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If you like Suzanne Farrell's story, you might also like:
Dorothy Hamill,
Jessye Norman,
Trevor Nunn,
Lloyd Richards,
Twyla Tharp and
Kiri Te Kanawa

Suzanne Farrell also appears in the video:
Passion, Creativity and the Arts: A Mirror on Society

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Suzanne Farrell in the Achievement Curriculum section:
From Dance to Drama

Related Links:
Farrell Balllet
Dance Heritage
Kennedy Center
Balanchine Trust

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Suzanne Farrell
Suzanne Farrell
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Suzanne Farrell Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Ballerina Extraordinaire

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  Suzanne Farrell

There are countless young women who, at the age of five or six or seven, are taken by the hand by their mothers to ballet class. Many young women have this experience but very few continue in dance. Why did you keep dancing?

Suzanne Farrell: I learned to love dance for its own sake. The feeling that it gave me -- the happiness, the security, the release of my feelings, -- it made me a person. It brought out in me the person whom I had the potential to become. I think that's why I loved it for its own sake, not to be a ballerina. On the other hand, I think it is wonderful for everyone to take ballet classes, at any age. It gives you a discipline, it gives you a place to go. It gives you some control in your life. You are with music. You express yourself in a way that you can't explain, even to your best friend. And it is in a beautiful environment.

When you get on stage, you can be anything. You are removed from reality in a way, the real world. And yet I think that when you are a performer -- and for me, a dancer -- is when, to me, that is more real. It is not fantasy. It's a certain amount of pretending, and your hard work and your training and your professionalism. But it's more real, because I have spent my life in the theater and on stage, and in the classroom. Far from feeling that it is not the real world, I feel that I see the real world more realistically because I see it clearer when I am dancing.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

What was it like for a 15 year-old from Cincinnati to come to New York City? What did that look and feel like to you?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: It was quite simple. The only thing that my mother and my sister and I wanted to do, at that time in our lives, was to come to New York and further our training. We got here, and we were, of course, typical tourists. Saw everything, did everything. I had a wonderful childhood in Cincinnati, but my mother had realized that if we wanted to further our training and become professionals, we had to come to New York. Fortunately, she was willing to come. She was more than happy to come. My sister was a very talented pianist. We lived in a tiny one-room apartment, but we were happy. We really lived at the piano, or at the dance studio. I think my work gave me a flexibility that I would not have had. Even thought it is very channeled, and you have to be committed and work very hard, and eliminate some things in your life, it also gives you a flexibility because you have to admit what's important in your life at that time. It doesn't mean that it has to last forever. To me, forever is as long as it lasts, as long as you are still productive and you still are the best you can be. I think that was important, and it wasn't important whether I became famous, I just wanted to be the best that I could be. So you are always in competition with yourself, and not someone else.

Did you ever imagine that one day you would return to Cincinnati and be given a key to the city?

Suzanne Farrell: No, of course not. That's all wonderful, and it's great to meet people now, at this point in my life.

When you are on stage, you don't see faces. The lights are in your eyes and you see just this black void out in front of you. And yet you know there is life out there, and you have to get your message across. And hopefully they are sending a message back. And it is a wonderful feeling.

I enjoy meeting people at this point in my life. But no, I never, never expected all these things to happen to me. I don't know where my life went. I still feel like a 15 year-old girl coming to New York. Dancing does that to you. I think it keeps you really young.

Who has most influenced you in your career? Who has had the greatest impact on you?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: That's an easy question. It was, of course, George Balanchine. He came from Russia via Europe and settled in America in 1933. He started a little company which was not very successful, so he had to start over and over again. Ultimately, he founded the New York City Ballet. I happened to be born at the right time, came to the right place, and had the fortune to audition for him, and work with him, because he is the genius of the century of ballet. I learned how to dance with him.

I think he was a great philosopher. He had a wonderful theory that you live in the "now," which I think is important. Along with living in the moment, you also have to assume the responsibility that goes along with it, and you don't take your position lightly. But it also means that you get the full value of the moment that you are living, so you don't look back on your life and say, "If only I hadn't wasted time, if only I had done this." 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. At least you know you tried your best. There is always some kind of progress, and you learn from that situation.

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
I learned a lot from him, aside from just learning how to dance. Of course, he was quite a bit older that I was. He was 50 years older than I was. I had the benefit of all his experience, all the ballets he did before I was even born, plus the ballets he did when we were working together, up until he died. It was like I lived his lifetime in my short career as a dancer. It was a great experience. I think you have to respect time very much, and know the time you are living in and that we are all living at the same time, but we are all at different times in our lives, and you have to see that and make the best of it.

