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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: 3 / 5)

Ballerina Extraordinaire

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  Suzanne Farrell

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
What are some of the hardships you've had to endure along the way, some of the obstacles you've had to overcome?

Suzanne Farrell: Well, I've had injuries, but I'd always get out on stage because I think the body is a wonderful thing, and you have to treat it with respect. We haven't even reached our potential for what we can do as human beings. I went through a period where I had hip trouble. I thought it was just a typical pulled muscle, so I used liniment, and warmed up more than I thought was necessary, all the things we learn to do when you have a typical dance-related injury or sore muscle. Over the months, it didn't go away. In fact, it got worse. Eventually I realized that I had a very serious problem, and 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.

It took me a long time to admit that I had arthritis, and that it was not going to ever get better. But strangely enough, when I got on stage, I had no pain, because the moment when I was out there was so important and the "now" of the situation was the only thing that mattered, that my body rallied somehow. We have these powers within us, you know, endorphins. The body can do amazing things in a situation when it is really called upon. And so I remained dancing and performing so that I didn't have the pain.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Even though the same movements in the classroom would be painful, somehow in a performance situation it was not. I went several years in that situation, and I was happy, because by then I was told that I would have to have an operation. You can't dance with an artificial hip. It was important to me to stay dancing as long as possible, because I knew that once I had the operation I would not be able to dance again. So I was happy. I had to curtail and alter my repertoire. I couldn't do everything that I used to. But I was dancing and I was happy. There were emotional times. I tell my students, "You have to learn to dance even when you don't feel like it. Because most of the time you might not feel like it." But the amazing thing is that, when you start to dance, everything seems wonderful.

Something else a performer has to endure is criticism, either from your peers in your company, or from reviewers. How do you deal with that?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: Everyone deals with it a little differently. I started getting parts when I was quite young, so I got criticized when I was quite young. Everyone wants to be liked. People can have an opinion, but somehow when it's written in a newspaper or magazine and it's right there for everyone to read, it's a little different than if it was just verbal. In the beginning I got good reviews, and then occasionally something was not so nice. Those are the ones I saved, because I found them interesting. But again, I was lucky to have Mr. Balanchine. I put my trust in him as a choreographer, as a person who would not put me out there if I looked bad, because that would be a reflection on him, and he wants the best. So I decided that I would trust him, and listen to him only. It kept me from having to account to other people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But if you ask ten people, you get ten different opinions. I decided to just trust Mr. Balanchine. Of course, his standards were very high, and they became my standards. I just said, "Well, I thought it was good, I did my best," or "This wasn't so good, I have to work more on that." It keeps you from going crazy.

I don't believe you can be an honest performer and a spectator at the same time. You have to choose who you listen to very carefully. It takes different eyes to be a spectator. Now that I don't dance so much, I have to reverse the way I look at things, so my whole sense of evaluating a situation is different. But I think critics have to respect the feelings of the person as much as the facts, and report them with responsibility.

Having achieved so much at such a young age, and having had this relationship with Balanchine, what about professional jealousies within your field?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: I know they existed. By nature I'm a shy person. I guess it's partly from my background. Coming to New York, it was just my mother and my sister and I, and we didn't have money to go to movies and socialize, so I was very isolated. Most of that by choice, because dancing is, in a way, a solo. You don't need someone to improve your own dancing. You can do it all by yourself. By nature, I'm a singular person. When I wanted friends, I didn't have too many friends because I was put into this position where I was getting all these roles. Of course, I could understand their envy. I probably would have felt the same way if the shoe was on the other foot. But Balanchine ran his company the way he wanted to, and that was his choice. In the early stages of my career, there was a lot of competition. There were a lot of good girls around, and it was a wonderful time to be a dancer.

I think it takes away a lot of energy, to be wishing you were doing something else. People ask what my favorite ballet is. It's the one I'm doing at that moment. It's ungrateful to be wishing you were doing something else at the moment you are living. You haven't lived in the moment that you are really living, you are wishing you were somewhere else.

