BOSTON — Prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell auditioned for George Balanchine on her 15th birthday. Though he seemed to give her only a passing glance, she was offered a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, and the next year she was invited to join New York City Ballet.
Not long after, Farrell's extraordinary talent began to warrant far more than just a passing glance from the choreographer, and she became Balanchine's muse. Of all the ballerinas who stoked the creative fires of the choreographer's genius, Farrell was one of the last and arguably the greatest. Her long artistic and personal relationship with Balanchine was one of the century's most remarkable creative liaisons - a complicated and fragile pas de deux between one of the the world's greatest ballerinas and the legendary choreographer 42 years her senior.
"Great Performances' Dance in America" series airs Anne Belle's Oscar-nominated "Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse" on PBS beginning Wednesday, June 25, 9-10:30 p.m. (check local listings). It is a must-see documentary for all ballet lovers. Directed by Belle and Deborah Dickson, the documentary is a lively, informative, intimate portrait chronicling Farrell's intense, often stormy relationship with Balanchine, a relationship made all the more exceptional by the fact that it allegedly was never consummated - Farrell was Roman Catholic and the much older Balanchine was still married to Tanaquil LeClerq.
"Our passion came out on the dance floor," Farrell claims with compelling directness.
The film begins with Farrell's early days as a reluctant ballet student in Cincinnati. Born Roberta Sue Ficker, Farrell took to ballet slowly but completely, christening one of the family's armchairs Jacques D'Amboise, for the noted New York City Ballet principal, and using it as her imaginary partner.
Her mother, sensing Farrell's remarkable talent, packed the two for New York. After joining the New York City Ballet, she ultimately became the real-life dance partner of D'Amboise, who was to be a lifelong friend and mentor.
Farrell's big break came as a last-minute replacement for Diana Adams in the world premire of Balanchine's "Movements for Piano and Orchestra," set to Stravinsky's notoriously difficult score. Afterward, Balanchine introduced the ballerina to the composer, saying, "Igor, meet Suzanne Farrell, just been born." When Adams became pregnant, Farrell became Balanchine's muse, the dancer upon whom he created some of his most memorable roles.
The film unfolds through interviews of Farrell herself, remarkably candid and gracious in recounting her own history, as well as eloquent interviews with some of the most important figures in her life - most notably dance partner D'Amboise, choreographer Maurice Bjart, and husband Paul Mejia. Along the way, there are stunning stills and rehearsal/performance footage that showcase Farrell's gift and illumine her special relationship with "Mr. B."
Footage of Balanchine's "Don Quixote," showing a rare performance of Balanchine in the title role with Farrell as Dulcinea, is especially poignant. Farrell called it "our story," a vehicle for expressing some of the feelings they had for each other. There is also a breathtaking clip of Farrell's last performance in "Vienna Waltzes" in 1988, five years after Balanchine's death. As she steps onstage, arms lifted toward an imaginary partner, one can't help imagining Mr. B. in her arms.
It is a powerful story told fairly clearly and in deeply human terms. As Farrell became Balanchine's favorite, she experienced both the euphoria of first love and the loneliness of isolation. "When things seemed bigger than I could handle, ballet became my salvation," she says.
The film details Farrell's marriage to Mejia and the heartbreaking rift with Balanchine that caused her to retire from the company. She danced with Bjart in Brussels for five years before asking back into Balanchine's graces. Despite the subsequent emotional distance between the two, he created some of his greatest roles for her upon her return.
And Farrell continues to carry the torch for Balanchine as one of the foremost experts on staging his work. The dance goes on.