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Spotlight: Suzanne Farrell

This week's Spotlight Saturday features American ballerina Suzanne Farrell.

Suzanne Farrell was born Roberta Sue Ficker in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 16, 1945. She began dancing at the age of 8 at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She took ballet and tap, preferring tap because she could hear the movements. The tallest in her class, she often performed the lead male role in productions, and later remembered that part of the reason for her animosity towards ballet as a child was because she never got to wear the tutus. She started pointe later than normal, as her feet were rather longer than usual and it took her a while to find shoes that fitted.

In 1960, Farrell received a Ford Foundation scholarship and joined the School of American Ballet (founded by George Balanchine). She then joined the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet in 1961. it wasn't long before she moved on to lead roles. In 1963, John Taras choreographed the ballet Passage for her (now called Arcade). She was soon the pick to become Balanchine's latest muse. The great choreographer paired her with Jacques d'Amboise for his work Meditation, which premiered in 1963. She played the role of Dulcinea in Balanchine's Don Quixote, which premiered May 1965. Many thought the work was a 'valentine' to his new muse, and Balanchine himself performed the role of Don Quixote on opening night. That same year, Farrell was promoted to principal dancer.

Above: Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea and George Balanchine as Don Quixote in 'Don Quixote', 1965; Below: Pierre Apels, Suzanne Farrell, and George Balanchine at Van Cleef & Apels Place Vendome Boutique, 1976, examining the jewellery for Balanchine's new ballet 'Jewels'

Balanchine quickly fell in love with his new muse, whom he referred to as the 'alabaster princess'. Her first role as principal was in Agon with Arthur Mitchell at the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1968, Balanchine cast her as the lead of the Diamonds section in his ballet Jewels. He created a great many other roles for Farrell, who later described her work with Balanchine, whom she called 'Mr. B', as a collaborative process: 'When Mr. B was working on a ballet, something would just spill out of his body; he could rarely duplicate it, so I tried to see precisely what he wanted the first time.'

Above: George Balanchine demonstrates a step while in rehearsal with Arthur Mitchell and Suzanne Farrell; Below: George Balanchine rehearses Suzanne Farrell

However, the good relationship between Farrell and Balanchine soon soured. Balanchine was married to the ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq (who had been paralysed by polio some years previously), and Farrell was a Catholic. Balanchine divorced his wife to pursue her, but Farrell married another dancer in the company, Paul Mejia. The resulting tension between them was too much, and finally Farrell and her husband left the company to join the European company Ballet of the XXth Century, run by French choreographer Maurice Bejart.

She performed lead roles in a style completely different from Balanchine, some created for her, with this company for four years. But in 1975 she returned to the New York City Ballet, where Balanchine was still ballet master. Balanchine continued to create new works for her, including Chaconne, Mozartiana, Tzigane, and Davidsbundlertanze. She was often paired with Peter Martins, who was a muse to Balanchine in his own right, and later choreographed his own Balanchine-inspired works. Farrell's work with Balanchine lasted until his death in 1983; his last works were for her. Martins, then ballet master, forced Farrell to resign in 1989 at the age of 44. She had her last performance with the New York City Ballet performing Sophisticated Lady and Viennese Waltzes on November 26 at the State Theatre with Lincoln Kirstein.

Above: In 'Sophisticated Lady' with Peter Martins; Below: in 'Viennese Waltzes'

Farrell then began to focus on passing on Balanchine's works to the next generation of dancers. She worked with companies in Berlin and Vienna, as well as the Paris Opera Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, and the Bolshi Ballet. In 1993 she was dismissed from her teaching position at the New York City Ballet. In 2000, she became a professor in the Dance Department at Florida State University. In 1993, she was engaged at the Kennedy Center to provide a series of master classes to Intermediate and Advanced ballet students. The program was so popular that the Kennedy Center expanded it to a national level in 1995, and soon grew into an annual intensive, Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell.

In 1999, Farrell gathered a group of hand-picked professional dancers who debuted as the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center in 2000. The company has performed at the Center since, though it was announced in 2016 that the company would be disbanded at the close of the 2017 season. Farrell received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2005, which celebrate lifetime artistic achievement. Farrell was instrumental in the creation of the Balanchine Preservation Initiative in 2007, which recreates and performs lost or rare Balanchine works, including Ragtime, Pithoprakta, and Divertimento Brilliante.

Kennedy Center Honors recipients in 2005 with President Bush (Farrell second from right)

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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