Suzanne Farrell (neé Roberta Sue Ficker; born 1945) was a versatile classical ballerina who performed with Balanchine and the Ballet of the Twentieth Century. During her almost 30-year career she performed 75 roles in 70 ballets.
Roberta Sue Ficker, who later selected the name Suzanne Farrell from a phone book, was born on August 16, 1945. She was the third of three daughters of a lower-middle-class family who lived in Mt. Healthy, a quiet town outside Cincinnati, Ohio. Her parents divorced when Farrell was nine. Her main concern was her mother's happiness, and she claims this experience taught her to be adaptable at an early age.
Farrell always dreamed of being a clown but began to dance when she was eight to overcome being an imaginative and spunky tomboy. She and her sisters frequently invited neighbors to attend carnivals held in their garage or back yard. It was not unusual for Suzanne to have choreographed a dance in which her partners were kitchen chairs. By age 10, she had organized the New York City Ballet Juniors, a group of girls from her dance classes. Her first stage experience, at age 12, was with the Cincinnati Summer Opera where she performed in various ballets.
Succeeding in the Arts
Farrell's mother recognized her daughter's talents and was determined that she succeed in the arts. She studied ballet at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after her school day at Ursuline Academy. Her mother supported her interest in performing and in attending concerts. She once wrote an excuse for her to miss school so she could see the New York City Ballet dance in Bloomington, Indiana. After seeing "Symphony in C," Farrell decided she wanted to dance with that company, where she felt she would fit in. The company seemed more alive and energetic than other companies.
One day Diana Adams, a scout from the School of American Ballet in New York, observed Farrell and invited her to audition for entrance to the school. In 1960, at age 15, Farrell was one of 12 students to be awarded a full Ford Foundation scholarship into their preparatory program for professional dancers. Without money or housing, her family moved to New York, a strange city to them, and lived in a one-room apartment. Farrell's mother worked 20-hour shifts as a night nurse to support them.
As a "small fish in a big pond," Farrell realized that only she was in charge of her life. The program's major goal was to develop the technical strength and the unique creativity of each student. George Balanchine, head of the school, stressed that what they did with the technique was important. Having it was not enough. Within a year, Farrell joined the company while attending high school at Rhodes. She made her corps de ballet debut in Todd Bolender's "Creation of the World" and George Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes." At 19, she was the youngest principal dancer to dance a solo while in the corps. She was the Dark Angel in "Serenade." Two years later she performed in the world premiere of "Jewels," a signature work.
One cannot talk about Suzanne Farrell without discussing her relationship with Balanchine. Very early, he began to give her opportunities to learn ballets and parts, sometimes superseding more veteran dancers. He collaborated with her on choreography by pushing her to take risks and allowing her to express herself through the choreography. Until she left four years after becoming a star, she was central to him and he to her. Often referred to as his "muse," she attributed this to her strong belief in him and what he was doing. He trained and perhaps molded her as he wanted. Farrell embodied his ideal and this became the norm for the company. Long-legged, gorgeous, and extraordinarily musical, she became known for her backbends, high extensions, and versatility.
Balanchine had not separated his art from life in the past and Farrell, who was immature, was very focused on her dancing. Pleasing him on stage was all she thought about, and in fact she said later that it was like the child for whom time and distance do not shake the ties he has with his parents. She described him as a feminist celebrating the independence of women while he had them on a pedestal. Some say some of his choreography, such as "Don Quixote" and "Meditation," were autobiographical, reflecting the blending of their private and professional lives. Farrell was referred to as the "5th Mrs. B" since Balanchine had previously married four of his ballerinas. They never married but other company members resented their relationship and some resigned from the company. Farrell became isolated. Despite this friction, she danced with and appreciated the uniqueness of each of her many outstanding partners, claiming that each brought out something different in her dancing. They included Balanchine, Jacques d'Amboise, Peter Martins, Edward Villela, and Jean-Pierre Bonnefeux. She performed in numerous premiers, including "Tzigane," "Caconne," "Union Jack," and "Vienna Waltzes," as well as in "Meditation," "Mozartiana," "Don Quixote," "Four Temperaments," and "Apollo," to mention only a few which are considered to be some of the most dazzling ballets of this century.
In 1969 her marriage to Paul Mejia, a young company dancer from Peru, created some confusion for her and affected his career. (They divorced in the mid-1990s.) He felt Balanchine was not casting him appropriately and finally, in mid-season in May of that year, they left the company with their three cats, Top, Bottom, and Middle. Maurice Bejart had seen Farrell perform the first full length "Swan Lake" with the National Ballet of Canada and sent her a telegram inviting her to join his company. They joined his Brussels-based Ballet of the Twentieth Century the following year. They both enjoyed touring and the experience of working with a style and approach which in its theatrically and reputation for being avant-garde was a dramatic departure from Balanchine's classicism. Even though Farrell performed in over 30 ballets which were composed or revived for her, she referred to this time as "exile."
A series of knee and hip injuries which had begun 20 years before developed into severe and increasingly limiting arthritis. By the 1970s doctors predicted that Farrell would never again dance. After a hip replacement and the emotional, psychological, and physical struggle involved in a prolonged hospitalization and rigorous program of physical therapy, she did in fact return to perform on pointe.
Reconciliation and Return to New York
After seeing the New York City Ballet perform again in 1974, she asked to return and did so in 1975. She also reconciled with Balanchine, and from it came the late masterworks created for Farrell: "Chaconne," "Davidsbundlertanze" and "Mozartiana." Farrell demonstrated her versatility by dancing leads in ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins, Jacques d'Amboise, and Stanley Williams and to choreographically innovative ballets with a variety of scores, such as serial music of Stravinsky and "chance" music of Xanakis.
Blanchine died in 1983 and Farrel gave her last performance six years later, at the age of 44, on November 26, 1989, in a performance of "Vienna Waltzes" and "Sophisticated Lady." Farrell made her last bow to "Mr. B" in the presence of Lincoln Kirstein and Peter Martin. She commented that it was easy to get there but difficult to stay there or to hold on to the air. She now restages Balanchine ballets all over the world. Their famously unconsummated relationship lives on in an Oscar-nominated Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse—a relationship so consuming, that she says she considered suicide.
According to Arlene Croce, she was thought of as "the supreme classicist of our time." She had a reputation for versatility, having performed 75 roles in 70 ballets, starred in three feature-length ballet films, and performed in the Dance in America series and nationally telecast concert at the Kennedy Center in honor of Balanchine. In 1965 she was the recipient of the Merit Award of Mademoiselle magazine and the Award of Merit in Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Cincinnati. In 1979 Farrell received New York City's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture for a record of distinguished achievement in the world of dance, and in 1980 Brandeis University's Creative Arts Award.
Further Reading on Suzanne Farrell
Holding On To The Air (1954) by Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley is the only book about her. Objectivity is a problem, particularly where Balanchine is involved. A sense of overwhelming debt to him pervades the book and may cloud her account.