Tag Archives: Suzanne Farrell

The Master’s Muse – Varley O’Connor

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Varley O’Connor has produced an odd paean to Tanaquil Le Clercq, George Balanchine’s fifth wife, who danced exquisitely and to international acclaim until she was stricken with polio at the age of 27 on the New York City Ballet’s European tour. She never walked again but she survived and rebuilt a life for herself, a life with Balanchine and her own indomitable spirit at its core. The slightly surreal sense you get reading the book is because there is a vibrant, first-person character telling the story who feels absolutely true. The fictionalized Tanny seems like someone it would be refreshing and delightful to know–sophisticated, observant, wry, funny, caring and brave. She isn’t a diva about the tragedy of her useless limbs and lost career, her celebrity, and the people who fawned over her as long as she lived. She is in love with Balanchine, crushed by his eventual public infatuation with Suzanne Farrell, reluctant to divorce him, resolute about getting on with her life.

The dialog is so good I wished it wasn’t invented–although O’Connor lists prodigious research that included many interviews and remembered conversations. The insights about Balanchine, the artist and the man, are so compelling that I hoped they were true. Jerome Robbins is a major character and a fascinating character study. It was a page-turner, not in the sense of constant crisis, although there was that, but as an interesting recollection of lives lived large and in service to great passions. In short, Tanaquil Le Clercq’s life makes a fabulous story and I wanted to be sure the impressions of her I got were the truth. I suppose some were and some weren’t.

But read this book, if you have any interest in the world of classical dance and the process of making performing art. And take away from it that people can survive their most vivid nightmares with grace and determination–and find large and small reasons for gratitude and good humor every day. The cat is a winner. The details of what it is like to deal with even the simplest daily tasks with a disability is instructive. The inspirations for making dance read like the real thing. Pretty good book about a woman who was poised to become one of the biggest and most enduring stars the world of ballet had ever seen–and then matched the demands of that world, and the towering Balanchine, with her energy when her body could no longer keep up with her spirit.

The Master’s Muse: A Novel   Varley O’Connor | Scribner   2012

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