There is a little-known and ironic connection between revered American ballerina Suzanne Farrell and the National Ballet of Canada. Farrell made her illustrious name by being the quintessential muse for legendary choreographer George Balanchine at New York City Ballet. Yet a few months before she went to Balanchine's School of American Ballet in 1960, Farrell had auditioned for Toronto's National Ballet School and had been turned down for a scholarship.
In her 1990 autobiography Holding on to the Air, Farrell quotes from Celia Franca's rejection letter that included complaints about her posture, sway-back and lack of ballet basics, although she was deemed talented and her good legs and feet were acknowledged. In 1969, when Farrell was a guest artist with the National Ballet of Canada on a very lucrative contract, she took great delight in reminding Franca that "there was a time when you could have had me for free."
That contract was the beginning of Farrell's warm relationship with the National, first as a guest artist and, after her retirement as a dancer with NYCB in 1989, as a stager of Balanchine works for the company. Her current project for the National is the one nearest to her heart. When the National gives Balanchine's 1965 Don Quixote its Canadian premiere on Friday, the company will be performing the work that not only made Farrell a star, but also put a very private relationship between the choreographer and the dancer onto the public stage.
The ballet, in truth, depicts a real-life love story. Balanchine performed the aging Don in the original production. His search for his impossible dream, his ideal, his Dulcinea, represents his obsession with the then 19-year-old Farrell, 42 years his junior. Says Farrell: "Composer Nicholas Nabokov, who did the score for the ballet, took me aside one rehearsal and said that Mr. B had held off on creating the ballet all these years because he had never found his Dulcinea - until he found me."
On the creative side of things, the Farrell/Balanchine symbiosis produced more than 20 original ballets. Nonetheless, this love affair between an experienced, urbane older man and an innocent and devout Catholic girl almost drove her to suicide, cost her her position as principal dancer, curtailed the dance career of her husband and caused an estrangement with her mother. In short, the relationship between Farrell and Balanchine is one of ballet's great legends.
Farrell was born Roberta Sue Ficker in 1945 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the youngest of three girls. Once her ambitious stage mother had shed their father, Mama Ficker was determined that her daughters, through music and ballet lessons, would follow in the footsteps of other Cincinnati girls who had made good such as Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Doris Day.
When NYCB principal dancer Diana Adams was scouting talent for Ford Foundation scholarships, she thought young Roberta Sue had potential and suggested she audition for the company's school. Mama Ficker packed up the family and moved them to New York, where Farrell auditioned for Balanchine himself and was granted the scholarship. And so began what she calls "her majestic service to the dance."
After just a few months at the school, Farrell, just 16, was invited to join the company. She explains the name change that appeared on her first contract. "Somehow I felt I needed a stage name, but one that began with my last initial. Suzanne came from my middle name, and I toyed with Freed after the point-shoe maker, and Ford after the Foundation, until I found Farrell in the phone book."
Within a year, she was performing leading roles, and in 1963, Balanchine created Meditation for Farrell. In 1965 came Don Quixote and that year Farrell was made a principal dancer.
"When I was young," she says, "I had to walk with the weight of the world on my shoulders." The young dancer was truly in love with Balanchine, but she was determined not to follow in the long line of ballerinas, four in fact, who had been his muses and later Mrs. B.
Farrell felt guilt over the fact that Balanchine was married to Tanaquil Le Clercq, a brilliant ballerina who had been tragically stricken with polio at the age of 27. Although Farrell and Balanchine spent hours in each other's company, even vacationing in Europe together, she has said the romance was never sexually consummated, but instead their love was fulfilled through the passionate and intense act of choreographic creation.
Because of her relationship with Balanchine, Farrell was marginalized in the company. One of her few friends was fellow dancer Paul Mejia. When the two married in 1969, Farrell's mother refused to talk to the couple. Apparently, she would have preferred Farrell to be Balanchine's wife, or failing that, his mistress. The two were forced out of the company and spent the next year scrambling for engagements until they joined Maurice Béjart's Brussels-based Ballet du Xxe. Siècle.
In 1975, Farrell returned to Balanchine. Her body craved his dances. Mejia was not hired back and became a choreographer and artistic director with regional ballet companies. The couple finally divorced in 1997. Farrell cites geographical distance as the cause of the breakup, although they remain good friends.
The Don Quixote revival is a co-production between the National and the Susan Farrell Ballet Company, which is based at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The elaborate costumes were built by the National's wardrobe department. Farrell's company, which included National dancers, first performed the work in 2005 in both Washington and at the Edinburgh Festival.
Balanchine's Don Quixote, unlike Petipa's Russian warhorse version which reduces Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to a subplot, is absolutely true to the lofty philosophical and symbolic core of Cervantes's original novel. Says Farrell: "Initially, I got the book and tried to read it, but I was just a teenager and it was daunting. I was really having trouble understanding my character. Finally, Mr. B told me to come to all the rehearsals of scenes that didn't involve me, and I would see the world I'd be living in. That's how I got my understanding of Dulcinea. The ballet is about life being precious, and every moment being important."
For National dancers Sonia Rodriguez, who danced Dulcinea in Washington in 2005, and Heather Ogden, who is Dulcinea in Toronto, the ballet can't help but be informed by the Farrell/Balanchine relationship. Says Rodriguez: "They were soulmates and this ballet is what they created together. What Balanchine tries to show in challenging movement is a dark vision of life." Ogden adds: "Dulcinea is sad and tough, but there is a dependency between her and Don Quixote. They care for each other and inspire each other. Their love is coming from a place of purity."
Don Quixote was one of Balanchine's most controversial ballets. Critics and audiences who associated the master with his neoclassical, abstract dances inspired by music were unprepared for a psychologically opaque, three-act story ballet that showed a previously unseen religious and mystical side of Balanchine. For Farrell, Mr. B's complex masterpiece was never really given its due during its 13-year performance history.
In fact, before the Kennedy Center revival, Don Quixote had not been staged since a dispirited Balanchine withdrew it from the NYCB repertoire in 1978. Says Farrell: "The creation of Don Quixote was his life's dream, and I believe Mr. B. left me the ballet in his will to safeguard it. I knew one day it should and would be remounted. I was just waiting for the time when the world was ready to see it again."
Don Quixote runs at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto from Friday until June 24. (416-345-9595).