A Whale in Her Own Ocean


On Dance

Suzanne Farrell at the New York Public Library.

Farrell and Balanchine in Don Quixote, 1964.

Suzanne Farrell—the ballerina who was George Balanchine’s last and arguably greatest muse—appears tonight at the New York Public Library’s Live! series, cosponsored by NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. If you’d like to go, don’t—the event was a harder ticket than Hamilton, which the Wall Street Journal called “the buzziest show of the spring.”

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, well, everything you need to know about Farrell, now sixty-nine, you can learn from the essays of Arlene Croce, whose own great muse was Balanchine and his New York City Ballet, and whose unassailable writings on dance appeared in the pages of The New Yorker for twenty-five years. Croce says about Farrell in Diamonds, the third act of Balanchine’s Jewels:

Your eyes gorge on her variety, your heart stops at the brink of every precipice. She, however, sails calmly out into space and returns as if the danger did not exist … Farrell’s style in Diamonds is based on risk; she is almost always off balance and always secure … Of course, the autonomy of the ballerina is an illusion, but Farrell’s is the extremest form of this illusion we have yet seen, and it makes Diamonds a riveting spectacle about the freest woman alive.

Diamonds is a tribute to Swan Lake; to the Mariinsky Theatre and its school in St. Peterburg, where Balanchine trained and performed; to Marius Petipa, Balanchine’s choreographic predecessor, responsible for the great Russian classics, not only Swan Lake but also Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker and Raymonda; and above all to the grand Russian tradition of classical dance and to the abstract ideal of the legendary Russian ballerinas of yore. He made the role on Farrell, and her presence in Diamonds was totemic. She was the summa, the sine qua non. Watching her perform it, Balanchine called her “a whale in her own ocean.”

The story of Farrell’s career is the stuff of legend, its melodrama worthy of Douglas Sirk. Discovered in the Midwest by one of Balanchine’s earlier muses, Diana Adams, Farrell joined the company in 1961. When Adams, who was pregnant, had to leave her role in Movements, Farrell took over; Adams taught her the part while lying on her back at home.

The first role Balanchine created for Farrell herself was for Meditation, which depicts an older man’s love for a younger woman. (Balanchine was fifty-seven at the time, Farrell only nineteen.) A full evening-length Don Quixote involved Farrell as Dulcinea and Balanchine himself as the aging antihero. By 1965, Farrell had become a principal; she took role upon role, and the preponderance of the master’s attention. Other ballerinas in the company were ignored or slighted and languished, bit the bullet, or left. But Farrell, good Catholic girl that she was, wouldn’t sleep with Mr. B; eventually she fell in love and eloped with a dancer in the company closer to her own age.

Banishment followed and, later, reconciliation. Croce describes the interim period as equally glum, in a new way, for the other City Ballet dancers: “What has been thrown up in Farrell’s wake isn’t a new wealth of opportunities for other dancers but a whole flock of surrogate ballerinas.” The ballerinas tried not to realize their best own selves but to emulate Farrell’s style; indifferent to who they were, Balanchine tried to turn them into her replicas. In 1975, fourteen years after she joined New York City Ballet, ten years after she became a principal, and five years after she went into exile, Balanchine got Farrell and his mojo back. On Farrell’s return, Croce quotes a dancer who wryly observed that “Suzanne’s coming back is the best thing that’s happened to us since she’s left.”

When Balanchine died in 1983, Peter Martins—who had been Farrell’s cavalier in many of her finest roles, including Diamonds, and who closely identified with her in one of the great ballet partnerships of the twentieth century—became the director of New York City Ballet, and many dance followers were aghast at the way he ran it. (Croce crucified Martin in a justly famous piece, “Dimming the Lights.”) He fired Farrell from the teaching faculty at School of American Ballet. She formed her own peripatetic company, Suzanne Farrell Ballet—seen by some as true keepers of the flame—and then the Balanchine Preservation Trust. (Maybe this is a Douglas Sirk film and a William Wyler sequel.)

Though she retired from the stage more than a quarter of a century ago, Farrell continues to exert a powerful allure. Anyone who follows dance criticism knows that one measure of the accomplishment of current NYCB ballerinas such as Maria Kowroski and Sara Mearns is the degree to which they have made a Farrell role—Mozartiana, Chaconne, Walpurgisnacht, Diamonds—“their own.” Which means, essentially, that Farrell’s idiosyncrasies, built into the steps, phrases, and dynamics in the choreography Balanchine created on her, aren’t evident in her successors; that they’re not shadow-dancing the part; that they’ve liberated the choreography from her for themselves.

As for tonight’s appearance, one major ballet patron is rumored to have taken half the house for her guests: a suitably Russian move, one might say, if it’s true. And because of copyright restrictions, the NYPL may not make video of her talk available, as it often does. Croce said of Farrell that “her performances are occasions for unique and unrepeatable happenings and have to be spoken of as one-time events.” She’s evidently remained true to form in that regard as well.

Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.