The name and location of the hotel where students stayed while taking Suzanne Farrell's ballet class at the Kennedy Center were reported incorrectly in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance. They resided at the Doubletree Guest Suites in Washington. (Published 10/10/1999)
They wait for her in restless silence, swirling like fog in their white leotards.
They warm up with feigned indifference -- stretching, jumping, pirouetting across the dingy floor in a shimmer of satin toe shoes. Stealing glances in the wall of mirrors, they privately assess who is too round or too short, who is graced with the longest legs, the loveliest neck, who can leap higher or spin fastest. Who might take their chance away.
This is the third time Amy Watson has been invited to participate in this extraordinary summer program at the Kennedy Center, but she still gnaws her lower lip in self-doubt. What if she has forgotten everything? She stakes out a piece of the barre in the farthest corner of the room, her favorite place. More than 400 teenagers across the country auditioned for the 35 spots in this group of aspiring stars, and Amy, at 18, is the oldest among those chosen. She has been dancing since second grade. Her military family lives for now in Fredericksburg, but Amy left home for New York City three years ago to attend the School of American Ballet on scholarship. This will be her final year.
The teacher appears, not so much entering the rehearsal room as inhabiting it, suddenly and completely. The class rustles to attention, curious eyes devouring her. She is attractive but not arresting, a vaguely familiar woman of 54 with fair hair gathered in a haphazard chignon, model-thin even with a fringed Russian gypsy shawl knotted bulkily around her waist. Her regal gait refuses to betray the years of physical pain. She suggests, like untempered steel, both strength and fragility. She offers no greeting, no introduction or preamble. She bows her head in thought for a long moment, then fires off a complex combination of ballet steps and positions. "Tendu, tendu, tendu, pique . . ." Her voice is not much more than a murmur. She watches dispassionately as her students try to keep pace with the accompanying piano, their feet beating against each other in a frantic blur. In her distant corner, Amy is soon fighting tears.
They will spend three weeks together in this anonymous studio, a demanding teacher who once knew fame and the handpicked students who now yearn for it. "How you dance is who you are," she will repeat to them like a mantra. The steps mean nothing without this knowledge. She will try to teach them what her own renowned mentor taught her so long ago, how to surrender completely to an art, how to speak without words, how to defy gravity and hold on to air. And she will tell them truths they are still too tender to comprehend. Lessons she has learned not by living life, but by dancing it.
Now the music stops and the girls watch her expectantly.
"Again," she says.
Ten years have passed since Suzanne Farrell last danced onstage, a farewell performance of "Vienna Waltzes" on an artificial hip by the preeminent American ballerina of her generation. Adoring fans threw more than 5,000 white roses at her feet that night at Lincoln Center, and Farrell was left to find an identity absent the one passion that had always defined her.
Roberta Sue Ficker grew up the youngest of three sisters in Cincinnati, the tomboy whose mother enrolled her in dance class in hopes it would tame her. Suzi was a born ham who loved to lip-sync to Nat King Cole or swivel her hips like Marilyn Monroe. Ballet proved to be more than an outlet, though; it was a refuge. As her parents' loveless marriage crumbled, Suzi found both an environment she could control and a channel to express emotions too deep and confusing for words.
When her ballet class was invited to perform in an educational program with the Cincinnati Orchestra, 12-year-old Suzi felt a thrill that was almost tangible -- the excitement, the emotions, the very dust of all the famous people who had stood on the same stage. Vowing to become a dancer, she peeled a splinter off the floor for a keepsake. Two years later, celebrated choreographer George Balanchine was scouting for talent for his prestigious dance academy. He dispatched Diana Adams, a star in his New York City Ballet, to Cincinnati. Adams observed a class at the local conservatory, and couldn't decide what to make of Suzi Ficker. "Not scholarship feet," she would report back, but still, there was something there. She urged Balanchine himself to take a look.
Suzi's newly divorced mother had decided to move her girls to New York, and shortly after arriving, on her 15th birthday, Suzi had a private audition with Balanchine. She hummed her own accompaniment, and wrote in her diary that night that the audition was awful.
She was stunned the next day when the School of American Ballet offered her a full scholarship; a year later, she was invited to join the New York City Ballet. Thumbing through a phone book, she fashioned a stage name: She would be Suzanne Farrell.
Balanchine had a history of singling out particularly beautiful and gifted young dancers to become his muses. There were Adams, Maria Tallchief, Allegra Kent. The partnerships were often romantic as well as creative. When the driven teenager from Cincinnati caught his eye, Balanchine was married to his fifth wife, Tanaquil LeClercq, whose own brilliant career had been cut short overnight in 1956 when polio left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Suzanne Farrell quickly became more than just another pretty newcomer in the back row of a large ballet corps. Twice she was pressed into service as a last-minute replacement for injured or ailing principal dancers, and while Farrell herself has observed that she was not outstanding technically, Balanchine saw in her qualities that were indeed more rare. Farrell's interior clock was amazingly accurate, blessing her with a profound musicality. She did not dance in response to the music she heard; she embodied it. Even more important to Balanchine's own genius was Farrell's other gift: She was willing to take any risk. "We were both taking pretty big chances," Farrell would later reflect in her autobiography, "but if he thought I could do something, I would believe him, often against my own reasoning . . . In short, I trusted him with my life."
