WASHINGTON — First intermission on opening night last month at the Kennedy Center for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the company’s much-celebrated artistic director is working it. Up in the President’s Box with First Lady Laura Bush and a collection of pals sipping champagne, Suzanne Farrell is busy making connections. “I told her three of the young students in the first act were from Tallahassee, where I have a professorship, Jeb Bush’s city,’’ she says, referring to Laura Bush’s brother-in-law, the governor of Florida.
Farrell is wearing the diamond, ruby and sapphire necklace given to her by Sonia Grinberg, wife of the chairman of Movado Watch Co., at a luncheon to celebrate Movado’s contribution to Kennedy Center and Farrell’s eponymous company. In November, Movado pulled out its annual $400,000 funding to the American Ballet Theatre. Since then, Movado has donated to ABT’s rival, the New York City Ballet — in particular, the company’s George Balanchine centennial this year — as well as to Farrell, the celebrated muse of NYCB’s illustrious co-founder.
Also in the President’s Box is Anne Bass, a last-minute donor to the company’s D.C. tour. Putting in a rare Washington appearance, Bass explains, “We’ve been friends for a long time. I gave the party for her in 1989 when she retired from the stage.’’
“It was at a restaurant one of the dancers in the company had opened,’’ says Farrell, taking time out a few days later for a telephone interview. The party was intended as a salute to Farrell who, after 28 years on stage dancing more than 150 roles in over 2,000 performances, was retiring from the stage and planning to continue her craft working for the company. “It was very festive, bittersweet, a nice way to end something. The company was invited. My mother was there. Peter was there. I thought I would go on working with the company in some capacity.’’
Farrell is referring to Peter Martins, a former dance partner and, since Balanchine’s death in 1983, director of the NYCB. Four years after Bass’ party, Martins fired Farrell for reasons neither will discuss. That same year, James Wolfensohn, then chairman of the Kennedy Center, invited Farrell to come to the Kennedy Center to spend four weekends in 1993 teaching ballet to a group of local teenagers.
Farrell, who stands 5 feet 7 inches and still looks regal after two hip replacement operations, won’t comment on her feelings about Martins, nor will she say whether she ever plans to include any works choreographed by Martins in her company’s repertoire.
“I don’t know what I’m doing in the future. I probably will choreograph myself. And of course, I am redoing Don Q[uixote] for June of 2005,’’ she says.
She has, however, given some thought to where she plans to reside in the future. “I spend a lot of time in Washington. When I have time, I’ll look for a place here to live. I don’t have a car. I’m still dealing,’’ says Farrell, who has been living a vagabond’s life for the last few months traveling to 16 cities on her company’s first national tour. “I have my stuff in storage,’’ says Farrell, 58.
But Washington’s power elite has been working hard to make Farrell feel welcome.
In November, she was honored at the White House by President Bush in the Oval Office as one of 10 winners of the National Medal of Arts. The Kennedy Center has also made a major commitment to Farrell’s success both in terms of fund-raising and offering her a variety of programming opportunities. The center picks up the company’s entire $1.5 million annual budget and provides in-house staff for public relations, fund-raising and marketing. On the programming side, the center keeps Farrell, a tenured professor of dance at Florida State University, busy throughout the year.
Farrell is due back in Washington on Thursday and again on Jan. 25 to host her annual “Looking at Ballet,’’ a behind-the- scenes lecture at the Kennedy Center on the ballet. In between times, she’ll spend the rest of the month holding auditions in eight cities. Her aim is to recruit dancers ages 14-18 to participate in her three-week intensive ballet course held July 26-Aug. 14 at the Kennedy Center. Along the way, she is also working to increase the size of her company, which this year included Jennifer Fournier and Chan Hon Goh, and to extend the current 34 dances and nine weeks annual tour to have 30 weeks of employment for them within five years.
The idea for a Suzanne Farrell company, dedicated to carrying on the Balanchine tradition and backed by the Kennedy Center, began in 2000 as a special Balanchine retrospective for the center’s Millennium celebration, a follow-up to her summer intensive teaching sessions. “This is the first time the Kennedy Center has had their own child,’’ says Farrell, whose company marks the Kennedy Center’s first foray into launching an artistic company of its own. Farrell’s dedication to ballet can sometimes present a daunting example to her students.. Farrell prefers to see herself as carrying on her mentor’s reverence for the craft.
“I always had that awe for George,’’ she says, referring to Balanchine, whose relationship with Farrell is one of the great sagas of ballet history.
At age 15, she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, the prep school for the New York City Ballet. Balanchine, who was 59 when Farrell joined the troupe a year later, had a track record of falling in love with young ballerinas. For Farrell, the last of his illustrious muses, Balanchine created starring roles in ballets including “Meditations’’ and the dazzling “Diamonds’’ section of “Jewels.’’
In 1969, Farrell married Paul Mejia, a young Peruvian dancer whom Balanchine trusted. Balanchine retaliated by refusing to cast Mejia in his usual lead roles. When Farrell complained, he sent them both packing. The couple ended up dancing with Béjart, director of the Ballet of the XXth Century in Brussels, until 1974 when Farrell sent Balanchine a note saying she missed his company. Balanchine took her back, but refused to reinstate Mejia, who took jobs elsewhere. The couple divorced in 1998.
Today, Farrell stresses the sense of professionalism she tried to maintain with her passionate teacher and tries to instill in her company. “No matter how close we became, even though we worked closely together, that doesn’t diminish, the respect you have,’’ she explains. “Even though George and I were very close in our work, there would always be that awe for me.’’
Asked about dealing with the envy or jealousy of other dancers, which her closeness to Balanchine incited, she says, “I don’t like to dwell on those things because they do make me angry . It takes too much energy away from me and the people I love to be with.’’