Suzanne Farrell

Mar 10, 2010


If any of you are as excited for Suzanne Farrell, especially with the March 13 performance with on-stage narration by the leading lady herself, then you'll be interested in this interview I found.

Farrell exudes optimism throughout the interview, just as she has in her life and gilded career as a ballerina and a teacher. A believer in hard work and living in the moment add depth and understanding to her life's work and relationships.  The fellow Midwesterner (Cincinnati) grew up as a tomboy, not ever intending to be a ballerina.

"I was very happy that I was as normal as possible before I went into serious dance," she says of her childhood. 

Her first exposure to dance was through her sisters who both took dance lessons, too.  "I would always be fidgeting, you know, while my sisters were having their lessons. The ballet teacher came up and said to my mother that, 'You really should have your daughter enrolled in some of these classes. It might give her some poise and help her to sit still, and make your life easier.' So I started dance."  At first, she enjoyed acrobatics and tap more than ballet, as she initially thought the ballerinas looked too much alike, and there was too much conformity. 

Not until later did she begin to realize the skill and uniqueness of ballet:  "It didn't interest me until the steps got more involved and I began to get it into my body," she said. "My feelings started to change when I realized that dancing was getting inside my body, emotionally, as well as physically."

Finally, she had found her place.  And just in time, too, as her personal life was about to be shaken by her parent's divorce.  "My mother was very interested in giving her daughters the advantage of music and dance, if we had an interest in it. My father was not. He thought it was really unnecessary. It cost money, which we didn't have."

Farrell turned to dance as a way to work through the pain of her parent's divorce, saying, "I was grateful that I had dancing to fall back on. It was my survival tactic. It was my friend. It was always there."

Slowly, dance had become a way to control herself, the one facet of life that she decided upon, the joy in having her body respond to dance. In her words: "It's a wonderful thing to be able to dance, to tell your body what you want it to do. You tell your leg to go up, and it goes."

But the further involved in dance she became, the more it dawned on her and her mother that the only place to continue her dream was in New York. So Farrell, her mother, and sisters packed up their bags to move into a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the big city.

It was in New York that she grabbed the eye of her lifelong mentor to-be, George Balanchine. The pressure to be the best for herself, and for the high standards of Balanchine was a lot to put on such a young dancer. "Some mornings you would wake up and say, oh boy, I really don't feel like going to class. [...] I didn't always want to dance every day of my life. But somehow I knew that I had to get myself to the theater to study, to take class, because I think better when I am in the environment I have spent most of my life in. And I always thought better when I was working, thought clearer when I was working."

Then follows the story we all know so well, with her climb to fame, and the growing relationship with her mentor, and the start of a lifelong collaboration. She rapidly became famous for her dancing, the long, sleek lines that she created through the choreography.  All throughout, her willingness to try anything and work as long as needed to get there, and her optimism kept her true to her art, and her philosophy of living in the moment.

Even when a performance didn't go well, she kept herself upbeat by looking forward. "You do the best you can. It was wonderful to be able to go home after a performance, and think, well it wasn't maybe so good, but it was the best I could be at that time. Then you have a departure point and some place to go to for the next time." In order to be prepared for moments where she found herself caught off-guard or missing a step, she rehearsed each number different every time. She called this her "bag of tricks" that she could rely on in a moment of need.

As for how she felt going out onto the stage - "The minute I get out there, I realize that I'm more in control than I thought I was. Because there is no turning back. It's when we think we can turn back that we don't make good decisions, or we don't try hard enough. It's when you jump off the cliff that you are suddenly in control, in a way that you don't have prior to that."

Even her well-known hip arthritis problems didn't stop her. It took her a while to come to terms with the debilitating pain that prevented her from even bending down to tie her shoes at one point.  But, eventually she realized that it was too serious to ignore anymore - "It was the first time that dance had let me down. What had been my salvation and my security with my body was abandoning me. This was emotionally and physically devastating."

She finally got the surgery necessary, and the doctors told her she'd never be able to dance again. But again, her ability to work through the darkest moments prevailed: "If you think positively that you can do it, you are already closer than if you didn't even try to do it. I think it was a big step for me. Consequently, I did get back onstage. I did dance again. In a different capacity, and not with the range of motion that I had, but I got back onstage."

When she retired, she finally had come to terms with her aging body, and was able to retire with dignity and calm. As she says, "I wouldn't be dancing anymore, but I will always be a dancer."

As for the future? "I'm sure the next forty years of my life will be as exciting as the last forty, but they are not as clear right now, as when I was a dancer. But anything can happen. I believe in mystery, and miracles. I just know I have to be working."

And we're sure glad she is still working. See you at the ballet!


By Melissa Wray, Marketing Intern

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