An Autobiography

By Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley

Summit. 322 pp. $19.95


By Gelsey Kirkland and Greg Lawrence

Doubleday. 237 pp. $19.95

THE EXACT TITLE of Suzanne Farrell's autobiography, Holding On to the Air, comes from the ballerina's account of a dream she had in 1981, while Balanchine was making his fourth and final version of "Mozartiana," in which she danced the leading role. "I was in a place composed of tall spires," she writes:

"There was sound, not 'Mozartiana,' but some kind of shattering, prophetic, organlike sound, and I was walking on the vibrating spires upward from one pinnacle to another. It wasn't precarious. My footing was very stable; I was holding on to the air. As I climbed, the light got brighter and brighter, whiter and whiter, until finally I could see, really see. Suddenly the scene changed, and I was walking on the sand by the ocean with Mr. B. It was still very bright, and people came up and looked at me. I responded to their silent, puzzled looks by saying, 'Oh, yes . . . that's Mozartiana.' It was the answer to all questions."

Farrell's dream is an emblem of her book at its best: a suggestive trove of personal material in which one recognizes a striking sensibility on the move. When she and her coauthor, Toni Bentley, report on Farrell's dancing from the inside, their story soars, for Farrell's daylight ideas about dancing are cut from the same cloth as her dream. She is not an omnivorous and dispassionate observer of classical language; for her, dancing is not equivalent to technique. Rather, Farrell believes that dancing is analogous to emotion, whose elements combine to produce a sweeping integrity of gesture.

From this perspective, before the steps comes the performer's energy, and the steps only exist to conduct the observer to the fantasy world that is ballet (at least, Balanchine ballet). Farrell goes against the widely held view -- recently stimulated by Gelsey Kirkland's Dancing on My Grave and Suzanne Gordon's Off Balance -- that the pursuit of ballet entails physical martyrdom and emotional deprivation. Because Farrell does not value steps as an end in themselves, she does not think of the ballerina's life as a lonely pilgrimage toward impossible perfection, but rather as an opportunity to try on ways of behaving that would not be available off stage.

For Farrell, the art of the ballerina is the continuous expansion of self and its essence cannot be rehearsed or marked. It consists of listening to music with one's entire body; it is a commitment, and always a performance -- engendered by trust, energized by risk and stabilized by self-centeredness in the most generous meaning of the term.

Farrell is certain that she would have pursued dancing as a career, even if she hadn't been accepted by the School of American Ballet; indeed, her possession by the desire to dance is an important part of her genius. But her fate was to attract, inspire, serve as the instrument for and overwhelm the inner life of George Balanchine. Bentley should have pushed for more pointed studio views, especially of Balanchine's work with other dancers; however, one is grateful to find this much of Balanchine working and thinking, even though the angle from which he is perceived is as partial as it is privileged.

Farrell's love for Balanchine -- her Prospero, her Cyrano, her boss -- is rich and strange, even heroic. It is also isolating and exclusive; the rest of the New York City Ballet drifts around at the edges. (When she goes to Belgium to work with Bejart, one gets no sense of that company, either.) In the first half of the book, where Farrell's youth and Balanchine's need drive the events wildly through all sorts of artistic experiment and personal epiphanies, Farrell's tunnel vision is just what one wants. A reader can fill in what must have been enormous resentment and bitterness among the other dancers, but one can't fill in a detail like Balanchine's enjoyment of watching Farrell dance "Scotch Symphony" outdoors in a high wind because it made her look more off balance.

In the second half of the book, however, Farrell's lack of peripheral vision makes the story rather meager. Although she is again the company's prima, and Balanchine's supreme dancing collaborator, a cord of romance has been cut and the tale goes limp. It is here that one wishes for another writing collaborator, one with a keener understanding of what Farrell did in the studio and on stage, rather than what she felt or sensed. Farrell's story is not only that of a great dancer but of a great star; and the story of a star is partially the audience's to tell, for it concerns both what the performer could not control as well as what she could. The proportions of Farrell's body, the moments in Balanchine's life and career that she entered them, Farrell's fantastical ability to immerse herself in music without analyzing musical structure, her refined proprioception (sense of her body in space), all the luck, genetics, and upbringing that made it possible for her to trust both herself and Balanchine without concern for what the rest of the world would think -- these become fully clear only through analysis and perception.

