Staying in Step

Former prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell continues to be on the move with her own troupe. She talks about molding her young dancers, as well as keeping George Balanchine’s spirit alive
Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Suzanne Farrell is one of the most celebrated figures in American dance, renowned in equal measure for her technique and elegance. Dancing with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for the majority of her performance career — with a brief stint with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet du XXe Siècle in Brussels, Belgium — Farrell appeared in more than 100 ballets. George Balanchine, Béjart, and others created nearly 30 original roles exclusively for her during her 28 years on stage. She retired from performing in 1989.

Farrell may have hung up her toe shoes, but she didn’t quit dance. In 2001, she formed The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the resident Kennedy Center dance company in Washington, D.C. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet returns to Ann Arbor in October performing almost exclusively works by the revered Balanchine, including the popular Agon and Farrell’s most iconic role, “Diamonds,” from Jewels.

Farrell corresponded with Hour Detroit via e-mail while she was teaching at her annual ballet retreat in the Thousand Islands in New York.

Do you remember specific images or corrections Balanchine used or said when he was creating works for you?

When Mr. B started working on a ballet for me, he would show me a little something, and I would try to imitate or shape or decode what he indicated — he would always indicate, not command, and I would try. Choreography is not born as choreography; it grows out of a suggestion or movement indication and then it gets shaped into choreography. Rarely would he say, ‘That’s not what I wanted.’ He would put the ball in my court and allow me to run with it, but he trusted me and didn’t say, ‘That’s not how I would have run with it, if I were you.’ Sometimes he would have a mistake become part of the choreography.

Do you apply Balanchine’s corrections to your own dancers when restaging the same ballets?

With my own dancers, I watch for musical response and how students react to music and how it makes them move. I also look for dancers who simply have a love of movement. When you are on stage in front of an audience, you have to engage the entire crowd. If a thousand people are in the theater, you need to dance a thousand different ways, not one-thousandth of a way. I’m not constantly correcting my dancers. They usually know when they’ve made a mistake, and if you continually correct someone, they will feel limited and fear any movement that has not been sanctioned. A technical problem can be fixed, but a thought-process problem or an emotional limitation becomes insurmountable.

In your autobiography, Holding On to the Air, you wrote that “Don Quixote was a rite of passage for me on many levels.” How did you mature during that process?

Dancing in Don Quixote was a significant point in my performing career. In 2005, with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, I re-staged Balanchine’s production at the Kennedy Center. It was the 400th anniversary of the novel, so there was enormous interest in what we were doing. There were many fascinating and challenging facets to the process of re-staging Balanchine’s work. In re-creating Balanchine’s Don Quixote, I was viewing and analyzing a 28-year-old film, much of which was poor quality and very dark. And if someone was dancing off camera, I’d have to imagine what they were doing and go from there. So my personal ‘preservation’ process was not to embalm Balanchine’s work, but rather to allow it to have a new life. I think there’s a fine line between preserving something and having it preserved. Preservation is active; preserved is passive. Dancing is an active profession.

How do you preserve the integrity of Balanchine’s work in your own company?

A score, a piece of music, will always be the way the composer intended it. The notes will never change. Words are written down and become the text of a great poem or a play. But choreography is subjected to many variables. If Balanchine ballets retain his integrity, his musicality, his energy, spirit, and lifelong philosophy, the right environment will hold them together. Mr. B and I experimented. Otherwise, you just repeat what’s already been done. When you’re a dancer, it’s natural to work very hard at showing your best to the audience. But I don’t believe you can be an honest dancer and spectator at the same time. The dynamics of every performance are different: You’ve lived a little longer, the tempos might have changed slightly, your partner, the interaction, the audience is different. It’s better to work with what I call different options. You have to leave yourself vulnerable to the moment, spontaneous.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performs at 8 p.m. Oct. 9-10 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538, Tickets: $20-$40.

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