Farrell would drop out of high school and submerge herself in dance so deeply that the outside world no longer even registered -- the Beatles were taking America by storm and teenaged Suzanne had no idea who they were. Balanchine himself had in effect re-created her already, introducing her to composer Igor Stravinksy thusly: "Suzanne Farrell. Just been born." Now he decided to create a ballet especially for her.
"Meditation" is an emotional duet that opens with a man kneeling in the shadows, his hands covering his face. A young girl appears behind him in a shaft of light and gently peels his hands from his eyes. The man is revealed to be old and gray; the girl is his memory of love, alluring and elusive. Their brief dance is full of passion and desire, but the man is unable to hold on to her youth and beauty, and the duet ends as it began.
Before rehearsals got underway, Balanchine sent Farrell a note from Europe, where he was directing a production for the Hamburg Opera. Farrell, who describes herself then as a naive Catholic schoolgirl who had never had a boyfriend, took the poem he enclosed as mere explication of the ballet itself. She did not yet realize that it was, in fact, her life he was now choreographing:
I can't forget this blessed vision,
In front of me you stood my love,
Like instant moment of decision,
Like spirit beauteous from above.
Reflecting on that first important role, Farrell would write decades later that "Meditation" was the beginning of her relationship with Balanchine, and the moment when ballet consumed her.
"I don't know if I became her because she was really me and Balanchine saw that long before I did, or if I became her because Balanchine wanted her, needed her, and in me found a body and a mind willing to risk being her . . . What is indisputable is that in `Meditation' Balanchine prophesied the future. I don't know how he could have known so much of what was to happen.
"Since I was the story, I couldn't see it; I just danced it."
Farrell was barely 18 years old at the time. Balanchine was almost 60.
If tabloid television had been prevalent in the 1960s, their unconventional relationship might have become a titillating public scandal, but the fallout was contained for the most part within the gossipy confines of the ballet world. Exactly what transpired would remain a mystery even after Balanchine's death and Farrell's retirement. Her 1990 memoir, Holding On to the Air, offers revealing insight into their artistic fusion but scant analysis of their emotional bond. Balanchine would eventually create dozens of roles for Suzanne Farrell. They began spending much of their time together, whether talking late into the night over cheese omelets at their favorite Manhattan diner or touring the great art museums of Paris. He showered her with gifts and jewelry, and filled her dressing room with white roses. Like the couple in "Meditation," they danced with reckless abandon until fate intervened.
His obsession would last for 20 years.
And in this classroom, in a windowless Washington rehearsal room, hers continues.
"He was an old man!"
"I don't get it."
The girls of summer are holed up three-to-a-suite at the Doubletree Hotel in Arlington. They are supposed to be among the most promising young dancers in America, but their first sessions with Farrell prove humbling as they forget combinations, lose count, plow into each other and prompt the woman they worship as Terp-ischore, goddess of dance, to roll her eyes and exclaim, "Oy! This is going to be a looooooong class."
In Room 408, Amy Watson tosses her pointe shoes into the heap already piled on the dining room table. Each night the girls pour superglue into the toes to harden them and prolong the life of the battered cloth. Amy can go through two or three pairs a week, easily, and at $54 a pair, she laments, "that's where all my spending money goes."
She plops down on the sofa next to her roommate Jennifer Barton, a 17-year-old classmate from the School of American Ballet. Another classmate, 16-year-old Sophie Flack, joins them. They drink Mountain Dew and daydream.
"I'd like to go to the Miami City Ballet," announces Amy. This is her year for auditions, when her career will either take flight or fizzle. She has dyed her brown hair jet black so she will stand out more onstage. Before, she explains, she looked like the all-American girl, which "was just ridiculous." But the raven hair lends drama to her warm brown eyes and translucent ivory skin. With red nail polish and a floating diamond solitaire at her throat, this Amy is mysterious, exotic even.
Amy still has three or four classes to complete her high school correspondence program, which she hopes to do by June, but her life revolves around dance. "It's horrible," she laments. "You don't have a prom, you don't have a social life. You miss all that. I never saw a football game. No one really understands how hard it is -- mentally, physically, emotionally. You have to be good so early in ballet. I'm so interested in math, science and writing, and I never got to explore those areas." But SAB is the training ground for the New York City Ballet -- regarded as one of the world's best -- and if you prove yourself, you might be invited to join the company. Some of Amy's best friends have already made the corps. Amy wants desperately to be chosen, too, but she's not entirely certain she's willing to make the sacrifices that ballet demands.
"This whole year, I've been swinging back and forth: Do I want to make this my whole life, will I do anything for it?"
