A Dancer’s New Step

December 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


SUZANNE FARRELL: You walk into a dance studio. It’s bare, like this, but I always felt the dust of famous people who had been here before and they left their impression, and I’ve always been fascinated and in awe of being in a theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: For almost three decades, Suzanne Farrell was the one who awed and fascinated. A star of the New York City Ballet, interpreter of the works of choreographer George Balanchine, who revolutionized ballet, she is widely seen as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century. Today, 13 years after a chronic hip injury forced her retirement, the 56-year-old Farrell has a new role: Passing on the legacy she herself helped create. Amid great expectations, she has started her own company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which had its first season this fall.

SUZANNE FARRELL: A one, and two, and three…

JEFFREY BROWN: And she teaches, including this three-week summer program at Washington’s Kennedy Center for talented teenagers from around the nation.

SUZANNE FARRELL: I want the movement to stop, but I don’t want the ongoing feeling to stop. You can still continue growing even if the leg can’t get any higher. It’s sort of a non-movement movement. Something magical happens.

JEFFREY BROWN: Farrell talked with us recently in a dance studio at the Kennedy Center.

SUZANNE FARRELL: To come into a studio and try to make something out of dust and whip it up into a ballet, it’s exciting and a little frightening. It’s what I do best. It’s what I’ve devoted my life to. I feel ballet has been good to me. I like to return it back to other people. It’s part of the legacy, part of the link. I’m the beneficiary of every dancer that came before me, and it just can’t stop there.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote in your memoir, “I was nervous about retiring because I didn’t know who I’d be if I didn’t dance anymore.” So, these years later, who are you?

SUZANNE FARRELL: I feel I’ve reached sort of a new identity. You know, a dancer’s life is very short, and in teaching, it prolongs my life as a dancer in a way that I never could because I can’t physically – you know — do those things anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: Farrell, the self- described tomboy of her Cincinnati family, took her own first ballet class at nine, and by twelve, had decided dance would be her life. As a teenager, she won a place with the New York City Ballet, and began her long collaboration with the company’s founder, George Balanchine. Onstage, Farrell was renowned for her unique combination of musical, dramatic, and athletic gifts, plus her willingness to take risks. As a teacher, she tries to instill the same fearlessness.

SUZANNE FARRELL: A little too safe. A little too safe. Good. Good. Take my life in my hands. Go on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And while ballet technique is worked on constantly, she pushes for something beyond the basic steps.

SUZANNE FARRELL: I suppose I’m strict. I insist on detail. At the same time, you have to allow freedom to explore. You have to allow them to be comfortable with making a mistake.

SUZANNE FARRELL: Ever… Ever growing, ever moving, ever fascinating.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said in the class, “This is a simple step, but you’re going to make it fascinating.” What did that mean? How do you make a step fascinating?

SUZANNE FARRELL: Well, how alive your eyes are, how you change your head. You know, I say to them there will always be a dancer who turns more times than you, whose leg goes higher, jumps better, prettier, thinner, something. But no one has this. No one has your face, your neck, your eyes. And it’s the only way you can emerge out of the whole sea of dancers out there. They’re not as willing to reveal themselves. I know they feel it inside, and they feel that they’re using their necks, and they feel like they’re exciting, but it has to be visible to an audience that doesn’t know anything, or that does know something. And I want the audience to be on the edge of its seat during a performance, not sitting back like this and judging.

JEFFREY BROWN: Farrell has not been affiliated with the New York City Ballet since 1993. Though there’s been much written of a personal rift with its current leadership, it’s something Farrell doesn’t talk about. Instead, she’s moved on with ambitious goals. For several years, she’s worked with companies around the world, presenting the ballets of Balanchine, who died in 1983. Now, with her own company, she’s putting on many of the works Balanchine wrote or restaged specifically for her, among them, Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra, the first ballet Balanchine created for Farrell. With her intimate knowledge of the repertoire, no detail is too small, from a simple expression to the angle of a chin to the musical count. And after watching hours of rehearsal and ballet class, it becomes clear the amount of work that goes into creating the onstage magic.

DANCER: Oh, God.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the studio, band-aids and bloody feet are the reality behind curtsies and curtain calls.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that always strikes me when I’m watching a dance, and I was struck again watching the class, is just the amount of effort that goes in, and even some pain involved, and yet what appears on stage must look completely effortless.

SUZANNE FARRELL: There are no miracles when the curtain goes up, in the sense that if you haven’t done your homework, if you haven’t gotten your energy level, if you haven’t been really focused, then you can’t expect it to happen, because the adrenaline for a performance is going to make it happen. And you also have to know that you only have one chance to do it. It’s not like a movie where you can edit, take it out. You know, you’re out there. It’s really life on the edge, and you have to take the performance that you’re giving and you have to give everything to that performance. And at the same time, I think for a dancer who wants to do this, you are more you when you are onstage than you probably are when you’re off stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean?

SUZANNE FARRELL: Many of us are shy, but not onstage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you shy?

SUZANNE FARRELL: Oh, sure, but not onstage. I suppose it stems back from my childhood, where I wanted to dance; I would have danced whether anyone watched me or not. I like to go into that other, fascinating world. I like to go to the theater and be transported. I think we pretty much live in a world where we don’t dream anymore; we don’t pretend. We have such… And I like all these modern technologies that we have, but we’ve really forgotten how to be vulnerable in that sense, and to imagine, to dream. I had my time, and now it’s these people’s time. They should have their chance. And I enjoy seeing that happen for them. I must say I get almost as much pleasure out of their careers as I do my own.

JEFFREY BROWN: Almost as much?

SUZANNE FARRELL: Well, there’s nothing like being a dancer.

JEFFREY BROWN: If I could wave a magic wand now and say, “Ms. Farrell, your body is ready, you’re able to go out and dance,” would you want to perform?


JEFFREY BROWN: No question?

SUZANNE FARRELL: Where’s your wand? (Laughs)

JEFFREY BROWN: The Suzanne Farrell Ballet toured seven cities in the east this fall. Farrell hopes to build on that next year.