After the Curtain Falls: Talking to Suzanne Farrell, Artist and Muse

Suzanne Farrell with her dancers as they prepared for the final performance of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the John F. Kennedy Center this month.

WASHINGTON — Suzanne Farrell was the most celebrated of the many ballerinas trained and presented by the superlative choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83). Her dancing was grand, impulsive, remote, rapturous. Her career onstage was long (1961-89), action-packed and inspiring. Ten years after retiring from dancing, she began to present annual seasons at the Kennedy Center here with her company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

Balanchine choreography was the core of every season. The level was not invariably high, but often enough you would hear long-term Balanchine devotees exclaiming, “This is how it was.” The 2017 season, the company’s last, was titled “Forever Balanchine” and consisted of five ballets, made from 1934 to 1976.

Her company, however, was always a limited enterprise, working for short periods of the year. And unlike nearly every other artistic director today, she demonstrated no interest in commissioning 21st-century choreography. Besides Balanchine, the only choreographers she included were those who had made works for her as a dancer: Jerome Robbins, Maurice Béjart and Paul Mejia (her former husband).

These Farrell dancers, attached to companies from Arizona to Virginia, came from varied backgrounds: Most were American, but the leading ballerinas Heather Ogden and Natalia Magnicaballi are Canadian and Argentine. She released in them all a freedom of spirit, a wealth of musical nuance and a range of physical inflection that kept her enterprise on the top level of achievement amid the world’s Balanchine diaspora. Familiar ballets looked new; rare ballets were reborn; corps dancers made breakthroughs. The company’s final performances, Dec. 7-9, were no exception.

I returned to Washington to meet Ms. Farrell three days after the final performance. Some of what she said (“Balanchine is my life — my destiny”) might look high-flown on the page, but was spoken simply, almost with resignation. She referred to her mentor as “Balanchine,” “Mr. Balanchine” and sometimes “Mr. B.”

Ms. Farrell, 72, said she would continue teaching — she is a professor at Florida State University — but has no other plans as yet: “I live in the now. I’d dance forever if I could — there’s nothing better.” She has two homes: on an island in upstate New York (“I’ve often taught a dance summer school there”) and an apartment here in Washington.

She likes to say she is a shy person who had to learn how to talk as an adult, but she is eloquent. Out of the blue, she remarked, “I tell my dancers, ‘You have to change the molecular structure of the air — that’s what dancing is about.’ ”

She expresses no interest in ballet politics. “I don’t see other companies much,” she said. “I’m a worker. I go in by the stage door; I’m happiest that way.” And when asked about the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse at New York City Ballet, the company where she created so many roles for Balanchine, she said gently, “No comment.”

Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

With your company, do you always teach the morning class?

Every day. Teaching extends my dance life. I feel as if I’m still the dancer I was. I show my dancers a move, and I think my leg’s way up there where it used to go. Then I look in the mirror!

Class is probably where Mr. B. learned about me. You have to be there, in the laboratory, where everybody is vulnerable. I’m sure Balanchine must often have looked at me and thought: “What does she think she’s doing? That’s not what I would have done.” But then he looked at what I did do. And he worked with that. I see that all the time in my dancers: They do things in class or rehearsal that I didn’t think I’d asked for — and that’s what I work with.

As a dancer, you made each performance a singular event. Can this be passed on?

Some people go out there with an opinion, and they dance an opinion. But the music’s never quite the same from one performance to the next; you can’t plan that in advance. You must dance the choreography, but you should recognize the different ways it can go. You can’t rehearse a performance. What I rehearsed were options. There are so many ways a performance can go: your partner that night, the music, your security on point. Dancing on point! On that tiny part of your foot! It’s a precipice!

Did you have stage fright?

When I was waiting in the wings, I’d be full of anticipation, and quite anxious — but when I was out there onstage, I was fine. Not everything would go as I wanted, but if I was off I’d get back on.

And no audience is the same. I tell my dancers: “If there are one thousand people in the house, then you have to perform for each different person of the thousand. You can’t just perform for one-thousandth of that audience.”

But how do you dance differently for each member of the audience?

You dance in 360 degrees of space, not just one. People in the audience are sitting there and there and there — not all straight ahead of you.

When I went out onstage, I had no plan of how I would make tonight’s performance different from last night’s. I felt very free — though that can be scary. When I was about 12, I watched that film about Martha Graham, “A Dancer’s World”; I loved that kind of freedom she seemed to have — that individuality — and I wanted to have that for myself in ballet.

Is there a common factor in these options?

It has to be honest. Words can misspeak and tell lies and errors. The body cannot — not if you’re an honest dancer.

I don’t believe you can be an honest dancer and be a spectator. I ask my dancers which they want to be: dancer or spectator? The answer, of course, is “A dancer.” “Fine,” I say, “Then use your eyes to look out. Stop referring to the mirror. When you’re looking in the mirror, you’re looking in.”

You were an ideal for many people — but not the only kind of ideal in Balanchine’s realm.

Mr. Balanchine was an observer, and he loved the differences between people. He liked to liken his dancers to animals. Carol Sumner was a bird. Some dancers were horses, some thoroughbreds. I was half cheetah, half dolphin. A cheetah’s speed (and its intelligence); a dolphin’s fluency.

Your season ended with the first ballet Balanchine choreographed in America, “Serenade.”

“Serenade” contains so much for me. It has the first solo role I ever danced with the company. They needed someone for [the role known as] the Dark Angel, at short notice. Mr. B. was asked who to cast. I was in his line of vision. He said “Give it to her.” I had no stage rehearsal. I was taught it very quickly.

“Serenade” has been danced for 80 years, but there are always people seeing it for the first time — and there are always people dancing it for the first time.

You were away from New York City Ballet from 1969 to 1975. This season you presented “Tzigane,” the first piece Balanchine made after your return to the fold. Was it hard to regain your chemistry with him?

I suppose Mr. Balanchine and I were both a little nervous. So in our first “Tzigane” rehearsal, we were both testing the waters. He asked for something to mark one moment in the music. I gave him a high penchée arabesque [leg extended high behind, while the torso and head lean low]. He said: “Yes, I know you can do that. What else can you do?” So I turned over, still on that one leg but now facing upward. Then we both knew we were experimenting again. I loved that: We always understood each other’s energy.

Your seasons have included a “Balanchine Preservation Initiative,” reviving rarities you never danced. How do you proceed with those?

With those ballets, nothing there is in my body. So I have to check the videos, and listen to the music. But for that reason I don’t have to unlearn anything. My own body isn’t involved. But I’ve had to learn each ballet inside out.

I don’t stage ballets by showing the dancers a film of the ballet they’re going to learn. That’s just one performance. It’s not the Bible.

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