Suzanne Farrell

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Suzanne Farrell
Suzanne Farrell 1965c.jpg
Farrell in 1965
Born Roberta Sue Ficker
(1945-08-16) August 16, 1945 (age 71)
Cincinnati, Ohio, United States
Nationality American
Alma mater School of American Ballet
Occupation Ballerina; dance teacher
Years active 1960–1989
Known for Dance career

Kennedy Center Honors (2005)

Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005)
Farrell in 1965

Suzanne Farrell (born August 16, 1945) is an American ballerina and the founder of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Farrell began her ballet training at the age of eight. In 1960, she received a scholarship to the renowned School of American Ballet. Her first leading roles in ballets came in the early 1960s. A muse of George Balanchine, she severed ties with him in the early 1970s, moving to Brussels and dancing with the Ballet of the XXth Century.

In 1975, Farrell moved back to the United States, where she collaborated with Balanchine until his death in 1983; she retired from ballet six years later after a hip surgery she had due to arthritis. Farrell had an unusually long career as a ballet performer, and since her retirement in 1989 has acted as a teacher in numerous prestigious ballet schools. She held a teaching position with the New York Ballet until 1993, and has been a professor of dance at Florida State University since 2000; the same year, she founded her own company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which announced in 2016 that it would be disbanding at the end of 2017.

The recipient of several honorary degrees, Farrell remains well-known and respected in the world of ballet and has been recognized for her influence on dance with several awards and honors, including Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the latter being the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Early life[edit]

Farrell was born Roberta Sue Ficker in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 16, 1945. She received her early training at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She took multiple forms of dance, preferring tap to ballet as she liked to "hear her own movements."[this quote needs a citation] She was the tallest by far in her ballet classes and always played the male roles (leads, but never a female part). She also never got to wear the "lovely dresses, skirts, gowns and tutus."[this quote needs a citation] This led to her having animosity towards ballet at first. She started pointe late as her feet grew so long, it took a while for her to find shoes that fit. Her left foot was crushed and permanently damaged as a child from being stomped on by a horse. In 1960 she was selected to study at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet with a Ford Foundation scholarship. In 1961, she joined the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and became Balanchine's muse for many of his choreographed dances. Farrell has danced in more than 2,000 performances and is the founder of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.


Early career at NYCB[edit]

Initially part of the corps de ballet at NYCB, Farrell soon moved on to dancing featured roles. The first ballet choreographed for her was Passage, now Arcade, by John Taras in 1963. Balanchine first paired her with Jacques d'Amboise to choreograph his Meditation, which debuted in Winter 1963. One of her most notable roles was Dulcinea in Balanchine's Don Quixote, which premiered in May 1965; Balanchine's creation of that ballet was thought[who?] to be a valentine to his newest "muse", and Balanchine performed in the role of Don Quixote on opening night.[1] In 1968, he cast her as the lead in the "Diamonds" section of his three-act plotless ballet Jewels.

She re-scaled many ballets and expanded them to a new level of technique.[2] In 1965, she was promoted to principal dancer. Her first role in her new title was Agon with Arthur Mitchell at the Paris Opera. George Balanchine quickly fell in love with his "alabaster princess" and created many roles for her. Farrell described learning choreography from Balanchine as a collaborative process, saying, "When Mr. B was working on a ballet, something would just spill out of his body; he could rarely duplicate it, so I tried to see precisely what he wanted the first time."[3]

Balanchine was married to the polio-stricken former ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, however, and Farrell was a Catholic. Though Balanchine divorced LeClerq to pursue Farrell, she instead married fellow dancer Paul Mejia.[4] This caused the relationship of Farrell and Balanchine to be horribly severed. There was nothing but tension between them, and finally Farrell and husband Mejia left the company.[5]

Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine in Don Quixote

She and her husband later joined the European company "Ballet of the XXth Century" of the French choreographer Maurice Béjart, based in Brussels. With this company she danced leading roles, some created for her, for four years, exploring a style/choreography completely different from Balanchine. She eventually returned to Balanchine and the New York City Ballet in 1975. Balanchine continued to create new ballets for her, such as Chaconne, Mozartiana, Tzigane and Davidsbundlertanze. Farrell also found herself often paired with the Dane, Peter Martins, who would eventually become a muse to inspire Balanchine as well and compose his own works inspired from Balanchine. Her partnership with Balanchine lasted until his death in April 1983; his last works were solos for Farrell. Farrell retired from the New York City Ballet at age 44 on November 26, 1989—or rather, Martins fired her once he became the sole Ballet-Master-in-Chief. She performed Sophisticated Lady and Vienna Waltzes. Farrell gave her final bow at State Theater with Lincoln Kirstein by her side.[1]

Career as a dance teacher[edit]

She had an unusually long performing career for a ballerina. Twenty-eight years of an occupation which takes a tremendous physical toll on the body began to come to an end in 1983. She started to develop arthritis in her right hip and despite two years of varied treatments, by 1985 (at the age of 40), her career on stage was almost over. She struggled for several years but retired from performing in 1989.

She then moved on to passing on the ballets of Balanchine to the next generation of ballet dancers, working with famed companies around the world, such as those in Berlin and Vienna, as well as the Paris Opera Ballet, Kirov Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet. In 1993, the New York City Ballet dismissed her from her teaching position with the company.[6] In 2000, Farrell became a professor in the Dance Department at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.[2]

Career at the Kennedy Center[edit]

In 2000, Suzanne Farrell started her own company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, now a full-fledged company produced by the Kennedy Center.

Farrell's engagement with the Kennedy Center began in 1993 and 1994, when the Center offered two series of ballet master classes for students with Farrell. This series provided intermediate-to-advanced level ballet students, ages 13 to 17, an opportunity to study with one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. Due to the uniqueness of Farrell's place in the ballet world and the quality of her teaching, the Kennedy Center expanded the program to a national level in 1995, in order to fulfill the Center's mission to enhance the arts education of America's young people. Farrell's students learned to "turn up the technicolor in [their] movement", in order to achieve greater amplification in their dancing.[3] This three weeks' long yearly initiative of intense study grew into a full-fledged program, Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell.

In the fall of 1999, Farrell received critical acclaim for the successful Kennedy Center engagement and East Coast tour of Suzanne Farrell Stages the Masters of 20th-century Ballet. Following the Kennedy Center's debut, the newly named Suzanne Farrell Ballet, a group of professional dancers hand selected by Farrell, has since performed at the Kennedy Center during engagements in 2001 and 2002, been on an extensive East Coast tour, and returned to the Kennedy Center as part of the 2003–2004 Ballet Season following a seven-week national tour. Suzanne Farrell was selected as one of the five recipients of the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors, one of the highest honors for lifetime artistic achievement.

In 2007, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet formalized the creation of the Balanchine Preservation Initiative. This initiative introduces lost or rarely seen Balanchine works to audiences. As a result, ballets like Ragtime (Balanchine/Stravinsky), Pithoprakta (Balanchine/Xenakis) and Divertimento Brillante (Balanchine/Glinka) were recreated and performed.[7]

Despite positive reviews and an annual budget ranging from $1-$1.4 million, the Center announced in September 2016 that the Company would be disbanding at the end of the 2017 performance season. Deborah Rutter, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, noted that the Center would be undergoing a new expansion project to include additional performance and rehearsal space. Farrell's new role in the organization remains unclear, however, Rutter emphasized that Farrell would continue to be an "artistic partner" at the Center.[8]