Amy is in love. She met her boyfriend in New York; he was a student at Juilliard, and their schools share a cafeteria. His name is Erin Gann and he has since graduated and is now an unemployed actor. He is 22, a fact that Amy proudly inserts into most conversations when his name comes up, which is fairly often. She has always had boyfriends, she says matter-of-factly, but she has never felt this way before.
"It's riDICulous," she says with mock disgust. Ridiculous is one of her favorite words. She assumes she and Erin will marry in a couple of years. Miami might pose a problem, but she's certain they could work something out.
"I like balance in my life," she says. "I don't want to end up with just a dog and a lot of ballet memories."
Amy comes from a family of athletes. Her mother was a star athlete in high school and now coaches field hockey. She was loath to let her daughter take ballet, but knew she was lost for good when Amy started pirouetting across center field while playing softball and striking ballet poses while clearing out the dishwasher. Amy first heard of Suzanne Farrell when she was 12 and a friend in ballet class gave her Farrell's book, which she guesses she's read nearly a dozen times by now. She watches videotapes of famous Farrell performances, and collects posters, programs, publicity photographs -- anything she can get her hands on. When her uncle gave her her first diary on her 13th birthday, Amy immediately named it Suzanne.
The chance to be coached by Farrell -- five hours a day, six days a week, for three exhilarating and punishing weeks -- is tantamount to piano lessons from Van Cliburn, as much about inspiration as it is about technique.
"This reminds you why you love to dance," sighs Amy.
"The first day you're so sore, you're in all this pain but it doesn't matter," adds Jennifer, who is also back for her third summer.
"It's a good pain," Amy concludes.
Farrell noticed Amy Watson her first summer in the Kennedy Center program. "At the last session, she whispered in my ear, and no one saw: `I just want to tell you that I'm really proud of you. You worked really hard.' " Amy kept the precious praise to herself. "You can't tell your friends that," she says.
Farrell is careful not to show favoritism in class, to the point of seeming remote most of the time to the girls who so strive for her approval. The caution is part nature -- Farrell is surprisingly shy -- and part painful legacy. Balanchine was notorious for addressing only his stars by name and referring to the rest of his dancers as "you," or "boy" and "girl." His blatant favoritism made Farrell the object of understandable envy within her old company, and she spent most of her time there relatively isolated and friendless. She became an expert at solitaire and crossword puzzles.
Now she makes her own students wear name cards for the first two days, until she has memorized each face. And the after-class program she has planned, with its mandatory field trips and lack of free time, forces a togetherness the girls find maddening even as they forge new friendships. Farrell wants them to be like family.
Although her own family has moved often, Amy's roots are deep and strong. Home is a place with a cozy plaid-sofa living room, parents who flirt with each other, siblings who tease each other and a mom who cried every day the first year Amy was away.
Last year, during the first week of camp, Farrell came up to Amy at the barre and casually asked how things were going at SAB. When Amy reported that she was in the second-highest level now, Farrell looked aghast.
"That's it?" she asked.
Amy was practicing plies a few days later when her idol approached again. This time she asked Amy to visit her office after class. Amy was mortified. Farrell had seen through her; she was a failure. She finished class in her favorite corner, tears streaming down her cheeks.
In her office, Farrell asked whether she thought she was going to get into the company of the New York City Ballet.
"I honestly don't know," Amy replied.
"I think they would have taken you already. I just don't understand, because I really see something in you," she remembers Farrell saying.
But there was more: Farrell was planning to stage a benefit performance for the Arthritis Foundation, "and there's this solo I really think you'd look good in." The piece was called "Elegy," and it was the last solo Balanchine had created on Suzanne Farrell. The one he wanted her to dance at his funeral.
"Technically, it's not hard," Amy now says.
Emotionally, though, it would transport both teacher and student to very different places.
Through languor, through
despair and sorrow,
Through clamor and through restless space,
I heard your voice from night till morrow
And dreamt and dreamt of darling face.
After the success of "Meditation," Suzanne Farrell became ensconced in both the imagination and repertoire of the great Balanchine. He cast her in role after role, and Farrell's desire to please him was such that she took even his most casual remarks to heart. As Titania, Queen of the Fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Farrell was supposed to awaken and fall in love with the weaver Bottom, who has been turned into a donkey. But during rehearsals, Farrell confides in her memoirs, her lovesick antics were unconvincing. Balanchine even danced the playful scene himself by way of demonstration, yet she remained baffled.
Exasperated, he asked her if she didn't have a pet at home that she was fond of.
No, she admitted.
"Oh, that's too bad, you should have one," he replied, telling her about his own beloved cat.
On the way home, Farrell got herself a kitten, which she promptly named Bottom. The cat became her closest confidante, she recounts, until the day it died nearly 20 years later.
