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Suzanne Farrell: She shaped new generation of dancers

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

As a child growing up in Mount Healthy in the 1950s, Roberta Sue Ficker was a tomboy who 'always thought I'd be a clown.'

At home, she hammed it up with her two older sisters in frequent backyard variety shows. Many afternoons, she and a girlfriend would spend hours hanging from rafters, balancing on beams and walking through giant sewer pipes in subdivision construction sites - often returning home with 'scabby knees, scabby elbows and frequent bloody noses.'

'I was always dirty, always up a tree,' she recalled. 'Mother thought ballet lessons might channel a little of this energy.'

Mother certainly knew best.

Roberta Sue began ballet lessons at age 8 at the College Conservatory of Music in Mount Auburn, and on her 15th birthday in 1960, was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious American Ballet School, George Balanchine's preparatory school for the world-renowned New York City Ballet. The following year, she became its youngest member, and at 19, its youngest principal dancer after winning acclaim as Dulcinea in Balanchine's 'Don Quixote' - dancing with the Russian-born Balanchine himself on opening night.

The name on the program, however, was Suzanne Farrell - a name Roberta Sue picked out of the phone book, thinking it sounded elegant.

For the next quarter century, the doe-eyed, long-legged Ms. Farrell was the ballet world's embodiment of lyrical elegance, thrilling audiences with transcendent performances that pushed back the limits of dance. Compared to even her most admired contemporaries, she seemed to remain en pointe a bit longer, glide through the air farther, pirouette faster, with movements so crisply precise that, in the effusive praise of one critic, 'they seem to have been captured by strobe photography.'

Along the way, Ms. Farrell became the quintessential Balanchine ballerina - supple, strong, achingly graceful, alternately innocent and sensual. Her 5-foot, 7-inch frame - a height that, during her early years in Cincinnati, forced her to dance boys' parts in class recitals - matched Balanchine's ideal of the perfect dancer: long neck, arms and legs, small head, and a beautiful heart-shaped face with creamy, unblemished skin.

'She is my muse,' said Balanchine, who built two dozen ballets around Ms. Farrell - of the more than 100 she danced in 2,000 performances - and used her to illustrate his technique before the legendary Bolshoi Ballet in Russia. 'Suzanne has a phenomenal presence. Her soul is in her eyes.'

Repeating a pattern with his proteges, Balanchine fell in love with the 'alabaster princess,' undeterred by their 41-year age difference and the fact that he already was married - to his fifth wife.

Their notorious romantic pas de deux had catastrophic consequences both for Ms. Farrell's career and personal life, producing at one point a five-year professional estrangement. The relationship also spawned clashes within the New York company, causing some dancers - angry at Balanchine's favoritism - to leave.

Although Balanchine proposed, when Ms. Farrell did get married in February 1969, it was to Paul Mejia, a Peruvian-born dancer two years her junior who also was a soloist with the New York City Ballet (they have since divorced). Balanchine retaliated by curtailing Mejia's performance schedule, precipitating a showdown that prompted Ms. Farrell and her husband to resign - rashly, as she soon learned.

Despite being one of ballet's luminaries, she found it difficult to secure work, as other ballet companies were reluctant to hire her for fear of alienating Balanchine. Ms. Farrell and Mejia finally moved to Europe to join Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels, where they stayed for four years.

Then, in 1974, a warm note from Ms. Farrell to Balanchine thawed the iciness, and their extraordinary collaboration - one in which they, in her words, 'broke one rule after the other . . . to discover a whole new place to inhabit' - picked up where it had left off. She rejoined the NYCB and over the next decade, delivered some of her most memorable performances, many of them opposite the incomparable Peter Martins.

Like other ballerinas, Ms. Farrell battled nearly constant pain throughout her career. By the time she reached her late 30s, the aching muscles and sprained ankles had progressed to debilitating leg and knee injuries that forced her to stop dancing and to use a cane to walk.

In 1987, at age 41, she had a successful hip replacement that allowed her to return to the stage - when no one, not even her doctors, believed she could.

Partnered with Martins, she gave her farewell performance in November 1989. When it ended, the audience was not ready to say good-bye to one of history's premier prima ballerinas, calling her back for endless curtain calls and showering her with 5,000 white roses.

'I felt like Cinderella at the ball, and I had been there all my life,' she said.

As the thunderous 12-minute standing ovation roared on, Ms. Farrell glanced toward the stage's wings at the New York State Theater, where Balanchine - who died in 1983 - had watched her on so many nights.

'I did, of course, think of Mr. B,' she said. 'My last bow will always be to him.'

After retiring, Ms. Farrell had a second hip replacement - a necessity she attributes as much to heredity (her father has two false hips) as the rigors of her profession.

Now living in New York City, she travels the world staging ballets under the auspices of the Balanchine Trust, which oversees productions of his works. She also runs ballet workshops and has coached some of the world's most famous ballet troupes, including Russia's Kirov Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet.

Even as she helps shape a new generation of dancers, Ms. Farrell already has left an indelible legacy.

'Farrell reinvented the look of the ballerina,' a reviewer once wrote.

'No female dancer today is untouched by that look, whether she knows it or not.'

Publication date: 04-19-99

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