  • "I'm thought of as a cool dancer, but I'm certainly not. As soon as I hear music, something in me starts to vibrate."
  • "There is pain and sacrifice in everyone's world. That's why, when I was dancing, I had no pain."
  • "When you are on stage, you don't see faces. The lights are in your eyes and you see just this black void out in front of you. And yet you know there is life out there, and you have to get your message across."
  • "Of course, in the art class, I was the model."
  • "On the other hand, I think it is wonderful for everyone to take ballet classes, at any age. It gives you a discipline, it gives you a place to go. It gives you some control in your life."
  • "After I stopped dancing, I was unable to listen to beautiful music."
  • "I liked tap, because I liked hearing the results of my movements."
  • "I learned to love dance for its own sake."
  • "When Mr. B first introduced me to Peter, I said: 'Well, at least he's tall.' I did not even think about handsome he was. And he was very handsome."
  • "He [George Balanchine] had worked with dancers whose legs were thinner and went higher and could turn and jump better. I didn't think I excelled in anything at that time. I even asked him, 'What do you see in me?' I thought everyone looked better than I did. He said, 'You moved different; I like the way you move'".
  • "I organized a ballet company from the girls in my ballet class. I called it the NYCB [New York City Ballet] Juniors.... I was twelve and my dancers were ten. I made up nice little dances for them, tutu roles. They would be the snowflakes, and I would be the snowman. I was the boss because I organized the company and I was the tallest. Dance magazine used to publish 'directions' or notations for various dances, and once I deciphered a dance from 'Swan Lake' for my company.
  • "I was a kind of good jack-of-all trades, which could be very dull indeed except for the one thing I did have, probably the thing Diana had seen in Cincinnati: I could move, and if I could incorporate what Balanchine wanted with my movement, it might blossom into something – it could be anything. I think that was interesting to Balanchine. With no image to uphold and no glory in any single area of technique, I never had the debilitating worry that I might lose my strongest point."
  • "I can never hope to make a lot of money. But I only need enough for cat food [she has nine of them] and the apartment. Union stagehands get much more for pushing a button than what most dancers get."
  • "Once I started dancing, I was not the spoiled brat or the rebellious child that I was as a child."


Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell is an initiative of the Kennedy Center Education Department and is made possible in part by the U.S. Department of Education and the Kennedy Center Corporate Fund. Additional support is provided by the Margaret Abell Powell Fund. Suzanne Farrell was prominently featured in Balanchine (2004) a documentary about the life of George Balanchine.


Received the Special Award of Merit in Creative Arts, University of Cincinnati, and Mademoiselle Merit Award, both 1965; Dance Magazine Award, 1976; Mayor Koch's Award of Merit for Arts and Culture, City of New York, 1979; Creative Arts Award Medal for Dance, Brandeis University, and the Spirit of Achievement Award, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, both 1980; Emmy Award for dance performance in "Eight by Adler," 1985; named "Lion of the Performing Arts" by the New York City Public Library, and received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, both 1987; New York State Governor's Arts Award, and Gold Medal, American-Irish Historical Society, both 1988; National Medal of Arts, 2003; 54th Capezio Dance Award, 2005, for her contribution to dance in the United States; has also received the key to the city of Cincinnati. Farrell has been honorary degrees from Georgetown University, Fordham University, Yale University, Notre Dame University, and University of Cincinnati.

President George W. Bush and Laura Bush pose with the Kennedy Center honorees, from left to right, actress Julie Harris, actor Robert Redford, singer Tina Turner, ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell and singer Tony Bennett on December 4, 2005, during the reception in the Blue Room at the White House.

She has also been a tenured professor of dance at Florida State University since 2000, and in 2003, she received the National Medal of Arts.

She was celebrated in 2005 at the Kennedy Center Honors as one of the most influential ballerinas of the 20th century. She also was the 2005 recipient of the Capezio Dance Award. Farrell was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 2009.

In May 2015 Farrell received an Honorary Doctor of Arts from Brandeis University.

See also[edit]

Further reading and viewing[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bentley, Toni (1990). Holding on to the Air. New York: Summit Books. 
  2. ^ a b "Suzanne Farrell". Retrieved March 3, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b Fragos, Emily. "Suzanne Farrell", BOMB Magazine, Fall 2003. Retrieved July 20, 2011.
  4. ^ 1-the Air. New York: Summit Books. 1990. 
  5. ^ Mejia and Farrell were married from 1969 to 1997.
  6. ^ Dunning, Jennifer (August 4, 1993). "City Ballet Breaks Off Its Long Relationship With Suzanne Farrell". The New York Times. Retrieved March 23, 2008. 
  7. ^ "The Suzanne Farrell Ballet". Retrieved August 12, 2012. 
  8. ^ Kaufman, Sarah L.; Kaufman, Sarah L. (2016-09-21). "Suzanne Farrell Ballet to disband in 2017". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-02-09. 

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