Some people don’t want to have passion because it’s too revealing, or they feel that if they’re passionate about something or someone, they’ve lost control, or it will control them. I think passion is such a wonderful word, and such a wonderful feeling. To feel so alive! When they say that George was obsessed with me, it has such a negative connotation. But was he obsessed or passionate? I believe if he had been truly obsessed, the ballets we did would have been different—they would have been darker.

EF You were saying the last time we spoke that you were reworking a piece for a workshop, your own choreography to both ballet and modern dance. I didn’t realize you were choreographing for modern dance.

SF Well, I took modern dance classes when I was younger, although I don’t say that I’m giving any particular modern dance technique when I choreograph. I don’t think I move like a ballet dancer in something like Don Q, or Variations, or Tzigane. You can’t get any more modern than Mr. B.

EF Tzigane was the first piece Balanchine choreographed for you when you came back from dancing with [Maurice] Béjart in Belgium. You mentioned that he took advantage of what you had learned with Béjart—an enhanced theatricality or a more consciously dramatic aura. And you also said to me that everyone should live in Europe.

SF It’s rather cathartic to pack up and move to a completely unknown place. People are different there. So many countries close by, different artwork, languages, cultures. It was really great, and different audiences see things differently. Béjart did many ballets to text, and in Belgium the language is both French and Flemish. The text was beautiful in French; it had a lovely cadence, very natural to dance to. Romeo and Juliet is approximately a two-hour ballet. But when we did it in the Flemish-speaking cities, we had to elongate the movements, suspend the animation, because Flemish is a longer language—the text was twice as long. I learned a lot from being with Béjart, and George saw that. After all, George taught me the thrill of acquiring information and seeing how that could work in dance forms. To not have learned anything, to have wasted that time, would have been ungrateful, un-Balanchinian and dishonest of me. And if I had learned nothing with Béjart, George and I could never have been able to go on to what we did. He would have been so far ahead of me, I never would have caught up.

EF I saw you do Romeo and Juliet in Brussels, with Jorge Donn. As a professor of Shakespeare, I have to say that your Juliet is the best I’ve ever seen on a stage. And Jorge Donn was a wonderful Romeo.

I have a silly question for you. I’m not a dancer, never have been, but how does it feel to be on pointe?

SF It is a special world. And actually, I know of no male choreographer who made an effort to explore pointe work more than George. It’s not so simple—all steps can’t effectively be transposed onto pointe. Many of them just look awkward. George was never on pointe, but he had the good sense to ask, “Is this possible?” And he also, in class, tried to explore more possibilities of pointe work. After all, you’re higher, it’s rarefied air, you’re at a different vantage. It’s the smallest little circumference you can dance on—a precipice—where you must fight against gravity and stay on balance at the same time. George didn’t want people to contrive balance at the expense of musicality and movement quality. He preferred people to really dance on pointe and to move through time and space. We explored so many worlds on pointe. My life is still on that precipice.


—Emily Fragos is an award-winning poet whose work has appeared in the Paris Review, the Yale Review, Parnassus, the Boston Review, the Threepenny Review, and many other journals. Little Savage, a collection of Fragos’s poems, will be published by Grove Press in January. She is a cellist and an amateur pianist and teaches at Columbia University.

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Originally published in

BOMB 85, Fall 2003

Featuring interviews with Sol Lewitt, Vera Lutter and Peter Wollen, Rikki Ducornet and Laura Mullen, Edward St. Aubyn and Patrick McGrath & Maria Aitken, Jon Robin Baitz and Stephen Gaghan, Gina Gershon and Dave Stewart, EL-P and Matthew Shipp, and Suzanne Farrell.

Read the issue
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