In Holding On to the Air they are alluded to, but not really discussed. Farrell gently refuses to let us watch her look at herself in a mirror, and while that contributed greatly to what made her spellbinding on stage it does little for a literary endeavor.

Still, in the long run this book is important. The subject is great, the views of Balanchine are real and unique, and Farrell's message about trust and risk is a timely antidote to the distrust and self-protectiveness of such memoirs as Gelsey Kirkland's Dancing on My Grave. A dance fan won't learn anything new about dancing, but he or she might be provoked to remember a few things about the relationship between art and life that make dancing possible. One of them is that great performances are not born from the dancer's replication of the director's instructions but rather from transformation. The dream passage about "Mozartiana," for example, sums up and extends a much earlier moment from a studio scene in which Balanchine, Farrell, and her partner, Jacques D'Amboise, are rehearsing the 1963 pas de deux, "Meditation":

"Mr. B, of course, didn't mention any story line; he described only what he wanted physically. It was to be as if I were parting an invisible curtain, parting clouds, with my arms out to the side. "You just hold on to the air when you're up there {on pointe}," he said. "You're riding on the air."

Balanchine's figure of holding on to the air as if it were curtains has an 18th-century quality, as if nature had reproportioned itself to the human being. But in the later dream reworking of it, Farrell and Bentley have enlarged, extended, and romanticized Balanchine's classical stance and practical intentions, making of them a deep image. The dancer is presented as playing Tchaikovsky to Mr. B's Mozart, slightly renegotiating the meaning of his vision in the process, and thereby practicing what the critic Morse Peckham has called "creativity as validated error." It is what Farrell did for Balanchine on the stage, meanwhile alchemizing herself from Roberta Sue Ficker of Mt. Healthy, Ohio, into the fountainhead of some of the most ravishing ballerina poetry ever known. "Oh yes, that's Suzi," the tone of much of Holding On to the Air, does not quite capture this process.

Toward the end of Holding On to the Air, we get one more transformation -- of Suzanne Farrell, prima ballerina, into Suzanne Farrell, stager of Balanchine ballets. We follow her to Leningrad, and watch her set "Scotch Symphony" on the Kirov. At that point, Farrell is tested in a new way, for not only does she become the curator of an entire imaginative world, including parts she never danced, but she must also answer the questions of dancers who have been trained from childhood to believe that individual steps have assigned meanings, and that the true search in rehearsal is an actor's search for character, rather than a musician's search for energy and tone. At one point, Farrell finds herself saying to a dancer, "It doesn't matter what you feel, it matters what you do and what it looks like." This might seem like a contradiction of her earlier statement that dancing is a feeling, except that she is no longer speaking as a dancer, but rather as an observer of dancers. She is learning a new perspective on what matters. THE RUSSIAN coaching section makes for telling comparisons with the section at the end of Gelsey Kirkland's new book, The Shape of Love (written with her husband, Greg Lawrence), in which Kirkland is called on to coach the Royal Ballet-trained Trinidad Sevillano in the title role of "Giselle," which she does through a process of tortuous Socratic dialogues. Here are the two poles of thinking about what ballet is. On the one hand, Farrell's: The dancer is the meaning. On the other, Kirkland's: The meaning is a statement separate from the action that embodies it. My temptation is to dismiss Kirkland's view because her book is so unfocused that we end up spending almost as much time with Gelsey at the dentist and in the bathtub as we do in the studio. But Kirkland's own "Giselle" was a wonder, and I have seen Sevillano in "Swan Lake" and been very moved by how much significance she was able to confer on individual steps. Kirkland's approach seems zany, especially against Farrell's Olympian tact but in the chance operation that we call the theater, even the zany score sometimes.

Mindy Aloff is a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine and a senior critic at Dance magazine.