Ballet eminences across the country hailed the news this week that Suzanne Farrell, the celebrated ballerina and choreographic inspiration to George Balanchine, had returned to the New York City Ballet to coach dancers after being fired in 1993 by former director Peter Martins.
Farrell’s return to the company’s studios could be further evidence that its new leaders — Director Jonathan Stafford and Associate Director Wendy Whelan — are continuing to make changes for the good. It also seems like a healing act.
And for New York City Ballet followers, there is not a more highly charged issue than the care of the Balanchine repertoire. Farrell, the greatest living Balanchine star, has a sterling reputation for sensitive, compassionate and wise teaching of Balanchine ballets. For nearly 20 years, she taught them to her Washington-based company, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which became a distinguished showcase of the famous choreographer’s work.
The New York City Ballet tweeted Wednesday that Farrell is coaching dancers in the expansive pas de deux from “Diamonds,” the grand finale of “Jewels,” which Balanchine created in 1967 as a tribute to Russian classicism and a showcase for Farrell’s gifts. Sections of Tchaikovsky’s majestic Symphony No. 3 in D accompany the turns and soaring lifts of this elegant duet. The piece displays the power and brilliance of the ballerina as if she were a gem rotating to catch the light.
Also on Wednesday, Whelan posted a photo of Farrell and ballerina Sara Mearns on Instagram:
The post drew virtual applause from thousands of dancers, fans and ballet stars including American Ballet Theatre principals Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, former New York City Ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied and Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent.
The move to bring back Farrell is pragmatically, artistically and morally right. The home that she helped build is finally opening its doors. New York City Ballet’s rehearsal studios are the natural place for her, where she can groom dancers in the roles she knew best as the company’s prima ballerina and Balanchine’s muse. Yet, for more than a quarter century, she hasn’t been welcome there.
After retiring from the stage in 1989, Farrell taught and informally coached the company’s dancers. She had no official title and was working infrequently when Martins ended the arrangement four years later.
“I never dreamed I would live to see the day when I didn’t work for New York City Ballet,” Farrell told the New York Times after being let go.
That dismissal, following pointed comments she made in the New Yorker about her Balanchine expertise and her frustrations at not being able to do more for the company, fit a pattern. Few of the principal dancers who knew Balanchine best continued on as coaches or teachers under Martins, who, after Balanchine’s death in 1983, directed the company with Jerome Robbins and took over sole leadership in 1990.
But Washington benefited from New York City Ballet’s loss. Farrell began teaching weekend ballet classes at the Kennedy Center in the mid-1990s, which grew into a summer training program and then yearly outings for a small group of dancers that became the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 2001. The Kennedy Center funded the troupe on a modest scale, just enough for a few weeks of rehearsals and performances a year, but it pulled the plug in 2017.
In an interview in 2004, as Farrell was running her company in Washington and the New York City Ballet was preparing to perform at the Kennedy Center for the first time in 17 years, I asked Martins why he wouldn’t welcome Farrell’s vast knowledge and assistance in staging Balanchine’s works at the company.
“Life goes on,” Martins told me. “People go on to create their own lives. They are busy doing them. I am happy she is busy, so that answers the question. We do our thing. They do their thing. It’s not just Suzanne. There are millions of them out there. Imagine if some ballet company out there asked me to coach ‘Violin Concerto’ because I was in the original,” he continued. “How preposterous.”
Why is that preposterous? I asked. “What, I’m going to go to Russia and spend three weeks coaching ‘Violin Concerto’ just because I was one of the originals?” he said. “There are people who can do that just as well as I. And I’m busy . . . I’m busy like these [other] people are busy. I’m running a place here. Balanchine is now spread out all over the world. There can’t just be one person. There are many people who can do this.”
That is true, in a way. But in a work such as “Diamonds,” no one has the direct link to Balanchine’s artistic intentions that Farrell does because Balanchine drew the movements out of her body.
When you’re talking about the work of a man who was notorious for changing steps to suit various casts of dancers, it’s difficult to settle on a standard version. That’s where the dancer who inspired the creation comes in, the one who stood in front of Balanchine as he spoke and demonstrated and decided what move comes next.
When it comes to passing on a dance, there’s no time to waste. Even in our visually rich digital age, a dance is difficult to preserve. Dancing comes to life through strength, energy and physical labor, but the choreography itself is an unstable, delicate creation. Steps can be easily forgotten, changed or lost because choreography is not an object. It is a thought process.
The best way to pass on a dance is through the human touch. Teaching a dance is a memory exercise, an attempt to recapture the past, to move the way one has moved before. The best person to carry out this instruction is someone who knows every step, every tilt of the head and angle of the leg, because he or she has embodied them and can connect all the body shapes to the proper rhythmic emphasis and the ballet’s atmosphere. The best person is the choreographer or a dancer who understands the work inside and out, as Farrell does “Diamonds” and numerous other ballets.
It remains difficult to characterize this news about Farrell. Will she join the staff long term? How much should we read into her visit?
For all the tumultuous developments at the New York City Ballet, it is in rehearsal that the real difference will be made. Bringing Farrell into the studio is clearly a step in the right direction.