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Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse

Posted by acdtest on March 8, 2003

Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse

aving gone without sleep all night, and unable to fall asleep the following day (yesterday), I went surfing desperately through the few TV channels left me (my cable company finally caught on that, through an oversight on their part, they were providing me way more channels than I was paying for) trying to find something, anything, at least halfway not idiotic to pass the time, and perhaps lull me to sleep. And — mirabile dictu! — I happened into the opening (on PBS’s WNYE) of Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse, a superb, Oscar-nominated (1997), almost-two-hour-long 1996 documentary film unknown to me tracing the career of the celebrated New York City Ballet prima ballerina, and narrated on-camera by the then 51-year-old Miss Farrell herself.

Even though she’s 51 and afflicted with arthritis (most prominently apparent in her hands), one’s attention is arrested immediately by the still beautiful face, and by an astonishingly lithe, tall, and elegantly willowy figure that would lead one instantly to conclude that this woman could be nothing other than a great ballerina even were one totally ignorant of just who Suzanne Farrell might be.

And what a story she has to tell! In a manner almost brutally frank, Miss Farrell begins by leading the viewer through her first days as tomboy Roberta Sue Ficker, born 1945 in Cincinnati, where she began ballet studies at age twelve at the city’s Conservatory of Music, and there showed such precocity in her development she was accepted, in 1960 at age fifteen, at the legendary George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. A year later, at Balanchine’s own invitation, she joined him at the New York City Ballet where, after just two years, and through one of those classic happy accidents (i.e., happy for the newcomer), she replaced the then reigning prima ballerina (who had become incapacitated by virtue of becoming pregnant) in the prima role in the new, and never-before-performed Stravinsky-Balanchine ballet, Movements for Piano and Orchestra.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And quite a remarkable history it is, too. At this remove, one is almost tempted to say it was surely a case of life imitating art so uncannily does it seem to parallel in certain telling respects the story told in that now-classic 1948 epic British film on the ballet life, The Red Shoes. But this story is, if anything, even more engrossing, and Miss Farrell’s affecting, and at times painful, narration is extended and made richer and more vivid by the candid commentary of several other of the leading players, most of them dancers themselves, as well as by a generous measure of archival film footage of a number of rehearsals with Balanchine himself (he died in 1983), and of actual performances.

If this stunning documentary ever plays at a PBS station near you, ink it into your day’s schedule. Or better yet, if you’ve the equipment, buy the VHS or DVD (the boxing for both the VHS and DVD editions erroneously indicates 1990 as the date of the film, but the film is copyrighted 1996). It will provide you two of the most worthwhile hours you’ll ever spend in front of the tube.

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