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Suzanne Farrell, a Muse Who Never Failed to Amaze

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

Of Suzanne Farrell, the famed Belgian choreographer Maurice Bejart once said, his French accent caressing the words, "She is like a violin -- the music come out of that body." Indeed, she was a prima ballerina of supreme lyricism, long of limb and sensitive of soul, a dancer of daring, a dancer for whom music was everything. And when she left his company, Bejart wept. But he understood. It had to be. He always knew that she belonged with -- or was it to ? -- George Balanchine.

Long hailed as this country's greatest dancer, Farrell was the ultimate muse, the muse of a Russian man who created American ballet, a muse for whom, in the act of creation, grand, complicated passions were formed. For her, Balanchine crafted ballets, almost two dozen of them: "Don Quixote," "Meditation," "Vienna Waltzes," "Jewels." And for him, she danced as no one ever had and no one ever will.

Balanchine was so captivated by her that in 1982, when his health was failing, he revised a solo for her, "Elegy," a ballet of mourning and loss. Sixteen years earlier when he had originally choreographed the piece, he'd requested that she perform it at his funeral.

After the choreographer died, the dancer's hips gave out, first one and then the other, replaced by plastic devices that force Farrell to forge straight ahead where her feet once aimed sideways, in the ballet dancer's trademark turnout.

Time changed everything. She had to, as she once put it, "un-become a dancer." Become someone else in order to create a life rooted in the present, a place where she'd much rather live, even though her eyes water when she talks about what once was.

"I live in the now," Farrell says. "You go where you're wanted, and you go where the now takes you. . . . You only have the breath you're taking. It's ungrateful to wish you were breathing somewhere else."

Today, her now is focused on directing the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, a Washington-based, part-time company dedicated to passing on the choreographic legacy of the great, chaste love of her life.

"I had my time," she says in her soft voice. "Now it's somebody else's."

It's her time, too. At 60, after more than 2,000 performances with the New York City Ballet (and a few hundred with the Bejart Ballet), the dancer who now directs will receive the Kennedy Center Honors tonight, right across the street from the apartment she calls home.

Her only regret?

"I'm sorry that it took so long to get back with my mother and Mr. B," she says, referring to her five-year exile from the New York City Ballet, during which time she danced with the Bejart Ballet and brought on the wrath of her mother, who wanted her to remain associated with Balanchine, onstage and off.

"Had I known that Mr. B would die so soon . . . The important thing is we did get back together again."

Still.

"You regret they're still not here."

Her eyes redden. And the tears well up, quick and hot.

* * *

Inside the dance studio at the Kennedy Center, dancers sprawl on the rubber floor, stretching, talking, yawning. One stands at the barre, grabbing the heel of one foot and yanking the other leg toward the sky in a "6 o'clock" line.

Farrell steps into the room, dressed in black tights and a black sweatshirt worn inside out and pulled down low under her narrow hips, a black ballet skirt peeking out underneath. She stops and stands in the center. Waiting.

The chattering subsides.

"Let's do three grand plis, relevs, then up," she says, voice so soft the ear strains to hear.

The pianist begins and bodies start to move through plis and past tendus, feet whipping in and out of tight fifth positions. From behind the pianist, an insistent whining emanates. Without pausing, Farrell walks over and pulls Theo, her late mother's toy poodle, from her case, tying her leash to the doorknob.

"Stop a second in fifth," she says, "so your movement isn't blurred."

Farrell has lived in the ballet studio virtually all her life, ever since she was a wee thing studying ballet on scholarship at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the youngest of three talented and pretty girls raised by an ambitious mother and a largely absent father. Then, she was Roberta Sue Ficker. She later moved to New York with her mother and one of her sisters and decided, at 16, that she'd much rather be Suzanne Farrell.

Then, she was just a maybe. she'd crushed her left foot while horseback riding, and after that it never pointed quite the way it should. Diana Adams, a City Ballet principal dancer -- and onetime Balanchine muse -- spotted her in ballet class in Cincinnati and suggested she audition for the School of American Ballet, which Balanchine had founded to keep his company supplied with suitably trained dancers. Later, Farrell would discover that Adams wasn't sure that she had what it took. She was 14 at the time and still Roberta Sue, a chubby-cheeked tomboy for whom dance was the only thing that mattered.

"Had I known that," Farrell remembers, "I would have given up."

On her 15th birthday, she auditioned for Mr. B. Within a year, she was in the company.

"She got constantly better," remembers her first partner, Jacques d'Amboise. "She always did everything with total passion and never held back, even in the back of the corps de ballet. That was what was so special. It was as if she was already a star."

She will tell you that other dancers had more skills than she did. This one had a bigger jump, that one had a better turnout or could extend her leg higher or could knock out more pirouettes. But she had two things going for her: her unique relationship to music -- she didn't just dance to the music, she became the music -- and her willingness to make a fool of herself, even improvise, onstage.

