"I don't care if you fall down! Make it interesting!"
You might not expect to hear these words from a classical ballet instructor, but the celebrated Suzanne Farrell is no ordinary teacher -- and by all accounts she was nothing short of extraordinary as a dancer as well.
Farrell made this comment to aspiring young ballet students as they fought to pull off a precarious balance during her recent master class at Cincinnati Ballet. She encourages them to take risks, to live in the moment -- something Farrell has embraced throughout her dancing career and her life.
Soon after she moved to the Big Apple at the tender age of 15 with a scholarship, she joined New York City Ballet and quickly became legendary choreographer George Balanchine's main muse. Her exceptionally long and storied career earned her a Presidential Medal of Honor in the Arts in 2003, Kennedy Center Honors in 2005 as well as widespread critical and popular fame.
Born in Mount Healthy as Roberta Sue Ficker, Farrell is spending time in her hometown for an unprecedented collaboration between Cincinnati Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. The companies are teaming up to restage Balanchine's Chaconne, a technically challenging neoclassical work that debuted in 1976 with Farrell originating a principal role.
Later in November, the combined companies will also perform the piece at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where Farrell's company is based.
Farrell loves to teach, and she's pleased to be back in Cincinnati.
"Ballet is one of the few professions where you return, where you give back to people," she says. "You impart information; it's nothing you can really learn by video or technology. It's a real human being where you pass on from one human being to the next and it's very personal and very fragile."
Farrell possesses an ageless ballerina's delicate, fluid expressiveness offset by elegant, determined strength. Her azure doe-shaped eyes dance with delight, and her arms unfurl with unmistakable grace as she talks about teaching and collaborating.
"Everyone is working very hard and we're having fun," she says. "My dancers and your dancers and ballet dancers, we all are in service to the dance, so that gives us a commonality. But it's amazing -- couple days ago we didn't know each other, and now it's like the culmination of something. It's very wonderful."
About feelings surrounding her experience in restaging Chaconne, she says, "Well, it's nice to rekindle those thoughts. I can't dance much anymore, but I still feel as though I can. I remember how it felt doing those things, but it's not emotional; I have no pangs of you know, wishing....
"If I could have danced forever I would have wanted to because there's nothing like it. But I can't dance like that anymore, and I had my time and now it's their time, so I'm very comfortable. I love working with them, all dancers. I think I love it because I'm not wishing I were out there doing it. You can only be one person and you can only be that person that one time in your life, so now you have to go on and do the best that you were as a dancer in the next phase of what you do."
Being yourself and alive in the moment resonates deeply with Farrell.
Many of the dancers have never seen Chaconne before. She says she'd rather not have them look at videos because she believes it should be them performing; they should come to life.
"Usually after they've learned the ballet, I might show it to the dancers, so they have something, but not to imitate," she says. "You need to be your own self, but the best complete self you can be."
As for advice she would give to dancers-to-be, Farrell says, "Listen to good music; it's what made me want to dance."
She also says you have to live in the moment and you have to learn something of that moment: how to perform a step -- or how not to -- not merely through repetition of what you've done the day before or the moment before, but to take chances to keep progressing.
"We don't have forever," Farrell says. "You can't take forever to learn something because your life as a dancer doesn't have forever. And your body is your instrument so you want to make sure that it doesn't take millions of times to do the steps before you understand it because you're using up your instrument. It's not like a piano you can put in a corner in a climate-controlled room and preserve it. Your body, every time you use it, it gets used. You can't recapture that again, so you need to learn quickly.
"Dance, ballet -- good ballet -- is the most alive way you can be as a human being.
I mention that, like life, dance is by its nature ephemeral.
"Yes. And you'll never have that moment again."
Read on for additional material from the Suzanne Farrell interview at Cincinnati Ballet that wasn't included in the print version of this story.
CityBeat: How does it feel to be back in Cincinnati? Has it been a long time since you've been here?
Suzanne Farrell: It has been a long time. I think I last worked with (Cincinnati Ballet) before (Artistic Director Victoria Morgan) was here.... From the city point of view itís changed a lot because all these highways werenít here when I left as a child. I left just prior to my 15th birthday.
Itís changed a lot, but I have taught in the studio before. Iíve been back here and rehearsed ďDiamondsĒ (from George Balanchineís Jewels) when this company did ďDiamondsĒ in the past. In the early Ď90s you didnít have these wonderful studios. So itís nice to see that dance is thriving here, coming back.
CB: Tell me a little about the process of restaging Chaconne now and the collaboration. How is that process going?
SF: Well, itís a new idea. Now that Iím busy with my company it doesnít offer me many opportunities to go and work with other companies, which I also like to do. So I thought it would be a nice occasion and particularly here in my hometown to work with these dancers. Theyíve done such a wonderful job here in Cincinnati, you know, keeping the Ballet alive.
But just because itís good doesnít mean ... It needs to be better -- the public needs to give it more. Just because you ate one day doesnít mean you donít eat the next day. And as dancers, and when youíre running a company, you know, itís constant nurturing, and dancers have very few wants -- they just want to make people happy. They want to dance.
The work process is interesting, but ultimately you want to give back to a public, and so itís important to always get a new public in addition to keeping the old public. And there are millions of people who havenít seen live ballet. So the idea is to sort of regalvanize them and us and ballet in these cities as well and galvanize the audiences. ... I mean, there are lots of different things to see. You can read a novel twice and get something different out of it.
I respect what they do and I want to help. I love to teach -- all those things -- and give back to Cincinnati.
CB: It's critical to keep passing on the legacy now that so many dances are being lost, to keep it moving forward.
SF: It gets lost. It gets sometimes abandoned because there arenít enough performances to keep on top of it, so itís very fragile.
