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A Gracefully Taken New Turn

Suzanne Farrell, former star dancer, now has her own 18-member ensemble. 'I'm no different now than I have been all my life. This is what I do,' she says.

September 19, 2000|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

WASHINGTON — "This has all been a nice surprise," Suzanne Farrell says with a laugh, reflecting on the 11-year transition from her career as star dancer with New York City Ballet to her newest role as director of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, an 18-member ensemble that made its debut Friday at the Kennedy Center as part of the ongoing, multi-company "Balanchine Celebration."

At 55, with a legendary career as Balanchine's muse behind her, plus an autobiography and an Oscar-nominated documentary about her, Farrell still insists that "I always live in the present." Sitting in a backstage dressing room between performances, dressed in a long black skirt and tan blazer, her hair hanging free, she speaks enthusiastically of being "very happy with what's going on in my life--that it's taken off in this direction. I love it."

And she should: Reviews of her company have been generally rapturous, a two-week Kennedy Center engagement is already set for next fall, and a related tour is being planned.

Farrell's relationship with the Kennedy Center dates to 1993, when she was invited to teach master classes to teenage students from the Washington and Baltimore areas as part of the center's education program. Three years later, as her annual classes expanded to include students nationwide, she staged performances with a corps from the Washington Ballet and international guest artists to help celebrate the Kennedy Center's 25th anniversary.

The success of those performances led the center to sponsor "Suzanne Farrell Stages the Masters of 20th Century Ballet," a program of works by George Balanchine, Maurice Bejart and Jerome Robbins that played the Kennedy Center and nine cities on the East Coast in 1999.

"There was a wonderful response to that work and a desire both on Suzanne's part and the Kennedy Center's part to continue," recalls Derek E. Gordon, vice president of the center's education division. "To that end we are again serving as producer for the performances [by her company] that are part of the 'Balanchine Celebration.'

"As to where it will all end, we are approaching it with great optimism," he says. Farrell and Gordon agree that, in her words, "There's never been any plan or campaign to start a company. There's an ongoing relationship and support--that's what's making it happen."

After Dancing, Familiar Surroundings

During her dancing career at New York City Ballet, Farrell staged just one ballet for another company--Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony" for the Kirov--but discovered she enjoyed the process. "It prolonged my life as a dancer, even though I wasn't dancing," she said. "It gave me an afterlife with the same dynamics, atmosphere and surroundings I preferred to work in."

However, she quickly encountered drawbacks: "You get close to dancers when you work on a ballet because you're asking them to be vulnerable. I enjoyed that, but I did not often get to see them again. You teach a ballet, you see the premiere and you say, 'It's been wonderful,' but you don't get to go back. Having a group of my own allows me to work through the process of staging a ballet, putting it on, coming back in a couple of months or maybe even a year and making it grow.

"That's how I grew. You truly learn how to dance only out on stage in front of an audience, when you have just one chance. You learn what's good to keep and what's not good to keep.

"So it never occurred to me to have my own company until I had a few dancers and put on this ["Masters of 20th Century Ballet"] show at the Kennedy Center last year. And then I said, 'I like this.' I liked the dancers I worked with. I liked being so involved in ballet. It was the same as being a dancer, where you take class, rehearse, perform. That intense all-day-long work.

"I'm no different now than I have been all my life. This is what I do."

She laughs.

"This is the only thing I know how to do."

The ongoing question in the dance world, however, is why she's doing it at the Kennedy Center, rather than at Lincoln Center, the home of New York City Ballet. The answer isn't cheery or even completely clear. In 1993 (the same year she began teaching at the Kennedy Center), Farrell was fired as a NYCB ballet coach, officially for financial reasons.

However her dismissal came too soon after the New Yorker published an interview with her implicitly critical of the company's director, Peter Martins (her former dancing partner), for the matter to be chalked up purely to company budgetary problems.

A Deep Understanding of Balanchine's Style

Farrell, however, refuses to look back, except to comment that "New York City as Balanchine's company was different. And that's the company I belonged to." She also declines to discuss changes in the company since Balanchine's death in 1983. "I don't know what the differences are now because I don't go," she says.

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