Did you ever have any fears or doubts about one, your choice of career, or two, your ability?

Suzanne Farrell: I didn't have any doubts about my choice of career, but I had constant doubts about my ability, yes.

How did you overcome it?

Suzanne Farrell: By working. How do we know what our ability is, until we get in there and work? Just like scientists. They have blown laboratories up many times before they have made a great discovery. We have to do that. What's exciting in life is that you have options. There are some dancers who like to rehearse, and people I guess do this in life. They rehearse how they are going to live. And that's sad to me. I always rehearse differently, because the moment is different. Maybe, come time to do this ballet, you are going to be very unhappy, and so that will affect you. You get out there and you smile, but your feelings internally are different. Maybe the music will be played too fast, or too slow. The wonderful thing about life it that there will always be variables. You have to see them and be aware of them to know how to react to them. Otherwise, you are living every day the same.

I would rehearse it differently each time. Maybe it would be awful, but it would be an option, so that when I got out on stage, if the dictates of the moment required it, I had what I called my bag of tricks that I had been through, and you just store them up for the time when they will come in handy. Otherwise, you are rehearsing an opinion, if you do it the same way all the time. If you rehearse the ballet the same way all the time, if you write the same essay, if you draw the same little ponytail, if you do everything the same, you are rehearsing an opinion, and before you know it, you can't change.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Ballet is interesting. You have to start young, you have to work hard, and yet every minute you are working to get better, you are using up your body, your instrument, which you want to preserve so you can dance longer. It's not even as if you have a violin and you put it in a case, and it stays good for one hundred years because it is made out of expensive wood. Your body is a thing you have to live with. You go shopping, you walk the dog, you do everything. You want to work as fast as possible, so you don't have to over-rehearse and use up the instrument. You want to keep in as good health as possible so you can dance longer.

There were ballets in the course of your career that have special importance for you. One was Don Quixote. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: It is a very involved story. As I said, I didn't read that much in school because I became a dancer and I didn't have that much time to sit down and read. Nor have the kind of body that would sit still that long. Mr. Balanchine told me that he wanted to do this ballet. He had wanted to do it for quite some time and he felt he had found the person to do it for. It was a departure for him, because it was three acts, and it had a story. It was a novelty for him to do a big three-act ballet with a big story and lots of scenery.

And he created a part for you?

Suzanne Farrell: Yes. I played Dulcinea, his inspiration. It was particularly exciting because the first night he did the part of Don Quixote himself. It was more a character part as opposed to a dancing part. Basically it brought us together in terms of our future collaboration. Up until that point, I still was always in awe of him, and couldn't say much to him other than "How's the weather?" "How's your cat?" or something like that. It really brought us together where our work and our feelings became very important. It was a great ballet. I had a wonderful time. I played many different parts in it.

What did that chance to dance Dulcinea mean to you?

Suzanne Farrell: It was the first time a big ballet like that had been built around me. There were very few dancing roles for our company of 60 dancers. It was basically my ballet, and that of course caused some friction from other people in the company. On the other hand, I also had a job. I was paid as a dancer, and this was my work. He chose me, and living in the moment I was going to get the best out of it. I started to read the book. Couldn't find myself in the book -- a thousand page book, you know. Finally I went up to him in rehearsal, I had the book, and I said I can't find myself in here, where am I? And he said no, you don't have to read the book. So it was the beginning of where I really trusted him. We learned a lot. I believed that anything I needed to know about the ballet would be in his choreography.

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
From the technical point of view, he started looking at me and asking me to do things that he had never asked someone to do before. It seemed at the time impossible, and yet I realized that it's not impossible, it's just different. So "impossible" went out of my vocabulary. I said, "No, I can't do it today, but let me work on it." We were always trying and failing, or trying and discovering. When someone believes in you, and you believe in them, it is a very empowering thing to give someone, and a responsibility to have in return. There is just no end to how hard someone is willing to work when you have their belief in you. Technique doesn't really play as big a part as how you look at the picture, the part that you play in the picture. I learned a lot from that ballet. I also learned how to dance.

