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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: 4 / 5)

Ballerina Extraordinaire

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  Suzanne Farrell

A lot has been written about it but, in your own words, how would you describe your relationship with Mr. Balanchine?

Suzanne Farrell: He of course was my teacher. He was my friend. I believe also in destiny. I think we were meant to be together. That we both had chosen these professions, he from Russia and me from Cincinnati. It's so strange that our orbits should intercept. We both wanted to work in ballet. So, we became very close.

We were very much in love with each other in many ways. And I think that if it hadn't been that way we wouldn't have gone on to do the work that we did. We were both very professional. He could work with other people, and I could work with other people, but it was important in the whole scheme of things that we have this great love for each other. And it was devastating at times, but I tell you, I wouldn't trade it for the world. I wouldn't change any of my life. I'd live it all over again the same way.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

You've had this commitment since childhood. Looking back on it, is there anything you wish you had done, or that you regret not having done? Have you missed out on something?

Suzanne Farrell: Well, if I said I didn't that would sound a little self-congratulatory. On the other hand, I chose to live in the moment and yes, I made a commitment. You don't make a commitment and then change your mind.

What is the cost of achievement in that light? What price do you have to pay?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: I don't look at it in that way. I chose to be a dancer. You don't only choose the good things; the other things come along. It's part of life. I know I was depressed and unhappy, and I know I had injuries and pain, but I don't remember them. To me there was really no cost. You have to work at being happy, and you have to work at being depressed. Some people love to be depressed. I choose to be happy and to work, and that gives you something to hold onto when the rest of your life is falling apart. Life is very valuable. You have to know your worth and you have to work as hard as you can, and you have to live through the hard times. They have their value.

Especially for performers, you reach a certain age when you can't do what you used to be able to do. How tough are those adjustments as you get older, in this profession, this art that you have committed your life to?

Suzanne Farrell: It was tougher when I saw it coming, because I abandoned my philosophy, and I didn't live as fully in the now because I saw my "now" that I loved so much coming to an end. I was devastated that I couldn't dance forever, because I never got tired of my work, I never got bored with it, I never lost the commitment, I never didn't want to dance. I don't know where all that time went to. But I saw it coming to a close, and I didn't know what I was going to do. I was lost. Strangely enough, on the last performance, it was so easy, because it was the last. I would still wake up, I would still be a dancer. I wouldn't be dancing anymore, but I will always be a dancer. In a way it hadn't really changed. I hear music and I wish I could dance.

I had the opportunity to go to Russia and to teach them a ballet of Balanchine's, and it was good to have something like this to fall back on. I had to suddenly learn 19 parts instead of only one part. I was responsible for the men, the women, and I don't speak Russian. I was going to a country that was strange. It was exciting to do this in my profession. It was also going to be my acid test -- whether I would survive as a non-dancing person. Would I be able to tell them everything that I learned? Would I be open enough to give away all my secrets, or open to them my bag of tricks? Just how generous would I be in a situation where I couldn't do it anymore? So I went, and I was so happy, because I learned things that I never would have learned if I had physically been dancing them.

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
We learned to communicate by our energy, by our eyes. I could feel, in the beginning, they didn't want to accept a foreigner coming over and telling them something that they thought they did better. It was the closest thing to an audition that I had ever been to in my life. At this stage in my life I had to audition, now that I don't dance anymore. Yet, it all worked out so wonderfully. Eventually I got an interpreter and I told them I trusted them. I told them exactly what had changed me as a dancer, that somebody believed in me. Over the course of days, they learned the ballet. It was not without incidents, and lack of organization, and all the things that go on with being in a country like Russia and trying to get some organization. But I tell you, come time for the performance, I sat out front, I was excited for them in the same way that I got excited when I danced. I didn't want to be up there. I was just as happy being out there watching. I was happy for them to have this responsibility and this opportunity. I not only taught them a ballet, but I also taught myself that I can survive, that I can be happy not dancing. People want to be happy, and they want to work. They will do almost anything for you if you say "I believe you." When I say "I trust you," that's gotten me farther than one hundred classes or any kind of formal training at all. The more you teach, the more you learn.

What do you say to students who come say, "Ms. Farrell what should I do, to be what you are?"

Suzanne Farrell: I say that what you are is you. No one has your eyes, no one has your face. That's so uniquely yourself that you have to try to be the best you can be, and the clearest picture of who you are. You should never want to be someone else. You can learn from me, as we all do, that is what passing it on is. That is what we call tradition. You have to make it in the present and you have to be who you really are. We all know our profession, we know our craft. We go to school, we all can do something. But no one can do it like you do. You have to find yourself, and be the best you can be, which has infinite possibilities.

Most of us need some kind of break. There was a woman who actually discovered you, Diana Adams. Can you tell us that story?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: I had gone to one audition about a month before I was 14. A Canadian company was coming to perform in Kentucky, and a friend of my mother knew the woman who ran the company, and we thought that maybe I could go and audition, not to be in the company, but to get a scholarship in the school. In Cincinnati, Canada was the "big time." I wanted to have more knowledge and more opportunities in dance. Mother thought this might be good, so I went down there and I auditioned. And I guess I was a failure, because they were not impressed. So I was going to retire as a dancer.