CB: Talk a little about your teaching style and how it's happening with Chaconne.
SF: I believe very much in Balanchine. He invented a new way of classical dance, and he basically invented it for (and) on American physiques. The speed and the generosity of it. So I very much like that.
But it also is many different styles. Itís not just one style. People say, "Iíd like to take the Balanchine technique." Well, there is not technique in that one kind of sense where itís cut and dry. Itís many different techniques.
Every ballet is a different way of moving and yet theyíre all individually Balanchine. Theyíre unmistakably Balanchine, no one else could do them, but theyíre all different, so they all require a different world. I call them worlds instead of ballets because they all make a different world, and as an audience you should come into that world and feel changed when you leave that world.
In some places (Chaconne) is very fast, in other places the ballet is very slow or whatever. Itís lots of different dynamics.
The nature of my company -- we donít have as long a season as even the Cincinnati Ballet, although we have many performances at the Kennedy Center. So when I take dancers, they have to learn quickly because we donít have long rehearsal periods. ... Itís good because a dancerís life is very short.
CB: What have been the greatest challenges of restaging Chaconne?
SF: My biggest challenge here is having to give the schedule two days in advance. (Laughs.) I just hate that because you donít know how much work youíre gonna do in that day, and sometimes youíre ahead of the game. And then that time in the rehearsal schedule becomes sort of less productive because youíve already accomplished that. Iím not used to doing that, so thatís my biggest challenge. (Laughs.)
And learning the dancers here, because I havenít spent much time with them, so to pick the people that are most suited for the ballet without really having a history with them. A lot of it is size, you know, and those kinds of considerations. I mean, theyíre all fine dancers, but some have to fit into the costumes, things like that.
Today we have fittings for my company, so I was trying to stage the finale, which uses 16 people, 15 people. People were coming and going to fittings so those kinds of things -- theyíre very important, but you canít stop the rehearsal. So thereís a lot of pasting, piecing things together. But it makes everybody I think rally.
And I donít like to have them look at videos because I feel that so much of our life is box-oriented and in the arts we want to, you know, open. (She opens her arms dramatically.) ... I donít like to see a live video on a stage because you donít get the dynamics from a video. I donít like to use those kinds of tools because it should be them, and they should come to life.
CB: What have been some of your favorite or most memorable Balanchine roles, and what made them special?
SF: Naturally all the ballets he did especially for me are very dear to me. I was so fortunate to have so many different ballets to dance. And so I usually say the ballet I was doing at the time was my favorite one at the time. You need to live in the moment. It would be terrible dancing a ballet and wishing you were doing something else.
My favorite ballet was the one I was doing at the moment. Well, you have many moments in your life.
CB: Did you have any idea or sense of things to come when you first met Mr. Balanchine?
SF: You know, weíre staying down at the Garfield Suites, plug, plug. (Laughs.) This somewhat references the first question you asked. My room looks out on the library, and as a young girl growing up here in Cincinnati ... in those days in the early '50s most of the ballet books were from London, from England, from Europe. Ballet in America was still relatively young.
Once I decided I wanted to be a dancer, I would go to that library and get all the ballet books out and look at the pictures and, you know, I was totally respectful of all ballet. I was not political or certain company-oriented, I just looked at pictures and learned what I could, and tried to do what the pictures did.
And one day I came upon some pictures of Balanchine dancers in his Apollo, in very pure, white leotards and skirts and to me their muscles -- not so much the muscles because there was not a lot of muscle -- but the image of the picture just sort of jumped out at me. It was so palpable, and I said, "Thatís the kind of dancer I want to be."
And then I started looking up Balanchine and more about ballet and his works in particular. And those pictures that I saw of Mr. Balanchine, that day of my audition, there was this live picture coming out! So it was a real dream.
CB: Did you always know you wanted to be a dancer?
SF: Once when I first danced at Music Hall ... there was a little bulb in the center of the stage. Everybody else had gone to dinner or something before the performance, and I went out onto the stage and I felt what I call the dust of performers who had been there before, and I said to the world, "I want to be on the stage. ..."
As a young girl I was in, I think the Royal Ballet came once to Music Hall and Ballet Russe came once for Nutcracker and they needed a little girl Clara, so I was chosen to do it. So it was actually when I was in the Kinderconcerts in the early days. And I picked up a splinter from the stage and I put it in my scrapbook and "This is the world I want to be in." And when I made that decision I was just very focused -- not fanatic, but I made my decision. Itís not easy to make a decision, but once you make a decision then it becomes easy.
I have lots of nice memories of Cincinnati. ... It needs to do more!
CB: How would you describe Chaconne?
SF: Well, for the solo couple, thereís a very romantic pas de deux in the beginning. The ballet comes from the opera of Orfeo and Eurydice and so it has a plot of him going and trying to get his Eurydice out from the underworld. He loses her because he looks at her as heís just about ready to get her back into his world. So there is that element in that first pas de deux, although itís not dependent on the story, but it has a mood, an otherworldly quality. And the manners and the dignity that go with that kind of pas de deux ... one is private and one is more human. Itís more celebratory.
The patterns are very interesting. (Some are) from Spanish derivation of steps in three-quarter time with the accent on the second beat. A waltz is three counts also, but the accent is on the first beat, so itís a different kind of timing, and part of the challenge for the dancers is accenting the second count. Itís also a piece of music that Iím sure a lot of musicians donít even know, so they can all come and enjoy it. (Laughs.) Mr. Balanchine was an incredible musician himself. ...
You donít have to come and feel that you have to see something in particular ... and when you come back a second time youíll see something different (laughs) and the third time youíll see something different because as a spectator youíre not the same either.
Cincinnati Ballet presents Chaconne with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Aronoff Center at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.