But if Balanchine's influence on the young ballerina seemed sweetly innocent to her, the impact she was having on him was profound both as an artist and as a man. "He obviously had already chosen to commit himself to me, and he had plans, serious plans, for what he might do with me," Farrell writes in her memoirs. "But . . . for us to continue forward together, I had to pass through his past. And his past, even his loves and personal passions, were in his ballets. All those movements, all those pirouettes, all that music, all those stories and styles, all that romance, all that beauty and joy and heartbreak, all of that was who he was.
"I am convinced that he wanted me to catch up to him, and I had to do it quickly so that we could meet in the same place . . ."
That place, of course, turned out to be onstage. Balanchine had told friends and later Farrell, as well, that for 25 years he had wanted to create a big, three-act ballet based on Don Quixote, but had never found his Dulcinea. In Farrell, he at last found the
elusive ideal for Cervantes' knight-errant. The symbolism was not lost on anyone when Balanchine, who at 61 had not danced for years, decided to premiere the role of Quixote himself.
Farrell has since insisted that their romance was never consummated; he was still married, after all, and she was a devout Catholic. But he did give her an expensive pearl-and-diamond ring, and apparently told a gossip columnist they were engaged. He built his daily company class around Farrell's needs, and on the rare occasion when she wasn't there, none of the other dancers dared to stand in the front-row spot regarded as hers. The resentment only increased when Balanchine would leave the theater with Farrell after her appearance was over rather than wait for the entire performance to end.
Farrell was still living with her mother, who so enjoyed the perks of her daughter's fame that she not only encouraged the May-December romance but also made Suzanne's life miserable when she began dating an eligible bachelor her own age. Still, Balanchine was making no apparent move to divorce his wife, and the ambiguity of their
relationship so tormented Farrell that she once woke up screaming in physical pain from a nightmare where she felt herself being dismembered.
"He was unrelenting," she recalled in "Elusive Muse," an acclaimed documentary of her life. "He was going to have what he wanted, he always had. To possess me physically, to possess me timewise, really to own me in a way.
"I was being killed by it, and I was worried if I didn't leave, I was going to do something drastic. Suicide went through my mind."
By then, a young Peruvian-born dancer in the company had befriended Farrell. She began to spend more and more of her free time with Paul Mejia, and he would often drop by her apartment with Danish before they went to Balanchine's morning class together. In her autobiography, Farrell fleetingly notes a few occasions when she and Mejia unexpectedly encountered Balanchine -- on the bus, in church -- but out of discretion, love or sheer naivete, she never considered that he might be stalking her. When Balanchine proposed, she told him it was too late.
"Our interaction was physical, but its expression was dance," she would later write. "I didn't want to go home with George and be married. Even if it had been bliss, I think we would have lost something on another level. The thought frightened me."
She married Mejia during the company's winter break, on February 21, 1969. Balanchine was out of the country; Farrell's mother sobbed loudly throughout the ceremony. When she returned from her honeymoon, Farrell opened a newspaper and read that Balanchine had obtained a Mexican divorce two weeks before her wedding day.
Just before the company's spring season opened, Mejia received a call from the front office directing him not to come to the theater for rehearsals. He was effectively fired, but could remain on the payroll if he kept quiet about it. He refused, and was reinstated the following day. But the worst was yet to come.
Balanchine grew cool and distant toward Farrell, and openly contemptuous of Mejia. When the annual spring gala benefit came around and Mejia wasn't cast in a customary role, an angry Farrell sent Balanchine an ultimatum: If Paul didn't get to dance that night, they would both resign.
Several hours before the performance, the newlyweds went to the theater to check the cast list. Mejia's name was not there, but Farrell's was. She went to her dressing room, applied her makeup, sewed fresh ribbons on her toe shoes, and waited.
Reliving that day before the camera in "Elusive Muse," Farrell dissolved in tears, the pain still sharp nearly 30 years later: Her desperate ploy backfired. The company wardrobe mistress gently knocked on her dressing room door and took her costume away just before curtain time, saying, "I'm sorry, Suzanne, you're not dancing tonight."
Despite Farrell's fame, no invitations were forthcoming from other major companies, a fact she attributes to their fear of alienating the great choreographer and losing the Balanchine ballets from their repertoires. The banished couple tried to scrape together a living. Finally, rescue came in the form of the avant-garde Belgian choreographer Maurice Bejart, who offered them a contract with his Ballet of the 20th Century. They moved to Brussels.
During a break back home, Farrell saw her old company perform. Previous attempts at rapprochement had been rebuffed, but now, after more than five years in exile, Farrell sent Balanchine a brief note:
As wonderful as it is to see your ballets, it is even more wonderful to dance them. Is this impossible?
Balanchine agreed to meet with her. They embraced and, without ever talking about what had happened, began working together again.
"You move from first position to second," the muse is explaining now, sitting unrecognized in a coffee shop a few blocks from the New York stage where her life revealed itself. "It's important to have beautiful transitions in ballet and in life."