"I felt like I didn't have much to lose and everything to gain," she recalls. "I could fall and I'd be embarrassed. But it wouldn't destroy me."

Wrote Arlene Croce, the former dance critic of the New Yorker: "In the extremes of its range, her technique was hair-raising. It seems safe to say we shall never see anything like it again."

Her frequent stage partner, Peter Martins, who now heads City Ballet, says: "We did not like to rehearse too much. We just sort of felt, 'Well, let's see what happens tonight.' We liked the unknown. . . . She was a very daring dancer. She took a lot of chances, which I loved. It kept me awake and aware and challenged. And I liked that."

The daringness came from a singularity of purpose. The world went on outside. She didn't date, didn't even know who the Beatles were. With Balanchine she found a soul mate. They'd work late into the night, then go out to dinner afterward. Dinners turned to trips abroad and elaborate gifts. The personal and the professional intertwined in complicated ways. He was a man with a history of marrying whichever ballerina captured his fancy: Tamara Geva; Alexandra Danilova, his common-law wife; Vera Zorina; Maria Tallchief; Tanaquil LeClerq, to whom he was married at the time.

Balanchine and Farrell fell in love. She was 18; he was 59.

Still, Farrell insists, theirs was an unconsummated passion.

"It was the only way that I could deal with it," she says. "The world was just so different then, in the '60s. I was much more naive. I cared about what people thought."

Being the favorite made for lonely times. Dancers would "hug the walls," she says, in the hallway in an effort to avoid her. By 1968, Balanchine's attentions began to constrict. He was possessive, "relentless," Farrell remembers, in his pursuit of her, and her mother encouraged their association.

"Dance never betrayed me," she says. "People betrayed me. But ballet was always honest."

She found a friend in Paul Mejia, a Peruvian-born dancer with the company. While Balanchine was out of the country, Farrell and Mejia married in 1969. Her mother sobbed through the ceremony, Farrell wrote in a 1990 memoir, "Holding On to the Air." When Balanchine returned, Farrell learned he'd gotten divorced in the hopes that she would be his. Dancing at City Ballet became untenable for the young couple.

Exiled from the company, they struggled to find other work, but no one in New York seemed to want them until Maurice Bejart came calling.

* * *

Life in Belgium was a lovely respite. Farrell and Mejia reveled in their young marriage, thrilled that they could work together and live together without having to hide their relationship. (The couple divorced almost three decades later, in 1998.) But Farrell missed Balanchine's choreography with its neoclassical emphasis on sleekness and speed. She sent him a letter, saying, "As wonderful as it is to see your ballets, it is even more wonderful to dance them. Is this impossible?"

It wasn't. In 1975 she returned to City Ballet, where Balanchine created for her "Tzigane," "Union Jack," "Chaconne," "Vienna Waltzes," "Walpurgisnacht" and the revised "Mozartiana."

Remembers Martins: "It was a total surprise to us that she came back. We all knew the circumstances. . . . She came right back in there, and after a while, it was like she'd never left."

Balanchine died in 1983. Farrell, heartbroken, kept dancing. The first hip replacement couldn't stop her, but by 1989, at age 44, it was clear that it was time to retire. She'd had every experience that a professional dancer could have -- except one. A final bow.

The day after her final performance, she says, "I looked in the mirror, and I hadn't changed." Life would go on.

At first, she tried to fit into City Ballet, teaching and working under Martins, her former partner. It only made sense that she would stay there, she thought. Martins thought differently and fired her in 1993.

"That's an old story," Martins says. "It was a very tough time, any dancer who is facing retirement. . . . I said to her, 'Follow me around, and it'll emerge [what you want to do].' Which is really Balanchine's way. He was very cautious about giving away titles. That was not to her liking."

"If I see her," Martins says, "I'll run up and hug her. But I don't know how she feels."

In 1993, at the invitation of the Kennedy Center, Farrell began teaching promising students in a summer ballet camp. From there, a company was formed in 2000, a company dedicated to preserving Balanchine's legacy. The company has been well received, but right now, it employs dancers for only eight to 12 weeks at a time. D'Amboise says he can't bear to see other dancers dancing the roles that Farrell made famous: "All I see are ghosts."

As a dancer, observes Mikhail Baryshnikov, who danced with City Ballet before joining American Ballet Theatre, "she was the best." As for her young troupe, "it's a little bit of a pickup company," Baryshnikov says, hastening to describe himself as an admirer before adding, "I really don't know if I would call it a company."

For now, Farrell says, she isn't able to hire her dancers full time. But that will change, she says. And for whatever amount of time she has them each year, she says with relish, "I like to say that they're my dancers."

"I was fortunate to have the affiliation with Mr. B," Farrell says. "Who would have thought this little girl from Cincinnati, that her orbit would intersect a man from Russia who came to America? It's just so, so wild and wonderful. So you have to pass it on. And the more you give, the more you have back."

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