George Balanchine could not have known in 1977, when he sent Suzanne Farrell out alone onto the vast New York State Theater stage to climax his "Vienna Waltzes" that he had fashioned an ideal farewell showcase for his chief muse and favored ballerina.
But that artistic upshot became potently evident Sunday when 44-year-old Farrell, who underwent hip-replacement surgery in 1987, danced her farewell performance with New York City Ballet.
From the moment the still-fragile-looking Farrell glided from her downstage wing to the center of the eerily empty ballroom, she was able to use Balanchine's mysterious but seemingly simple choreography to say goodby by way of a dance language still within the range of her now-limited capabilities.
First with a curtsy, which expressively accentuated her bare back, and then with a warm upward gaze, which took in the fullest expanse of the stage, Farrell began her last official dance by openly focusing her attention and that of the jam-packed theater onto her lyrically articulated arms.
As Richard Strauss' "Rosenkavalier" waltzes ebbed and flowed, dramatically evoking a yesterday and a today, Farrell's bejeweled, womanly figure, clothed in train-trailing ivory peau de soie , connoted an imperial past and an aristocratic presence.
Sweeping, but basic waltz steps and musical but dramatic arm gestures dominate the text of this dance, and Farrell's final display of it was loving, spontaneous and so palpably precise that this farewell exuded an uncanny freshness.
Earlier on the specially prepared program, Farrell's lushly enigmatic empress from an old world was sharply contrasted in her performance of "Sophisticated Lady," a 1988 showcase to Duke Ellington fashioned by Peter Martins, Farrell's one-time partner and (with Jerome Robbins) NYCB's co-balletmaster in chief.
Here, in a star turn that Martins made with Farrell's physical limits firmly in mind, the always-game and ever-elegantly-animated American ballerina, politely passed over a spiffy crop of 16 corps de ballet men, and eagerly delivered herself into the arms of Martins, playfully flirting with him.
The intently watched program, which also included Balanchine's "Square Dance" and Robbins' "In the Night," was arranged so that a maximum of the company's leading dancers could share the stage with Farrell for one last time.
Lincoln Kirstein made an especially rare appearance on stage in the capacity of a flower presenter, during the roaring ovations that insistently protracted the curtain calls.
Though he recently resigned from his longstanding administrative post in the company that he helped Balanchine to found, the silver-haired, aquiline-profiled elder of American ballet waded through the virtual carpet of pitched white roses so he could give a formal bouquet and an unashamed bear hug to Suzie, the girl from Cincinnati, who, under his auspices, changed the course of ballet forever.