They're not quite sure what to make of her, but no one ever is. The girls in Room 408 are halfway through the three-week program. The suite is a landfill of teen ballerina detritus now: makeup and fashion magazines, tights drying over the shower rod, a refrigerator stocked with carrot sticks, Fresca, skim milk, salad dressing, more carrots, a jar of pickles, a few eggs, a hunk of string cheese. The dishwasher is broken. Dirty laundry is spilling out of suitcases; Amy brought six pieces of luggage even though her wardrobe consists almost entirely of leotards. Everyone is starting to get a little homesick. Amy spends two hours on the phone every night with her boyfriend.
The classes are going better, though. Mistakes no longer devastate them. "If you never fall," Farrell tells them, "you dance in constant fear of falling."
Personalities are asserting themselves. There are girls who dance with military precision, and ones who exude an almost feline vainglory. The two boys in the class take correction with studied nonchalance. Amy boldly wears her pink tights over her white leotard now instead of under. She dances with new confidence, her face etched with joy instead of worry. When Farrell patrols the room asking her students to recall the counts to a week's worth of complicated combinations, and then demonstrate them for the class, most hesitate or miss steps. Then Farrell approaches the back corner of the room.
"Amy, Amy, Amy, Amy . . ." she says with mock menace.
Amy instantly recites one of the more intricate combinations, then executes the turning steps so beautifully that the class bursts into applause.
"My biggest fear," Amy admits, "is not pleasing her."
Last year, she remembers, "I was actually bawling because I couldn't do these pirouettes and she wouldn't talk to me for two days."
"She's not really a mothering character," Sophie agrees. "I think Suzanne sees things most people don't see. She can relate ballet to everything."
"That's sad," says someone else.
They find this schedule draining -- class Monday through Saturday from 10 to 3:30, then field trips after that, with no ballet but longer excursions on Sundays. They are not allowed to leave the hotel unescorted during their precious free time, and the college-age chaperons, they complain, are acting like prison wardens. ("I have a boyfriend older than they are," Amy says in disgust.)
The program includes visits to the zoo, which they hate, and the White House, where they hope to see Buddy and Socks but don't. They visit memorials and museums. Farrell rarely accompanies them.
Her first summer here, Amy was hanging out with girls she knew from SAB. A couple of them incurred Farrell's wrath by being obnoxious. Soon, a Kennedy Center liaison approached Amy privately with a message she understood to be from Farrell: If Amy wanted to be invited back, she'd best find new friends.
There was drama her second year, too. A girl who laughed disrespectfully caused Farrell to stalk out in tears and call off the camp's final performance. She gave the entire class the cold shoulder for three days.
"We felt like we were dead," Amy recalls.
The class began rehearsing on their own during their lunch hour and everyone wrote Farrell notes of abject apology. Farrell relented.
This year, the class is unfailingly polite. The girls line up after each and every session to curtsy and thank their teacher. Infractions are few and minor: A girl reprimanded for glancing at her watch too often immediately stops wearing it.
"You know what poise means," Farrell tells her pupils one afternoon. "It's a word you don't hear very often these days anymore. Grace, poise, elegance -- that's what we're about." She walks across the rehearsal room on soundless feet, repeating the words almost to herself, with a certain longing. "Poise, grace . . ."
Back in Room 408, Jennifer is complaining about the "fat mirrors" in the rehearsal room. Watching themselves in the mirrors is a habit Farrell has been trying to break from day one: Mirrors lie. What you feel in your body is a truer reflection of how you are dancing, she tells her pupils. The dancer is not supposed to be taking in the
world around her: Her eyes should be looking out. Whenever she catches someone glancing in the forbidden mirrors, Farrell rushes up and waves her hands in their face, or holds up her flowered peasant shawl like a matador's cape.
"I hate looking in the mirror because my legs are so disgusting," Amy declares. "They're bowed."
The friends' conversation, as usual, turns to the future. Amy and Jennifer envy Sophie, who can paint as well as dance, and is confident that her life will be immersed in the arts one way or another. Jennifer is a gifted student who speaks five languages and comes from a long line of Russian doctors. Her mother is pushing for Harvard. Jennifer studies for the SATs on the bus to and from their field trips.
"I eventually want to teach ballet and have a family," Amy says. "A husband. I want to have kids. A girl and a boy. I already have names picked out: Ryan for a girl and Andrew for the boy."
"I want a villa in Monte Carlo, but that's not gonna happen," Jennifer retorts.
Then Amy worries aloud that "no one is going to love me and I'll be stuck back in the corps forever," and Jennifer says, well, if the ballet thing happens, great, but she doubts she'll ever even get in the corps.
"Oh, stop it, Jen!" Amy scolds. On a Saturday night, they go to the mall and someone shouts out the discovery of a "good mirror" and soon they are crowded in front of a closed elevator door, giddily posing.
At dinner, they devour Buffalo wings and fried calamari and pasta and milkshakes, then share slices of cheesecake for dessert. They retreat to the restroom as soon as the plates are cleared. Sophie says she can't bear the sight of any more food, or she'll be sick.
