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If you like Suzanne Farrell's story, you might also like:
Dorothy Hamill,
Jessye Norman,
Trevor Nunn,
Lloyd Richards,
Twyla Tharp and
Kiri Te Kanawa

Suzanne Farrell also appears in the video:
Passion, Creativity and the Arts: A Mirror on Society

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Suzanne Farrell in the Achievement Curriculum section:
From Dance to Drama

Related Links:
Farrell Balllet
Dance Heritage
Kennedy Center
Balanchine Trust

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Suzanne Farrell
Suzanne Farrell
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Suzanne Farrell Interview

Ballerina Extraordinaire

December 16, 1990
New York, New York

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  Suzanne Farrell

Did you do what you started out to do, or did it just happen? Was dance what you wanted?

Suzanne Farrell: No, not in the beginning.

I was very much of a tomboy. So dancing was not something I had a great desire to do. In fact, ballet companies did not exist in the Midwest when I was a child. One would come to town maybe once a year. So I think it is rather strange that I got into ballet, something that I hadn't seen. But what was my motivation was music, and the fact that I love to move around. I'm always moving around. And I think it was important that I learned to love to dance eventually for its own sake, as opposed to wanting to be a ballerina. Because I think it made me realize that there was a lot of hard work involved before you get to be a ballerina. And I never lost loving the actual work that was involved in it. But then, of course, I got on stage and I decided then that I wanted to be a dancer.

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
You have been quoted as saying that you didn't want to be a ballerina. You wanted to be a dancer. What does that mean?

Suzanne Farrell: That the work involved, the willingness to take chances, the commitment, the opportunity to get on stage and make people happy, was more important than becoming famous, or even what I was dancing. The particular ballet was not so important as the fact that I was physically healthy, and capable of getting out there and dancing as often as possible.

Let's get back to your beginnings. What were you like as a kid?

Suzanne Farrell: Very adventurous. Fearless, which I guess was good, ultimately, in having to get out on stage.

I used to love to play dress-up, where you get your mother's or your grandmother's dresses and high heels. I had two sisters, and we would love to get dressed up and pretend that we were chic, sophisticated ladies. And I think that was a great sort of preparation, in a way. Rather theatrical, and something that was a lot of fun to do, and in a way it translated into getting on stage, where you dress up and you become someone other than who you are. We used to put on little shows in the basement for the neighborhood people, and of course no one would come. Who would want to see what we had to offer? But we took them very seriously, and we gave these performances.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What about your home life? I know it wasn't always easy.

Suzanne Farrell: No, but coming from the Midwest I had a great background, I think. We had a big backyard. There were trees. I was always climbing them. There were lots of opportunities to go to sports events, and things like that. I had a wonderful childhood, coming from Cincinnati, and I think that it was great going into the life that I was going to have, where you have to start young as a dancer. You don't have the opportunity to really lead a normal life, like most young teenagers do. I was very happy that I was as normal as possible before I went into serious dance.

Were there any particular problems or difficulties that you recall?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: Yes. My mother was very interested in giving her daughters the advantage of music and dance, if we had an interest in it. My father was not. He thought it was really unnecessary. It cost money, which we didn't have. And ballet in America was still quite a young profession, and a novelty. There weren't companies in every city like there are now. He thought it wasn't a very practical adventure, and didn't require a formal education, and he was adamantly against it. So, it was a great controversy. There was no support there. Eventually, my parents divorced. I was grateful that I had dancing to fall back on. It was my survival tactic. It was my friend. It was always there. I could work out a lot of my emotions by going to class and dancing. I never felt lonely. I'm grateful that I had ballet to get me through those days. In fact, even when I became famous, it was a great friend to have. It's a wonderful thing to be able to dance, to tell your body what you want it to do. You tell your leg to go up, and it goes. Not without a lot of hard work in the beginning, but the fact that you tell yourself what you want to do, is a wonderful form of security to me. I think especially in a world where you have so little say about what goes on in your life, or in the politics of the world around you, it is wonderful to go into that studio, and tell yourself what to do. You respond, and it works.

What was school like for you?

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
Suzanne Farrell: School was fun. I loved tests because it was another form of competing, a healthy competition. I liked to have to think on the spot. I never worried too much about whether I would pass or not. I liked math. Counting was easy for me, which was good, because a lot of the ballets have involved difficult counts. I liked spelling. I liked anything that has a big problem to solve. History was not too interesting to me. I liked to read but, being a dancer, I didn't have a lot of time to read.

What did you like to read? Were there any books, or teachers, that influenced you, or that were memorable for you?

Suzanne Farrell: Of course, in the art class, I was the model. I had long stringy hair. They knew I was a dancer, and they thought that was wonderful to have this profile with this long ponytail. So I feel that I am personally responsible for all these artists learning how to draw a ponytail. I liked Latin, I like languages, I liked all the myths, and the Roman tales that we were required to translate in Latin, and all these interesting people who were never quite what they thought they would be or seemed to be. I was quite theatrical, and very imaginative. That worked very well for the type of world that I went into.

How did it happen that you went to that first dance class?

Suzanne Farrell: My first class started because my two older sisters were in them. One in dance and one in piano. We lived an hour away from town, where the Clark Conservatory was, and my mother had to take me along in the car. So I would always be fidgeting, you know, while my sisters were having their lessons. The ballet teacher came up and said to my mother that, "You really should have your daughter enrolled in some of these classes. It might give her some poise and help her to sit still, and make your life easier." So I started dance.

Suzanne Farrell Interview Photo
We had acrobatic, and ballet, and tap, and I much preferred acrobatics, being an extension of my tomboyishness. I liked tap, because I liked hearing the results of my movements. I didn't care too much for ballet, because you had to be more disciplined, and you sort of looked like everyone else. It required a certain kind of conformity that I didn't feel like I wanted to do. It didn't interest me until the steps got more involved and I began to get it into my body. I saw that this indeed had quite a bit of self-expression. It was not as uniform as I thought it was, and I started organizing my own little ballet company. I was the boss because I was the tallest. But along with that went responsibility. I had to make ballets for the girls that were going to be in my company. I was very tall as a young girl, and there were no boys in the ballet school. So whenever the recital would come along, I was always the prince, never the princess. I think that's one reason why I wasn't too crazy about ballet in the beginning. I never got those pretty tutus. But of course all that changed.

How did this tomboy from Cincinnati feel about the discipline, about what was required of you in dance classes?

Suzanne Farrell: My feelings started to change when I realized that dancing was getting inside my body, emotionally, as well as physically. And that it was taking on a whole new dimension, and my life was changing, and I had a performance where I got on stage with an orchestra. At the dress rehearsal, there was no one in the audience, but I suddenly was in the real atmosphere of the theater. I looked out at these empty seats. But I felt all this sort of dust, or feelings of people who had been there before. It was palpable. And I just thought, this is what I want to be. And I knew that dancing would be my chosen profession.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

And I never regretted it. Never regretted the work. Never got over that feeling. Even now when I go in a theater, it is a very special place to be in. The work, and the responsibility that goes along with it, is very special. I am not afraid of hard work or the responsibility.

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