Ballerinas Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland have more in common than they might suppose.
Yes, yes, in the American ballet firmament right now they represent almost mythic opposites, with Farrell always seen as a kind of contemporary White Swan: the chaste, soulful Muse of the great George Balanchine. In contrast, Kirkland invariably is cast as the treacherous, unpredictable Black Swan, deeply dangerous to the status quo.
Nevertheless, their new autobiographies bring them uncomfortably close to telling the same story, one that increasingly focuses on the conflict between body and spirit--the hard physical realities of dancing versus the engulfing artistic vision.
Farrell and Kirkland both were born in the Northeast, had problematic relationships with their fathers and attracted the interest of Balanchine early in their careers at New York City Ballet. Each eventually found Balanchine's demands stifling (although for very different reasons) and ended up asserting her independence in Europe.
Farrell, of course, returned and somehow managed to separate her professional and private lives in order to rejoin Balanchine in a working relationship that expanded the horizons of classical dance.
Kirkland, of course, wrote "Dancing on My Grave," a controversial look at the drug abuse, sexism and artistic suffocation that she experienced in America. However, she must also be remembered as the only dancer (male or female) to have inspired choreography from all four titans of late-20th-Century ballet: Balanchine, Tudor, Ashton and Robbins.
Both women no longer dance, Farrell, 45, as the consequence of a hip replacement, and Kirkland, 37, by choice and the lack of suitable shoes for those long, long feet.
Written with former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley, "Holding on to the Air" follows Farrell from childhood garage performances in Cincinnati to her retirement gala at Lincoln Center in 1989. Though her descriptions prove more anecdotal than analytical, they provide valuable data about the Balanchine-Farrell repertory--including works created for other dancers that he later revised for her.
Consider, for example, the creation of what Farrell calls "perhaps the most famous single moment" in "Symphony in C," originally choreographed in 1947:
"I was in profile in a deep penche split on pointe (rehearsing) in the center of the stage, holding both of Conrad's (Conrad Ludlow's) hands for support. It had always seemed that there was just a little too much music for the movement down and up, however slowly it was done. 'Can you touch your head to your knee?' Mr. B. asked, and everyone on stage looked astonished; it was a weird, unorthodox, acrobatic thing to ask for in the middle of a very classical adagio. I bent down, put my forehead on my knee and mumbled--I was completely upside down--'Like this?' 'Yes, like that.' He gazed at the effect for a moment--it looked wickedly impressive and very beautiful. Ever since, ballerinas all over the world have been splitting their bodies in two directions."
In describing Balanchine's attempts to manipulate and even pressure her into a personal relationship (often with the connivance of her mother), Farrell reveals abuses of authority that could have provided supporting evidence for Kirkland's first book. Nevertheless, she remains staunchly pro-Balanchine, excusing his treatment of her, defending his system of training and directly dismissing Kirkland, too:
"Balanchine had recognized her talent. He promoted her, choreographed for her and encouraged her in every way, as he had many dancers over the years. But for her own reasons she obviously didn't want to accept the opportunities he offered her, and she seemed to resent him for it. Balanchine functioned on a plateau that, clearly, wasn't for everybody, but to abandon the challenge of Balanchine for an approach to dancing that seemed more like an act of defiance than an act of love and respect for one's craft was something I could not comprehend."
The first half of this statement could be Farrell talking about Farrell, a dancer who, after all, did reject the opportunities Balanchine offered her "for reasons of her own" (namely, falling in love with another man). Her last remark might be considered a low blow, since Kirkland scarcely has been hesitant to blame herself, and Farrell surely must "comprehend" by now that the young, obsessive Kirkland tried to remake herself in Farrell's image--to the point of having silicone injections in her lips and asking her dentist to give her slightly buck teeth.