A Ballerina's Bow to Her Choreographer

HOLDING ON TO THE AIR: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. By Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley, New York: Summit Books, 322 pp., $19.95

`HOLDING On to the Air'' is Suzanne Farrell's autobiography. Not just the story of a great ballerina, it is also a great romance. Her collaboration with George Balanchine, the choreographer she inspired who in turn made her a star in the New York City Ballet, was all-consuming and passionate. It lasted 20 years and its only physical expression was her dancing. But its emotions were as scintillating and finally as wrenching as those of any love affair.

Farrell's view of Balanchine is adoring but cleareyed, and the more she tells us about him, the more we understand her. Writing with Toni Bentley, another former New York City Ballet dancer, she starts out with her girlhood in Cincinnati.

Suzi Ficker, as she was known before adopting Suzanne Farrell as her stage name, was raised with two sisters, by a poor, but ambitious, divorced mother. The daughters all had ballet lessons. She and a friend used to have turning contests. Farrell reports that she once did 128 fouett'es: those leg-lashing turns the black swan does in ``Swan Lake.'' Thirty-two is usually enough to connote devilish onstage virtuosity. Farrell remarks that with her chum, ``needless to say, quality didn't count after a while.''

She went a long way, fast. At age 15, she won a full scholarship to the School of the American Ballet, Balanchine's school, and when she was 18 he decided she was the Dulcinea he had waited for all his life to choreograph ``Don Quixote.''

But the headlong sincerity and sweetness of Suzi Ficker, the Cincinnati tomboy, pervades the book. The writing can be flatfooted at times, but it becomes brisk, authoritative, and satisfyingly detailed when she describes dancing Balanchine's ballets.

She is so unpretentious we know she is not bragging when she remarks, ``He [Balanchine] had observed by now that I neither perspired nor got out of breath, but in this dance he pushed me over the limits of what I had done previously.'' The dance was ``Don Quixote.'' Doubtless it wasn't just stamina, musicality, and an ability to move fast that made her his Dulcinea. She was also willing to try anything, and he was falling in love with her.

In choreographing her part, Balanchine brought out Farrell's ``off balance'' style, which would become a trademark. She explains, ``When I did a high kick or a fast inside turn I would put so much energy into it that my recovery was not always perfectly `on-balance.' I was unafraid of falling - which was crucial for this kind of attack - and as I scrambled to regain my `center,' Balanchine became intrigued watching my various recovery techniques.''

The resulting choreography flew in the face of balletic convention while being firmly grounded in tradition. It is fascinating to read about how Balanchine found something Farrell could do, pushed and expanded it to serve his choreography, and took her to new heights in her dancing.

It was as if they were living ``Don Quixote.'' Farrell played the role of young muse to an aging but still yearning Quixote. Balanchine even performed the role of Quixote himself.

Their collaboration was to last 20 years, and their love endured more tumults than could be danced in any ballet.

Balanchine was married, and Farrell was a religious girl who respected that relationship. When she became engaged to Paul Mejia, a young New York City Ballet dancer, Balanchine proposed. But Farrell married Mejia, and soon a jealous Balanchine sent them packing.

There is no rancor in her account of the blowup or of her exile for five years in the Belgian company of Maurice Bejart. ``Dancing was our common ground,'' she writes, ``and every time we worked, there was the same sense of discovery, of mutual excitement and respect between us. It was as if our spirits agreed even when our hearts did not.''

When she returned to the company, Balanchine again made new ballets for her, and the dance world rejoiced. But this section of the book moves to a different tempo. Balanchine passed on eight years later. ``After great pain, a formal feeling comes,'' Emily Dickinson wrote, and indeed, it is as if the reader had been politely ushered out of the rehearsal studio and shown to a seat in the audience.

We are not spared the grief. She records last performances, last partnerings, and mourns lost rehearsal time, overshadowing the achievements of those years. It is more distressing than moving to read.

Farrell writes bravely, generously, and well about her other struggles. Perhaps she is still struggling with the loss of Balanchine. It is a measure of the mercurial quality of a life in dance that she is writing her memoirs at an age when others are still waiting to do something memorable.

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