FARRELL, SUZANNE (Roberta Sue Ficker) (1945– ) Dancer
The final muse of master choreographer George Balanchine, Suzanne Farrell was born Roberta Sue Ficker on August 16, 1945, in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. The youngest of three sisters, she began her ballet training at eight at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. When she was 14, she was spotted by a talent scout from the prestigious School of American Ballet and invited to New York to audition for Balanchine. In 1960, Ficker was one of 12 students to earn a Ford Foundation scholarship to the school.
In less than a year, Ficker joined the corps of the New York City Ballet, directed by Balanchine. She soon began calling herself Suzanne Farrell, a name she found in the phone book. Within months, Farrell was dancing leading roles and emerging as one of Balanchine’s favorites. In Mediation (1963), he created the first of many roles especially for Farrell. Two years later, she was named a principal dancer of the company, an event Balanchine celebrated by creating the evening-long ballet Don Quixote, in which he danced opposite Farrell.
The work was seen by many as a commentary on Balanchine and Farrell’s increasingly intimate relationship. Entranced by Farrell’s drive and talent, Balanchine worked closely with the dancer, developing an almost telepathic communication with her. He often made only the vaguest suggestion to Farrell, which she then translated into the movement he was looking for. Balanchine also admired Farrell’s body type, calling her his Stradivarius because she was the perfect instrument for his choreography. Tall, beautiful, and long-limbed, Farrell was extremely strong yet could convey an impression of delicacy ideal for communicating Balanchine’s romantic sensibility.
Balanchine had a history of marrying his favorite ballerinas—four in all—but with Farrell he had only a working relationship. Still, members of his company referred to her as the “fifth Mrs. B,” with a strong whiff of jealousy. Farrell earned the resentment of more veteran dancers as she won coveted roles in ballets such as Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966), Jewels (1967), and Metastasis & Pithoprakta (1968). In February 1969, Farrell married fellow company member Paul Mejia. When Mejia began losing good roles, the couple became convinced that he was being punished by the possessive Balanchine. In May, they issued an ultimatum: If Mejia was not cast in a leading role in the ballet’s Spring Gala Benefit, they would both leave the New York City Ballet. Mejia lost the role, and they resigned, beginning the period Farrell would come to refer to as her “banishment.”After appearing as a guest dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, Farrell joined the Ballet of the Twentieth Century in 1970. As part of this innovative Brussels-based company led by Maurice Béjart, she toured Europe and the Middle East.
Although she was the ballet’s star, she missed her collaboration with Balanchine. In 1974, she wrote him, asking to return to the New York City Ballet. They were reunited the next year, and quickly Farrell reestablished herself as the company’s prima ballerina. During the next eight years, Farrell originated lead roles in many of Balanchine’s late masterworks, including Tsigane (1975), Chaconne (1976), and Mozartiana (1981). In 1982, she danced in Variations for Orchestra, the last work Balanchine choreographed before his death in 1983.
Farrell continued to dance for the New York City Ballet, now under the direction of her frequent dance partner Peter Martins. In 1983, they made their last appearance together in the 1,000th performance of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.Many declared Farrell’s career was over four years later, when she had hip replacement surgery. To her fans’ delight, months of grueling therapy allowed her to return to the stage in 1988. She continued to perform until her health forced her to retire the following year.
Farrell has since become a respected teacher with the New York City Ballet and the School of the American Ballet. In 2000, she began working with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on a touring show titled, “Suzanne Farrell Stages the Masters of Twentieth Century Ballet,” featuring works by Balanchine, Béjart, and Jerome Robbins. The same year, she became the director of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, an 18-member ensemble that made its debut at the Kennedy Center’s “Balanchine Celebration.” In an interview with Dance Magazine, she revealed how much shecontinues to rely on the lessons learned from her mentor: “I still ask Balanchine for guidance. . . . Balanchine was always there for me—in a way, he choreographed my life.”
Daniel, David. “Farrell, Suzanne.” International Encyclopedia of Dance, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen, vol. 2, pp. 376–378. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Farrell, Suzanne, with Toni Bentley. Holding on to the Air. New York: Summit Books, 1990.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Balanchine Library: Davidsbundlertanze (1981). Elektra/Asylum, VHS, 1995.
The Balanchine Library; The Prodigal Son/Chaconne (1978). Elektra/Asylum, VHS, 1995.
The Balanchine Library: Selections from Jewels and Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1977). Elektra/Asylum, VHS, 1996.