Elusive Muse

There was a moment in tonight's 2 hour talk with Suzanne Farrell at the New York Public Library where Suzanne was laughing, the audience was laughing, and the ice finally seemed broken. Suzanne was recounting how Mr. B taught them to dance, and she quoted him as saying, "You know, you're not only dancing for your mother." It was a fun, witty remark from the always-witty Mr. B. The audience (packed full of veteran dance enthusiasts and current dancers like Gillian Murphy) loved it.

I wish their had been more moments like that in what was otherwise a painfully awkward, unilluminating two hours. For one, the interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, had absolutely no rapport with Suzanne and seemed stuck to his cue cards all night. His interviewing style takes much like James Lipton of The Actors' Studio -- very starchy, dry, pretentious.

Suzanne, on the flip side, also seemed determined to stick to a script. She was careful to never mention the personal relationship between her and Mr. B (whom she referred to as "Mr. B", instead of "George" as she's done in previous interviews). She focused only on their professional partnership and did not discuss his marriage proposal, her elopement with Paul Meijia, her temporary split from New York City Ballet in 1970, or her final split from New York City Ballet in 1993 when Peter Martins fired her. One of the most painful things was Holdengräber asking Suzanne to "explain" pictures he put up on the screen. The answers Suzanne gave were alternately blank ("That's a posed shot of us before the State Theater opening") or impersonal (when shown pictures of her dancing Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Arthur Mitchell Suzanne said "he's a fun guy.")

Alexei Ratmansky submitted two questions which Holdengräber read. One question was about which steps Balanchine changed for Suzanne, and Suzanne answered that even though moving to the State Theater meant dancers had to dance "bigger," Balanchine was pretty adamant about steps. The second Ratmansky question was what Balanchine thought of Soviet companies in the 1960's, to which Suzanne responded "Well, you'd have to ask him." Holdengräber seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Maurice Bejart's ballets, and asked Suzanne why they weren't more popular in the U.S. "Well, the U.S. and Europe were very different in the 1970's," was Farrell's flat answer.

A few more probing questions seemed to make Suzanne shut down even more. For instance when Holdengräber asked whether Suzanne felt "left out" when she saw the 1972 Stravinsky Festival she calmly but cooly said "No, I live in the now, and my now was in Europe with Bejart." The moment I think Holdengräber was going for also went off without any spark. He showed Suzanne a picture of her dancing Diamonds with Peter Martins. The audience gasped. But her response: "That's Diamonds with Peter Martins. It was originally choreographed for me and Jacque d'Amboise." She then switched the topic into a little thing about the creation of Diamonds. When Holdengräber showed Farrell a series of pictures from Don Quixote, Farrell again didn't have much to say about the pictures. And there probably wasn't much to say: a few were posed publicity shots. When asked about whether she read the Cervantes' novel, Farrell says she tried but never made it through because she "couldn't find her character." Well. That's that I guess.

The highlights for the audience might have been the dancing clips they showed. There was the Meditation, which, although not even C-list Balanchine (IMO) did show off the stunning beauty of the young Farrell. There was a clip of Davidsblündertänze and Farrell and d'Amboise had aged visibly but they were still astonishing in the sheer sweep of their dance. But for some reason Farrell seemed unenthusiastic about the clips, and was complaining about how the choreography had to be modified for the tiny TV studios.

There were a few interesting moments. Suzanne said that she once saw a cabaret dancer slink slowly to the footlights with her eyes closed, and then snapped her eyes open to the whole house. She thought it was a simple but effective trick and she said she incorporated the same stage trick into Union Jack. Another was about how she once ran after Stravinsky like a gushing fangirl. She had some genuinely warm words for her long-time partner Jacque d'Amboise. And Suzanne is still beautiful. The hair is now worn short and curly, the posture has slumped a little, but her saucer eyes and big overbite smile are as enchanting as ever.

But overall the evening was a disappointment. It was like one of those political debates where both candidates stick to talking points all night. I thought that after an hour of the scripted questions, maybe they'd ask the audience to submit questions. (That has been the format for most Q&A sessions I've attended.) But nope. It was Holdengräber all the way. Also after most Q&A sessions many of the guest speakers stick around and talk to the audience. Suzanne instead disappeared behind a screen and left. She was an Elusive Muse to the very end.

When I got home I found this short but delightful clip of Suzanne Farrell on Sesame Street. It was a palliative after the 100th "I live in the now" and "What's more real than being onstage?"

And I know many dancers are surprisingly withdrawn in real life but I also found this interview of the quirky Allegra Kent and look at how much more spontaneous it is:


  1. Excellent analysis

  2. I was just browsing on your site and clicked on Suzanne Farrell, my idol. Indeed sounds like a bizarre evening with little spontaneity or glimpses of what she really thinks/feels. I saw her in a similar interview format in Boston many years ago although I think she was less stilted than what you describe. The Sesame Street clip is a gem. I really wonder what Farrell will do next.


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