On the way back to the hotel, they wonder how Suzanne Farrell is spending her Saturday night. Does she have friends, does she have fun? Here is what they make of her: She is brilliant, beautiful, visionary, disciplined, consumed deliciously by her art, mysterious, remote, and lonely.
"I admire her for her ballet," concludes Jennifer. "I'd want that. Not her life."
As the program heads into the last week, the casualties begin to mount. Five girls end up at the hospital for X-rays, and one turns out to have a stress fracture in her foot. She begs to stay. "I don't want Suzanne to think I'm a slacker," she confides to a program administrator.
Farrell spends part of one morning going around the room, asking her pupils about their aches and pains. The list pours forth: hip, hip, knee, foot, hip, leg. Farrell asks a few questions, nods. Class resumes. She later dismisses them with an awkward stab at empathy:
"Go administer to your anatomy," she advises. "Get ice."
In Room 408, Jennifer is moaning.
"I feel like someone came running after me with a hammer and bashed every bone in my body. My knees are, like, cracked open. My hips I can't move. I have never hurt so much in my life!"
When Farrell had asked her in class how she felt, Jennifer had replied, "Pretty good." Now she bursts out laughing.
"That was the most blatant lie of my life!" During the morning break, Jennifer had raced over to her bag and gulped five Advils.
Amy's not in much better shape. Her hips throb, her back hurts, her knees ache, there are painful corns on her toes and her neck is stiff. Amy found out this year that she has herniated disks in her back, "and eventually I'll have to get surgery."
The phone rings and a chaperon announces a mandatory meeting to relay a message from Suzanne. The class learns that the final recital for parents has been canceled due to injuries. Several girls weep with disappointment. Back in their room, Amy and her friends try to make the best of the bad news.
"If I can please Suzanne in class, that makes me just as happy," says Jennifer. She wonders if they should write notes of apology again.
In class the next morning, Farrell makes no mention of the canceled performance or the mounting injuries. She simply resumes.
Jennifer pastes a smile on her face as she bends her throbbing knees into slow, deep plies. Amy's feet obediently balance her entire weight on martyred toes. The girl with the fracture in her foot is trying nearly everything except the jumps.
The class is ordered to do the splits, then rise again slowly without hands touching the floor. The students perform a series of the dreaded tendus, clean and fast. Amy is chewing her lip again.
"I'm impressed you could do that," Farrell offers the group in rare approval. "You couldn't do that last week."
She tells them about the guards at Buckingham Palace, how they never reveal fatigue or boredom or pain. That, she says, is the kind of discipline dancers must summon.
"When you go out in the other world," she goes on, "it'll help you hold yourself together emotionally as well as physically."
Her teaching style is tough love, and she often refers to Balanchine. "Mr. B's definition of ballet is moving in time through space and distance," she tells them. She often repeats what she considers his most valuable lesson:
"Dance in the moment." Now is the only time that matters.
Last year, when Farrell was trying to teach the girls how to strike a reaching pose, Amy remembers, she compared it to yearning for a lost love. Tell them you love them, she urged the girls, because one day they might not be there and you will have missed your chance. Farrell's voice faltered, and her eyes welled. They all stood there, stunned, realizing it was Balanchine she meant.
She often turns to metaphor in her lessons, urging the girls to unfurl like roses blooming, or to circle another dancer like planets orbiting the sun. But whenever she talks about reaching for something unseen, love is the parallel she draws.
On a bright afternoon, Farrell takes her girls to the National Gallery of Art, where she instructs them to study the masterpieces closely. Pay attention to the detail, the lighting. The imagination. She leaves them to wander on their own, but frequently materializes at someone's side to point out the intricate tuft of lace on Napoleon's cuff in an Ingres painting, or the tiny hands in a display case of Rodin sculpture.
"Look at these hands, they're all made of plaster, but don't they look real?" she exclaims, grabbing Sophie by the arm and gesturing to the case. "Don't they look like life is running through their veins?"
The girls pass by like mourners over an open coffin -- solemn, curious. Some unconsciously replicate the positions the tiny hands are in. Hands are the hardest part to master in ballet, dancers say. As a young girl at SAB, Farrell squeezed a small rubber ball in her hand almost constantly, trying to mold her palm into a deep curve.
"Mr. B would take me around to museums in Paris," she reminisces as she strolls through the gallery. "When I was a young girl in Cincinnati, there was a wonderful little museum. I was in love with Egyptian things. I liked the quietness."
There is a hush to her life now, too, a sense of discovery in learning how to let go of the air and connect instead with the ground.
"In ballet, it's very humbling and very calming to know you return to your roots and rediscover them," she says. "I have a huge, 100-gallon saltwater aquarium in my apartment. If you want to introduce a new fish, you know what you do? They're very territorial. First you have to put the new fish in a plastic bag and immerse that in the water, so the others can swim around and inspect it. Their bodies start to shimmer because they're nervous and territorial. I change the corals around so they have to learn new paths around it." The challenge has a calming influence on them, she says.
