Made for Each Other : Dance: Ballet star Suzanne Farrell sets the record straight about George Balanchine. No, they weren’t lovers.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Suzanne Farrell was poised at a critical crossroad: to try to dance, following hip-replacement surgery, or to give it up. That dilemma resolved itself when the celebrated high-stepper found there would be no miracle cure.
But she promised, back then, regardless of how her situation worked out, to write a book “setting the record straight” about herself and George Balanchine, whose maxim “Ballet is Woman” she epitomized. Their tempestuous relationship, on and off stage at New York City Ballet, had made headlines when, in 1969, Farrell forsook the preeminent choreographer to marry company dancer Paul Mejia.
It was a real-life version of “The Red Shoes"--except that the “dance-or-die” heroine got a second chance. Six years later, she wrote a conciliatory note to Balanchine and was forgiven. The prodigal daughter returned to NYCB and the final installment of her creative liaison with the master continued until his death in 1983.
True to her word, Farrell, together with Toni Bentley, has produced an autobiography, “Holding On to the Air” (Summit; $19.95)--the title a phrase Balanchine often invoked to describe doing the impossible in dance.
The object of all this consternation and triumph sits elegantly in her chair, as gray light washes in from the window of a Beverly Hills hotel room.
At 44, she still looks like two different creatures: with her famous overbite exposed in a smile, she is someone’s resolutely innocent but aging kid sister; lips closed, she is mysteriously poetic, a long-necked beauty with alabaster skin and huge pale eyes.
“Everybody seemed to be writing about Mr. B.,” says Farrell, calling the choreographer by his public name rather than the more personal George as she does in the book. “But I knew him best of all and here was my chance to stop speculation on what went on between us. My chance to say that he was not a soulless Svengali, that I was not his Trilby.”
And that she and Balanchine were never lovers, for instance, despite their constant tete-a-tetes and breakfast rendezvous at Dunkin’ Donuts, of all places?
“Yes, of course. I had to get the issue addressed because everyone wanted to know--was it a sexual relationship or not? It wasn’t.”
Curiously, Farrell’s book never offers much explanation for what transpired during the ultra-creative years with the most important man in her life--either personally or in the dance studio. As New Yorker critic Arlene Croce notes: “He let her surprise him (while making ballets), she let him push her into taking risks.”
Still, writing her memoirs “was painful and emotional and fun,” Farrell says. “I learned about myself, where I stood in the firmament. It’s strange to look at the page and see the word I and realize that it’s you.”
As an author, she doesn’t reveal the kind of interaction she had with Balanchine or her thoughts and feelings at the time--except as generalized joy or sadness. She has a simple answer:
“He was meant to make ballets and I was meant to dance. Call it providence. We had no say in the matter. And the communication between us was a silent one. Simply put, I understood what he wanted.
“There were no whisperings, no coachings, no secret messages--none of the things other dancers imagined. But that’s human nature. It doesn’t surprise me, what people thought.”
In the end, says Farrell, she doesn’t know why the great Balanchine preferred her, why it appeared to outsiders that he was remaking the company in her image, even to the diminishment of other exceptional talent there.
But she offers a view of the prevailing circumstances. Arriving in New York from Cincinnati a mere 15-year-old, Roberta Sue Ficker was the hoped-for escape token of her mother. She set her sights low: Radio City Music Hall and a job with the Rockettes.
“None of us dreamed I might get into the City Ballet,” the dancer recalls about herself and her gifted sisters, who also had fair prospects. Coming from a broken, nearly impoverished home--they all lived in a single hotel room at first--she had no baggage, so to speak, and believes that Balanchine “was attracted to me because I was raw.
“There was nothing for me to unlearn, physically or mentally. I was totally undeveloped in terms of experience and we could start with a clean slate.
“But, most of all, I think timing in life needs to be respected. I came along at the very moment when he got a big grant from the Ford Foundation (thus enabling Balanchine to make many ballets, 23 created especially for Farrell). The company had a new home (Lincoln Center) and Stravinsky (Balanchine’s famous collaborator) was still alive.
“Everyone benefited,” she rightly hastens to say.
What explains a mother who pushed her teen-age daughter into the arms of a grandfatherly man and drove away other, appropriately-aged suitors is obvious, however, to Farrell.
“We just weren’t savvy,” she says. “It was the ‘60s. All my mother wanted was a haven from Cincinnati. We were a family of women without men. I grew up never knowing about them. So did my mother, who always dreamed of being a dancer herself.”
Later, this god of the ballet world came to their home bearing gifts, offering marriage. But the dancer says she doesn’t know anything about her feelings for the much-married Balanchine, or even why she didn’t marry him, pending his divorce from Tanaquil LeClercq.
“I bypassed girlhood. Dancing was all I knew. There were no romances, not even any girlfriends. What did I feel for Mr. B., for Paul? Nothing that comes under the heading of normal feelings, nothing that can be expressed in words. I don’t know if I understand, for instance, what sexual attraction is.
“Everything was so confused. The only place I had sanity was onstage. Dancing kept me from going crazy. And luckily we were creating one ballet after another, working very, very hard.”
The only comments she remembers making to her chief benefactor were: “Hello. How are you? How’s your cat?” In all likelihood, no one else learned so well the Balanchine dictum: “Don’t think, dear, dance.” And when the silent schism between them occurred over her marriage there were no recriminations on Farrell’s part.
“I felt no bitterness,” she says, “only loss.” But that, too, turned into a plus: “I’m glad I had the chance to find out that no one else’s ballets interested me.”
Farrell’s memoirs--lightweight, according to consensus--received surprising attention at that bastion of intellectual snobbery, the New York Review of Books. There was also a nine-page New Yorker review by Croce, who wrote an apologia for the book, disappointed that it did not offer depth or analytic perspective but forgiving of the failure.
“I haven’t read those pieces,” the author professes, saying she is perplexed by arts-world politics and celebrity constellations.
Nor does Farrell acknowledge the elite literary circle, strongly influenced by NYCB general director Lincoln Kirstein, one that has dubbed Balanchine a god and herself his messenger.
But is she insulted to learn that “Farrell would almost surely never have become an artist-star under any (but Balanchine’s) management,” according to critic Croce?
“Not at all. The whole ballerina or star issue is an ego thing and beside the point for me. The act of dancing is what matters. I have been enormously lucky to realize my desire at so high a level.”
A knock at the door sounds and the dancer who defined the term ballerina for many rises to answer. A photographer enters and his subject strikes quick, canny, model-like poses. The session is quickly ended.
Walking down the hall, she talks about her forthcoming trip to Berlin, where she will direct several Balanchine ballets, and the classes she teaches at NYCB and the coaching she “will probably do” there.
But her gait decidedly favors one hip. She has a perceptible limp. Seeing it, no one would be surprised that she is now a body-broken veteran of ballet wars. When, exactly, did she retire?
“Nov. 25, 1989,” Suzanne Farrell says, before the question is out, as if she could ever forget the date.
“Ballerinas: Dances by Peter Martins,” Jan. 11 at 9:30 p.m. on KCET Channel 28 (Jan. 12 at 9 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50). Farrell will be shown in “Sophisticated Ladies,” set to music by Duke Ellington, and partnered by Martins, NYCB ballet master in chief. That became her farewell performance with the New York City Ballet after nearly three decades of dance. In all, five works choreographed by Martins will be televised, all danced by the company’s principal dancers.