Farrell, Suzanne (1945—)

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Farrell, Suzanne (1945—)

American ballerina and leading interpreter of the work of choreographer George Balanchine. Name variations: Suzanne Ficker. Born Roberta Sue Ficker on August 16, 1945, in Cincinnati, Ohio; one of three daughters of Robert and Donna Ficker; attended Assumption School, Holy Name School, and the Ursuline Academy, all in Cincinnati; attended Professional Children's School and the Rhodes School, New York; studied ballet at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and the School of American Ballet; married Paul Mejia (a dancer), on February 21, 1969 (divorced 1997).

Danced with the New York City Ballet (1961–69 and 1975–87); danced with Ballet of the 20th Century (1970–75); became a master teacher at the Kennedy Center (1993); teaches and stages Balanchine ballets for companies in the U.S. and abroad.


A Midsummer Night's Dream (1966), Elusive Muse (1996); television: "Dance in America: Choreography by Balanchine" (1977–79), "Sesame Street" (1983), "Love, Sidney" (1983).

Suzanne Farrell, one of America's most celebrated ballerinas, began studying ballet at the age of eight as a cure for "tomboyishness." "I didn't like it much," she told Walter Terry of the New York World Journal Tribune (November 20, 1966). "I was so tall that in school recitals, I always had to play the boys' parts, and that didn't make me very enthusiastic." At age 12, Farrell finally got to play her first female role, and, despite picking up a splinter in her foot from the stage floor, dancing became her passion. In 1959, she auditioned for the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet, headed by George Balanchine. She was admitted on a Ford Foundation scholarship, thus beginning her long-time professional and personal association with the renowned choreographer.

In 1960, Farrell made her first New York appearance, as an angel in the American Ballet's annual Christmas production of The Nutcracker. Following a short stint in the New York City Ballet's corps de ballet, she became a featured dancer, performing in Serenade during a 1962 summer tour. Her first solo performance was that of a young girl in the premiere of John Taras' Arcade on March 28, 1963, followed by the leading role opposite Jacques d'Amboise in the new Balanchine-Stravinsky ballet Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Farrell continued to add to her repertoire, dancing roles in La Valse, Concerto Barocco, Liebeslieder Walzer, Donizetti Variations, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Invesiana, Glinkaiana,

Stars and Stripes, Prodigal Son, and Symphony in C. She also danced in a trio of new ballets that Balanchine created for her, the romantic Meditation, the abstract Agon, and Clarinade, a jazz ballet featuring Benny Goodman in a clarinet solo. The critics were enthralled by the young dancer. In his review of Clarinade, Louis Biancolli wrote in the New York World-Telegram and Sun (April 30, 1964): "This lady has everything—the pliant body, the face and figure, the sense of legato, and a unique way of making a cushion of empty space."

Farrell attained overnight stardom with her performance of the full-length ballet Don Quixote, which premiered on May 28, 1965. Not only did Balanchine create the ballet for Farrell, but he danced the leading role of Don Quixote himself. As Dulcinea—Quixote's ideal woman—Farrell was called "ravishingly lovely," in both her appearance and her dancing. "Suzanne Farrell was absolutely flawless … technically impeccable, light as a soap bubble, perfect in line and style," wrote Rosalyn Krokover of High Fidelity (August 1965). "This was an exhibition of artistry which put her into the top echelon of world ballerinas." Following her triumph, Farrell was appointed a principal dancer and joined the company in a summer tour of Europe and the Middle East, returning in the fall to roles in La Sonnambula and Raymonda Variations. In assessing her progress as a dancer, Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times (November 3, 1965): "Miss Farrell, riding in on the surf of her marvelous role in Don Quixote, has a lithe, lissome quality to her dancing, and a cool edge to her personality. She is the embodiment of music, and already has a freely expansive dance style. It is … experience alone, that should add the flavor of temperament to an already fascinating dancer."