Since her retirement, Farrell has had to have her other hip replaced, too. Her legs poking out from her summery orange shorts are as straight and narrow as pipe cleaners. She always wears shoes with a slight heel, to take pressure off her calves. Learning to simply walk again after surgery was harder than any inhuman extension or contortion she mastered in ballet, she will say, a complete rearrangement of the coral.
She has this theory about art, she ventures tentatively, and people may debate it or disagree with her, but she believes it to be true: The arts exist because life doesn't measure up. We invent beauty so we can survive.
Amy performed "Elegy" just once, at the arthritis benefit in Atlanta. She wore Farrell's old costume. They rehearsed together several times in a small studio in New York, and Farrell took Amy home to watch a tape of her own performance in the brief solo Balanchine created for her before her exile, and then rechoreographed when he was dying in 1982.
"It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," Amy remembers.
Farrell explained the story to her: "You just lost someone you really loved. You want to die, too, because you can't live without him."
Amy knew she was talking about herself. "Elegy," she decided, was Balanchine's way of telling Farrell how much he meant to her. The thought of portraying this terrified Amy. "Here's the idol of every dancer basically telling me her life story through a dance that's 5 1/2 minutes long. I just felt so honored to do it. But she danced it in her thirties; I was only 17 and had never been in love, I never lost anyone close to me."
The night of the performance, with Amy waiting in the wings, Farrell revealed something else in her introductory remarks, telling the audience that it was the first time anyone else had ever done "Elegy." Amy remembers dancing through a blur of tears.
No one had ever given her such a gift.
The years of storm
Dispel and scattered dream of mine,
And I have lost your voice so tender
And face so heavenly divine.
"Ballet is a philosophy," Farrell believes. "It's a way of life."
When Farrell returned to the New York City Ballet, she and Balanchine were no longer inseparable, but they continued their unique artistic partnership for another eight years. One of her fellow dancers commented famously, "Suzanne coming back to us is the best thing that's happened to us since she left."
The phone call telling her that he had died came at 4 in the morning on April 30, 1983.
"The one thing I couldn't bear to hear had been said, and I hung up," she recounts in her memoirs. "Now I felt really alone -- as I'd never felt in my whole life."
At the funeral, she touched him in his coffin and put her face close to his. "I didn't say goodbye," she later wrote. "I will never say that." She wasn't invited to the private burial, and her sorrow had no name.
"I had all the emotions, all the feelings of unparalleled loss, but because we had had no official ties as the world perceives them, I did not fit into any existing category to justify my grief," she would recall. "I was not his wife; I was his dancer."
By then, doctors had diagnosed arthritis in Farrell's hip. She continued to dance for another four years, until the time came when she could pirouette on the tips of her toes but not tie her shoes. The pain simply vanished when she was dancing. After undergoing her first hip replacement, she vowed to dance again and kept the promise, just so she could say when it was over, not fate.
Her life now is devoted to teaching, coaching and staging ballets. Balanchine gave her the rights to a handful of her signature pieces, including "Elegy," "Meditation" and "Don Quixote."
"I live in the now," she says. "All around us, it's the same date for everyone, but we're all in different times . . . Living in the now allows me to make all those transitions. Yes, I get depressed sometimes." But she knows those moments will pass.
"Some people say I'm crazy," she allows, "but I say I'm happy."
She urges her girls to write to her, when the summer is over, though she warns them that they may not hear back. She wants the connection regardless, or at least the illusion of one. Her marriage to Mejia ended not long ago. There were never any children. She ended up sharing Balanchine's fascination with cats, and at one point had 10. Now she dotes on a poodle named Tex.
Despite his many marriages, Balanchine adamantly believed his ballerinas should not have lives in "the other world," and Farrell insists she has no regrets. All the roles she played, the emotions that filled her heart and burst forth in dance, she believes, were worthy substitutes for the real thing.
"I learned about life in ballet. It's the best life has to offer without having to go out and experience it. Ballet is a lifelong process -- the physical, technical part and how you live your life." After dance, she admits with a laugh, "I had to learn to speak. Everything I said I did with my legs, my arms. I had to find another language."
What she sees in Amy Watson is more than just "a nice facility." She sees an inner calm, an enviable ease in the other world. The night Amy was to perform "Elegy," there was a banquet beforehand. "Amy sat there and was so polite, so poised, and so quiet and so charming." Farrell knew too well what anxiety Amy was so artfully concealing -- that with her legs dangling, her feet would swell and she wouldn't be able to jam them in her pointe shoes, much less dance on a leaden stomach.
"I'm so proud of you," Amy recalls her mentor telling her after the final bow. But she also remembers that Farrell delivered the praise without hugging her or looking Amy in the eye. "It's sad, really," Amy thinks. "There's that wall."
Farrell has invited Amy to work with her again, when she mounts a special Masters of 20th Century Ballet tour for the Kennedy Center, debuting October 21. Jennifer Barton was offered a spot, too, but couldn't miss school for six weeks with college applications looming.
