Holding onto the Air: An Autobiography — Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley

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What happened in Suzanne Farrell’s life was George Balanchine so Holding onto the Air: An Autobiography is the story of her relationship with Mr. B.  Roberta Sue Ficker was a talented young Ohio dancer in a family of ability, ambition, an absent father and a mother who struggled to bring up three girls to succeed in the arts. When Suzanne was fifteen, her mother moved the entire family to New York so her daughter could audition for SAB, the School of American Ballet that trains dancers for the New York City Ballet. Balanchine was making history in his reign at NYCB and he singled out young Suzanne as a romantic obsession and muse.

Farrell was a great dancer in a company of superb dancers but you don’t hear much about the rest—the entire story is a recounting of the extraordinary ballets Balanchine made on her, the pursuit of the teenage prodigy by a brilliant much older Mr. B., married to his fourth wife and former balletic muse Tanaquil le Clercq, and Farrell’s exultation and confusion at the laser beam of attention.

She is kind to Balanchine and not snippy about the other dancers, although her status as Balanchine’s favorite seemed to remove her from much interaction with the rest of the company. There were the exacting and daring solos, the hours of pas de deux rehearsals with celebrated partners, the post-performance noshes and debriefs with Balanchine at late-night diners on the Upper West Side, the world at her much-abused and very fabulous feet.

Hers was an amazing life and career, atypical for a dancer and graced by the fixation of the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century. Holding onto the Air is a fascinating read that would be helped by some familiarity with the rigors and language of ballet—there’s a lot of insider information that benefits from context.

Farrell and Balanchine had a falling out when she married a dancer from the company who was subsequently fired. She and her husband moved to Europe for a time to find work but Farrell eventually returned to a more subdued but no less artistically rich collaboration with Balanchine. She danced with New York City Ballet until 1989 when injuries forced her retirement. Balanchine was dead six years by then but his legacy had become her life and her art long before. She was as much his creation as his muse and her story is a glimpse inside a world beyond the ken of mere mortals, where lives seem fated and elevated by the gods.

Holding On to the Air: An Autobiography   Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley  University Press of Florida  2002

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