Farrell had a complex relationship with Balanchine, who was notorious for his Pygmalion-Galatea relationships with his young ballerinas. In her 1990 autobiography, she claimed he was "as much a part of my life and my soul as my own self." It may be that Balanchine was deeply in love with his young protégé, despite the fact that he was 40 years her senior and a married man. (He obtained a Mexican divorce from his fifth wife just 17 days before Farrell married Paul Mejia, a lesser dancer in the company, in 1969.) Farrell's professional allegiance to Balanchine, consistently burdened with the weight of his romantic overtures, was torturous, especially given her youth and her strong Catholic beliefs. The relationship was particularly strained by Farrell's marriage and reached a point of crisis in May 1969 after both she and her new husband were scratched from the roster of dancers for an evening performance without explanation. Feeling confused and betrayed, Farrell resigned from the company, even though she feared for her professional survival without Balanchine as her guide.

In 1970, Farrell became the principal dancer in the controversial Maurice Béjart Ballet of the 20th Century (Brussels), a company as divergent as possible from Balanchine's. Avant-garde rather than classical, Béjart's male-dominated company used electronic and oriental music as well as classical (including Wagner, a composer Balanchine thought was entirely inappropriate for dance). "Balanchine experimented in extending the human body in space," writes Farrell in her autobiography, "while Béjart, who also used enormous amounts of space, filled it with props, dramatic gestures, voices, elaborate scenery and costumes, and choruses of glamorous, half-naked young men." Although disoriented at the onset, Farrell created many new roles in her years with Béjart, including parts in Sonate, Les Fleurs du mal, Nijinsky, Clown de Dieu, Golestan, Farah, and Erotica, which Farrell performed during one of the company's first tours in New York. The critics dismissed the work as "expressionistic pop art," although audiences, curious about the unusual new company, flocked to performances.

In 1975, after several letters to Balanchine suggesting a reconciliation, Farrell had a cordial reunion with him and returned to the New York City Ballet amid great speculation about how her reappearance might affect the company. As it turned out, her return ushered in several years of artistic success and financial stability for the enterprise. She performed in the premieres of three major Balanchine ballets, each radically different from the other: Chaconne, Union Jack, and Vienna Waltzes, a richly romantic work that was perhaps the single most successful ballet in the company's history. In 1978, after suffering a minor heart attack, Balanchine began to show more affection toward Farrell and apologized for his past behavior. In the years that followed, even while battling declining health, Balanchine remained incredibly productive. He created two important ballets for Farrell, Davidsbündlertänze and Mozartiana, a ballet that had tremendous meaning for the dancer. "Having danced it, I felt that I had just begun to dance," she wrote, "just been borne into life itself. In Mozartiana George and I were at peace with each other, and the pervasive calm and corresponding strength I felt while performing it were truly transcendent." Farrell believes that because of this ballet she was able to survive Balanchine's death in 1982. In his will, Balanchine left Farrell two ballets, Tzigane and Don Quixote.

In February 1979, shortly after her husband had accepted the directorship of the Ballet Guatemala, ushering a period of geographical separation for the couple (Paul was later associated with the Chicago Lyric Ballet), Farrell, who had been unaware that she was pregnant, suffered a miscarriage. After joining Paul in Guatemala for her convalescence, she returned to the company, and despite arthritis in her right hip continued to perform in a number of Balanchine revivals as well as a new ballet by Jerome Robbins, In Memory of …. In 1986, after an nouncing her retirement at the end of the season, Farrell underwent successful hip-replacement surgery. With a great deal of hard work, she returned to perform a year later in a revival of Vienna Waltzes. In 1988, she traveled to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to stage Scotch Symphony for the Kirov Ballet, and the ballet was later performed in Leningrad as part of "An Evening of Balanchine." Only after returning from Russia did Farrell feel ready to retire from dancing and move on. On November 26, 1989, the dancer made an emotional farewell appearance in the performance of two ballets, Vienna Waltzes and Sophisticated Lady. At her curtain call, she was showered with over 5,000 white roses, from which volunteers of the New York City ballet had painstakingly removed every thorn. Farrell likened the experience to being Cinderella at the ball. "I did, of course, think of Mr. B, the little push, the absent partner, the silver rose under my gown. As I said at the time, my last bow will always be to him."


Farrell, Suzanne, with Toni Bentley. Holding on to the Air. NY: Summit Books, 1990.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1967. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1967.

related media:

"Suzanne Farrell Elusive Muse," (90 min.) documentary film (nominated for an Academy Award) by Anne Belle and Deborah Dickson , 1996; aired on PBS' "Great Performances' Dance in America" series, June 1997.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Farrell, Suzanne (1945—)

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