Were there ever times when you wanted to rebel, do it your way, when you reacted against this mentor?

Suzanne Farrell: No, never. Once I started dancing, I was not the spoiled brat or the rebellious child that I was as a child. When you work, it's a laboratory. The dance studio, when we were working together, was the place where you experiment. I'm not intimidated by failure or making a mistake, because you learn from those situations. You don't learn from a situation where you do something well. You enjoy it and you give yourself credit, but you don't really learn from that. You learn from trial and error, trial and error, all the time. When you fail, maybe you failed in that particular instance, but you have discovered something else. A lot of the ballets that we went on to do were built around mistakes that we had made in the classroom. So you never throw anything out. Rebelling takes up energy. As a dancer, you don't have that kind of energy to throw away. So I'm not an argumentative person. I'd rather use that temperament to be productive.

There is this image of the prima ballerina, of temperament.

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: That's different from being temperamental. You have to have temperament, because it is part of emotion. Ballets require every emotion you can have, to get your point across, or to move differently. When you are happy you move differently than when you are sad. That's why it is important to keep yourself in a good frame of mind so that you can be open to all the options that might come your way. To me, getting out on stage is like true confessions. If you feel like you don't want to be there, you will look like you don't want to be there. No matter how professional you are, you can masquerade for a time, but people feel what you are feeling eventually, and it becomes very apparent. Temperamental is not good, but you have to have temperament.

It's all very nice to be accepted and be appreciated, because we want to entertain, we want to make people happy. But no matter how brilliant you were the night before, how many keys to cities you got, you go the next morning, and you take class, and you start over and you do exactly what the babies do. To me it's very humbling and it puts things in a great perspective. You go back, and you start out exactly like the first-year students do. Then of course your class changes and you build, but I think it is a wonderful paradox. It brings you back to your roots. You always have a fresh departure point. You weren't staying in a situation that had already occurred, you were starting a new life every morning when you went class. That's very invigorating and sobering. You can allow it to teach you, or you can let it threaten you. Different people handle it in different ways. I decided that I would let what happened to me teach me, instead of traumatize me.

What is a typical day for a dancer?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: I like to get up early in the morning and read. It's the only time I have to be me, before I become the dancer part of me. Sometimes I would go to the theater and sit in my dressing room, and put on the shoes that I would be dancing in. My feet, which had maybe gotten big overnight, could get a little more small so that when I went into the studio I could put on my pointe shoes and be the best I could be from the moment I start out. That way you don't use half of class to wake up. I would go to class every morning. You didn't wake up and say, gee, what am I going to do today? There was no decision. I knew that I would go to the theater, see my friends, but most important I would work, and be happy in that. It was great to know that I had a place to go every morning.

No matter how much you may have achieved, no matter how much celebrity, you might have attained, every day you went to class?

Suzanne Farrell: I always went to class. Again, I liked the work that went into dancing. People have to realize there is a lot of fun. It seems very glamorous, and that's true, it's wonderful. To me it is like no other profession in the world. But there is constant work. All your life, before you can even get out on stage. If you only live for the performances, you will never learn how to dance. Also, you have to make your body respond, even when it doesn't want to.

Some mornings you would wake up and say, oh boy, I really don't feel like going to class. I don't want to dance. I mean, I got depressed. 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 that I have spent most of my life. And I always thought better when I was working, thought clearer when I was working. And so, no matter how much I didn't want to go to the theater when I seemingly woke up in the morning, I always said, well, go and see how you feel. And usually by the time I started moving around and dancing, I would feel good. Some of the mornings that I felt the worst, were the days that I would have the best performances. So you just never know what the day has in store for you. So you always have to be optimistic and say, go and see what happens. Or live this moment as it comes.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

A lot has been written about the sacrifice, the pain of the ballet world, of what it takes to be a dancer.

Suzanne Farrell: There is pain and sacrifice in everyone's world. That's why, when I was dancing, I had no pain. You have the choice of looking at the donut, or the hole in the donut, and I chose to devour the donut. It's how you look at things. Yes, there are injuries. But there are injuries in everything. Yes, I got depressed. But you work yourself out of that. When I look back, I have to really put my mind to work to think about what was painful, because I don't really remember. It's not the uppermost thing in my mind. It's not the way my scale of happiness is balanced. It's just not that important.

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This page last revised on Nov 30, 2007 03:45 EDT
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