"Meditation" is on the program. It will be the only time anyone but Suzanne Farrell has danced the first ballet Balanchine created for her, when she was a girl just Amy's age.
"I was listening to that music and . . ." Sitting in the booth of the coffee shop, Farrell is suddenly swaying, her arms swimming up and over her head in a fluid, unspeakably beautiful motion. "I was listening to that music and my body still feels what it's like to dance that."
The decision to defy Balanchine by passing down roles he never wanted anyone but Farrell to dance caused his muse great anguish. His presence is with her always, she says. I think this would be a good thing, she found herself telling him, just let me know, somehow, if you don't agree. She watched for a sign but found none.
"I think in giving it away, I'll have it more," she hopes. "It lengthens my dance life.
"What is a ballet if you can't see it?" she wonders. "People wouldn't know what Mr. B and I had. It was important to me that it be made memorable, not a memory."
The girls of summer will soon scatter. When she's in the studio with them, Farrell says, she feels the same life force that even now gives her a rush whenever she enters an empty theater. She has kept the splinter from the stage in Cincinnati for 42 years now.
Back in the rehearsal room as their last day together approaches, Farrell has the girls flee across the floor in alarm. They are supposed to look stricken, as if someone is chasing them, but most can't help giggling self-consciously.
"Yesterday people were crying," Farrell observes with sudden, casual cruelty. "Everybody was crying yesterday."
They keep running from the unseen evil, and Farrell turns the knife.
"Sad, you should be sad! That there's no program on Friday."
Amy and her friends exchange hurt, surreptitious glances at the reminder.
Next, they are told to leap into the air exuberantly and cry out their names before landing in arabesque.
"The whole point," Farrell tells them, "is you're ALIVE! Besides, your face lights up when you say your name. There's a point behind my madness. You don't want to just get lost in the millions of dancers. Your face is what makes you unique."
As they break for lunch, Farrell tells them to be back at 1 for rehearsal. They are puzzled, but dare not ask questions. The show is on? they ask each other on the way to the cafeteria. "She must have felt guilty," someone surmises aloud.
Amy waits in the hallway for Jennifer.
"You okay?" She rubs her friend's shoulder. "You want some Advil?"
On the day of their grande finale -- Farrell has relented -- the girls gather at lunch to gossip over slices of pizza and do crossword puzzles from a book Amy always keeps tucked in her bag. They instantly get the clue for "Afternoon of a Faun" but are stumped by "the Fonz."
Amy is so nervous about the performance that she called her mother and confided that she has never felt so unprepared in her life. The class will be dancing to Ravel's "Bolero," and Amy regrets that Farrell is making them wear white skirts with their red leotards.
"We look like candy canes," she cracks now to her friends.
Balanchine loved his dancers in white. White was a blank slate, a prism. Farrell tells her girls that white lets them be whatever color that moment makes them. White is not a definition but a possibility.
Amy can't wait to go on tour with Farrell this fall, though she has no idea yet what she might be cast in. The very first thing Farrell said to her this summer was that her hair was too dark and she would have to dye it blond. Amy just hopes the bleach doesn't make it fall out altogether. So much for her dramatic make-over.
"I hope she's part of my career forever," Amy says. "A huge part of my career and my life. She's an inspiration, why I want to dance. Every time I do something for her my greatest fear is she'll forget me. All I can do is pray and hope she'll be there."
There hasn't been another Balanchine, and "there is no next Suzanne," Amy knows.
She thinks she might screw up the courage to ask Farrell to recommend her to the Miami City Ballet. "At this point, I'm just waiting for my time. I'm ready for my time."
Or maybe she'll just teach. She's started doing that back at her old ballet studio in Fredericksburg, when she's home on break, and loves it. "If I can't be someone in the ballet world," she decides, "I'd want to teach someone who could." She has options. But then again . . .
"I love dancing. I feel like I can let everything go. If I've had a bad day or problems in a relationship or school, or a fight with my mom, I dance and I'm in control again. No matter how much a person thinks they know my personality, they don't. The real me is there only when I'm onstage.
"Outside ballet, I can't prove myself."
That evening, eager parents take their seats in the tiny theater. Amy's father, Drew, has just returned from military duty in Kosovo. Her 15-year-old sister, Erin, is hoping to make the cut for this same ballet camp next year. Her mother, Becky, baked cookies for Farrell and wishes she could invite her over for a home-cooked meal to thank her for her interest in Amy.
Farrell walks onto the stage and sounds apologetic, almost defensive.
"Probably the first day your sons and daughters were in class I told them, `For the next three weeks you are the most important people in my life.' If I've been a little bit demanding, it's because I know they are serious dancers."
The small production she has choreographed gives each student a brief solo. When her turn comes, Amy enters the spotlight. She moves with liquescent grace, sensual and mysterious, there for a few magical seconds and then gone again. In the darkened wings Suzanne Farrell watches her, unseen, dancing in her moment.
Tamara Jones is a writer for the Magazine.