Then the following month, we read in Dance magazine that the Ford Foundation had given money to Balanchine to scout around the country and pick promising students, to have either local scholarships at their own school, or to come to New York. My mother thought this was wonderful, and I decided to come out of my "retirement" and face this audition.

I knew Diana Adams was beautiful because I would go to the library and look at the ballet books and pictures, and I was familiar with this very tall, beautiful image. The fact that she was tall was important to me, because I was very tall, and I had been told in a letter from this Canadian Company that I might be too tall to be a dancer. I used to sleep curled up in a ball because I read you grew at night, and I was afraid I would be too tall to be a dancer.

When Ms. Adams came to the studio to watch a class in which we were auditioning, I was very happy to see that she was very tall, so all those fears disappeared for me. When it was over, I don't know how well I did. She didn't say anything to us. She talked to the teacher and took her own notes.

I had a program from when I went to see the New York City Ballet in Indiana a couple of months prior to that, and I took it to her, and I asked her for her autograph. And she wrote "good luck" on it. And I thought that she was wishing me good luck, or that she thought I would need it desperately, or I don't know what she meant. But I took it as a very personal message. Good Luck. And that gave me such inspiration and such trust, so she was the person who eventually suggested that I audition, go to New York and audition for a scholarship. Not that I had one, but the fact that she said "good luck" was enough for me to hang onto, and to consider pursuing my dreams. So we went to New York, and of course I did get a scholarship.

She was a wonderful lady. A very elegant person. I learned a lot from her, not so much in what she said, but in what she didn't say. She didn't become overly protective, or say "I think you should do this, or dance that way." She also told me what she knew when she was teaching class, and made suggestions. I think you can make a better impression by suggesting something to someone than telling them what they have to do.

Didn't you replace her in a ballet, not too many years after that?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: Yes. She was very much Mr. Balanchine's idea at that time of what he wanted his female dancers to look like, the long line. She had beautiful long legs. She was very good with the Stravinsky ballets, Mr. Balanchine had started working on a Stravinsky ballet called Movements for Piano and Orchestra. She and Jacques d'Amboise were to have the leads. It was a small ballet. This music had never been played in America before. It was very atonal, even to people who knew Stravinsky. And she became pregnant. She had always wanted a child and had never been successful in having a full-term pregnancy, so this was very special to her, and she told Balanchine that her doctor advised her not to dance, not to even move. Balanchine lost all interest in the ballet. The premiere was in one week. Stravinsky was coming over from Germany. He was going to attend the premiere. It had already been advertised in the papers. It was a very big disaster that this had happened.

Jacques and I had done a few lecture-demonstrations together for different churches and things. He knew that I could learn quickly, and that I would get out there and try my best, regardless of what the outcome was. He suggested to Balanchine that Suzanne learn it. Mr. Balanchine was not very interested, but Jacques coaxed him into allowing him to take me over to Diana's. She taught me, literally, while she was reclining on the chaise. It was a small living room. There was no recording of the music at that time. You couldn't dance on the parquet floor. I was just in my bare feet with her coffee table moved to the side and she was telling me things, and he was telling me things, all to no music, just to counts. It was the most bizarre way, the vaguest way of learning something that would be so physical. On the other hand, I learned something, and we showed it to Mr. Balanchine the next day. He thought it was close enough or interesting enough that maybe we wouldn't have to cancel the premiere, and he would work from there. He started to work and eventually things came together, and I did the ballet. It was great fun, and a great success. I think I am the only person who learned that ballet under the circumstances that I did. It was a great opportunity for me. It was the beginning of many ballets, many roles of hers that I would eventually learn.

That was an inspirational story. I think it's a reflection of the kind of courage you need to be a performer, to be a dancer.

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: I was still trying to finish high school, which was always a problem between my mother and me. She wanted me to finish high school. I wanted to do what she wanted, because I still didn't know that I would have this great career in ballet, and it's important to get your education. Finally, I started learning more roles, and I just went to her one evening and cried. I said "Mother I just can't do it." By that time maybe she thought that I might have a career as a dancer.

The first big rehearsal we had, I was coming from having an exam at my school. I was a little late to rehearsal. I thought that I would just have to apologize because I had to take this exam. But I walked into the studio, and there was a film crew from Germany, lights, cables all over the place, Stravinsky sitting in the center of the studio, Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, all of these people. I was late, and they were all waiting for me. I was devastated. The rehearsal didn't go very well. No one except Jacques and I knew the choreography. I was embarrassed that I had been so inadequate. After it was over I went up to Mr. Balanchine -- we still were only speaking about the weather at this point.

I said, "You know, I don't think you should let me do this ballet. I'm just not ready for it." And that was not a terribly sensible thing for someone to say, given this great opportunity. I mean, I could have really talked myself out of having this wonderful situation. But I felt that I was not ready, that I just wasn't good enough, especially since there were so many other better dancers than I was. And he said to me -- he clasped his hands like this, and he said, "Dear, you let me be the judge." And I thought to myself then, well, if he believes in me that much, then I'll let him be the judge to the exclusion of everyone else. And so it was the beginning of a great understanding.

Which is something you have to have in a creative situation. And it made me realize that if he thought I could do it, then I won't let him down.

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