There is another ballet that is important to you: Tzigane.

Suzanne Farrell: Yes. In the early days of my career, I was always this virginal girl in white. I liked that, but the tom-boy in me always wanted to be a little contrary. I used to wish that I could play the black swan instead of the white swan, or the evil girl instead of the good girl. So when I came back to the company, this was the first thing Mr. Balanchine did for me. I was curious to know how he would see me. Tzigane means "gypsy," it's Hungarian. I thought he'd give me something very technical, but the first thing he had me do is sort of mosey on stage in this sort of indifferent quality. I thought this was very strange. "I'm not sure if I want to look like this. What are people going to think? They expect me to dance." And then I said, "No, he's always presented you very well, and you believe in him. Let's try something that hasn't been done before." So we started working on this ballet.

It was a lot of fun to be a gypsy. By then Mr. Balanchine and I had become comfortable with each other, and frequently he would say, "Oh, you know what I want. You fill in." That was very nice of him, but also a big responsibility. Because it had to look like what he might do, be in the same flavor, and the same character as what he might do, and wonderful that he trusted me enough to say, "Oh, Suzie, you do it." It was quite thrilling, and gave me a lot of freedom in a world that has a lot of discipline. At one part in the choreography, he said, "Oh just stand here and do something, and then start turning."

As the ballet starts out, I'm dancing to a solo violin. There is not even a conductor. I don't even see the violinist. He's down in the pit, and there is just a single spotlight on my face. The rest of the stage is dark, so it is very lonely. In fact, it is probably the loneliest I've ever been. Even lonelier than walking down the streets of New York by yourself. To be in front of people, you have to look interesting, have to go from one side of the stage to the other, portray something, but you don't even have the sound of an orchestra to fill the void. Just this one lonely violin and myself. I start to dance. And it stays this way for about five minutes. It was a long solo.

Just before the ballet changes, and I am supposed to do this step, and pantomime, and then turn like a whirlwind before my partner is to come in, the violinist got carried away, and he started playing extra music, and I didn't know what to do! So I reached into my bag of tricks, and I put my hand out and I pretended that I was a fortune teller, writing down a fortune on the palm of my hand. And that became the choreography. And now people would look for that in the ballet, but that was not choreographed.

That happened at the moment when I had extra music left over and I didn't know what to do. I couldn't just stand there and do nothing! And so I said, "Well I'm going to write my fortune." And that's what I did and by then it was time for the next part of the ballet. It's remained in the ballet and has become one of the signatures of that particular ballet. That was a lot of fun.

You have probably been asked this more times than you care to answer it. Can you describe the feeling you have when you are in the wings, waiting for your cue, and you hear the music and you enter the stage?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: Before I go out, I have these feelings of insecurity, this "what am I going to do?" feeling. Even though I am a professional, and I know what the steps are, I don't quite know how I'm going to do them, because I haven't lived that moment yet. I always feel very insecure and I get very excited. Nervous, not so that I can't dance, but excited with nerves because I love to do what I am doing. 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.

People think that you get out there, and you become someone else, Dulcinea or the gypsy, and that the whole rest of the world doesn't exist. But that's not true. Yes, you don't see a lot of things that are going on around you, but you very much know what is happening in this world that you are in. You can't get lost in this dream world. I've had situations where my partner has forgotten to come in, to catch me. So you have to think on the spot. I've fallen down onstage. Believe me, you don't know how fast you can move, how quick you can think, and how smart you can become, until you are in a situation where you have fallen, and people are looking at you. Those are the situations that you learn from. Some of these things that have happened on stage translate into my life, especially now that I don't dance anymore. If I can handle something like that in front of people looking at me, then I feel I can handle anything. Maybe I don't know how, but I know I can, and that's very good.

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