Farrell passes on ballet steps learned at Balanchine's side

`In the moment': axiom for life, dance

December 02, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Talk is not her medium, she says, dancing is. And yet, when Suzanne Farrell speaks, it is as she danced: in whole, seamless paragraphs that begin in one place and end somewhere else entirely, with quirky and unrelated metaphors that ultimately spin into a perfect narrative.

"I'm going to answer your question, really I am," she says with a laugh when it seems that she never will.

This is Suzanne Farrell, on stage and off, elusive and yet uniquely present at the same time.

She was the final and greatest muse of choreographer George Balanchine, the dancer who would fulfill his lifelong vision of ballet that was faster, bolder and more streamlined - thoroughly modern and distinctly American rather than traditional- bound and European.

Theirs was one of the great artistic partnerships of all time, a couple whose highly fraught personal relationship found its clarity on stage, and whose collaboration remains unmatched in the history of 20th-century ballet. Today, as the dance world begins to celebrate the upcoming centennial of Balanchine's Jan. 22, 1904, birth, Farrell is once again on center stage - but this time, in something of a role reversal.

Retired from performing since 1989, Farrell now heads a small company that bears her name and that she is shaping much as Balanchine once directed his own group of dancers. Tonight, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet begins a six-day day series of performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, among them some of the works that Balanchine created for Farrell herself.

That she now teaches rather than dances those roles is part of the same continuum for Farrell, the natural next step in a career that has been devoted to Balanchine's choreography.

"In a sense, it's going from the inside to the outside to see the inside again," she says of training others to dance her roles. "It's like two mirrors facing each other, there's endless reflections."

Farrell's company emerged more by happenstance than design. Its roots date to 1993, when Farrell first began teaching ballet at the Kennedy Center to a group of advanced students in the area. Starting with classes that spanned four weekends in January, the program expanded to five weekends the next year, then to a summer-long course and, finally, into a company of performers whose base is the Kennedy Center.

It is reminiscent of Balanchine's own development of the New York City Ballet, which began, as he famously stated, with "first, a school."

Farrell eventually put together a company of her students plus dancers borrowed from other professional groups, and began showcasing them in Balanchine ballets. Every year, the undertaking has grown, to the point that Suzanne Farrell Ballet, even without a fixed studio and a set group of dancers, tours and performs more that some of the more established regional companies.

"Clearly what we have here is a new model for a ballet company," Farrell says. "We dance more and rehearse less. People are hungrier, they want to make it happen. It's a real uniting of people behind a belief. It's a real commitment at this stage."

It is an exciting company to watch, not as polished as a company with more history performing together but one with a sense of unfolding discovery.

While Farrell speaks with unbounding enthusiasm and affection for her dancers - they are alternately diamonds that she is polishing or flowers that she is watering - this is not the future she had envisioned for herself when she stopped dancing.

She had expected to remain with the New York City Ballet - the company created by Balanchine and where she was the undisputed star during the 1960s and '70s. Farrell taught students and coached dancers at the NYCB for several years after her retirement from the stage, but in 1993 was suddenly fired - by Peter Martins, her one-time partner and Balanchine's successor as the company director. The dismissal - Farrell was unhappy with her marginalized role in the company, Martins said the company couldn't afford to keep paying her for such limited services - remains a sore subject on all sides.

It was actually the second time she had been exiled from the NYCB - the first time was in 1969, when Balanchine, angered when the dancer he loved and had hoped to marry himself instead wed a fellow company member, refused to allow either of them to continue dancing for him. Farrell returned to the company five years later - although Balanchine continued to refuse to let her husband back in - and they picked up their artistic partnership where they left off until the choreographer died in 1983.

Farrell won't speculate on whether she could envision a second return to the company.

"I don't look too far into the future," she says. "I have a company. I live in the moment, and I'm very happy in the moment."

It is that characteristic that formed the basis of her dancing, and one that she seeks to impart to her own company - not to just live but to dance in the moment.

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