BUFFALO - In any area, from the fine arts, to industry, to athletics, to politics, one of the very best opportunities anyone can have is to meet and to learn from the people who have arrived at the very peak of success and respect.
I recently had such an opportunity in an area of the arts which is well represented in our area, but for which the opportunities are relatively limited: classical dance.
I get a great many news releases from the Buffalo area, and I do my best to cover the events in the Queen City during breaks between responsibilities here in Chautauqua County. Recently I learned that dancer Suzanne Farrell would be visiting the campus of the University of Buffalo, where she would be teaching a master class for the university's students, then offering a performance by her own dance company, which she would narrate, providing color and information from her nearly 30-year career at the absolute pinnacle of the dance world.
Members of the Suzanne Farrell Dance Company perform the choreography of George Balanchine, taught them by Ms. Farrell, who served as the great man's muse for more than 20 years.
I also inquired about an interview with Ms. Farrell. I was told that she was not available for interviews, but if I would submit questions, she would be happy to answer them. As a result, I have a column filled with observations of her company's performance, her responses to our inquiries, and an overview of the arts scene available to anyone willing to make the effort to drive up to U.B.'s campus, north of the city.
There was a time, not so long ago, when almost anyone in this country would have recognized the name Suzanne Farrell. She was a prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet, and what's more, her photos were often on the covers of magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and were published and recognized, around the world.
It was a time when ballet was in the forefront of the news, largely because a number of famous dancers made Americans feel good about themselves by defecting from the Soviet Union, where the government tried to make decisions about how they would dance and what they could dance.
At the time, ballet was dominated by the talent and influence of choreographer George Balanchine. He was co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and his innovative and highly musical creations received international respect and served as a bridge for many people to the new kinds of music which were being composed in the early 20th Century, especially by Igor Stravinsky, whom Balanchine considered his personal mentor.
Balanchine was born in Czarist Russia, in 1904. The Communist revolution swept his homeland when he was 10, but he and his first wife, ballerina Tamara Geva, defected in 1924. Eventually, Balanchine would develop a reputation for being greatly inspired by individual dancers. He would eventually marry and divorce four ballerinas, creating famous dance roles for them and for other women in his company who inspired him.
In 1934, he joined with Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy American who loved the art of dance, but who largely had to travel abroad in order to see it, because it was little performed in our country. The two men started by creating the School of American Ballet, to give young American dancers the training they would need to perform in a professional company. It has proved confusing to later dance lovers when eventually a competing dance company named American Ballet Theater was formed, because it shares the name of the school, whose association is with New York City Ballet.
Gradually Balanchine would present longer and longer seasons of performances, calling his company by several names, until by 1954, he was presenting full seasons of performances by the New York City Ballet. That year, his adaptation of the classic choreography of Tchaikowsky's ballet ''Nutcracker'' would begin its runs of annual performances. Today, tickets for performances of that holiday classic go on sale in August, and it's still one of the hottest tickets in New York.
Ms. Farrell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was the youngest of three daughters, born to lower middle class parents. Her original name was Roberta Sue Ficker. Since she was usually called ''Suzi,'' because of her middle name, when she became a professional dancer, she chose that as her new first name. She picked ''Farrell'' from a telephone directory, because she thought it went with ''Suzanne.''
At the age of 15, she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. That year, she danced for the first time for Balanchine, who admitted her to the school at her first audition, and decided she was the perfect dancer for whom to create new choreography. He once described her as his Stradivarius. She was his muse for 10 years. He promoted her to the top ranks of the company, and created so many dances for her that other women in the company resigned in protest.
By the time she retired, she had performed 75 roles in 70 ballets, most of which were specifically created for her to perform.
In 1970, she married a fellow member of the company, dancer Paul Mejia, and Balanchine withdrew all of his choreography from her. His influence in American dance was so great that the young couple had to move to Belgium in order to dance professionally. They spent five years there, performing with the company of Maurice Bejart.
In her autobiography, titled ''Holding on to the Air,'' she described this period as ''exile.''
In 1975, she returned to New York City Ballet, where Balanchine resumed creating dance roles for her, until his death in 1983. She also danced choreography by Jerome Robbins, Stanley Williams, and other well-known choreographers.
By the time of her return, she was increasingly being afflicted by arthritis and other dance-related injuries, and doctors began to warn that she should not continue dancing. Despite their concerns, she underwent hip replacement surgery, and returned to dancing on pointe, until her retirement in 1989.
She taught for a number of years at the School of American Ballet. Eventually, she was invited by the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C. to create a resident dance company where she could teach the choreography of Balanchine and other great choreographers, to a new generation of dancer.
Those dancers at the University of Buffalo were performing dances which were created for her or were taught to her by their choreographer. Between their performances she would tell stories about how Balanchine worked and his views of his creations.
I asked Ms Farrell if she was happy with how her autobiography had turned out. Written in 1990, with co-author and former dancer Toni Bentley, the book is a wonderful read and is very detailed about her dancing career.
Her gift for explaining the physical nature of dance has been widely admired, but some critics have complained that the book is too worshipful of Balanchine, and that she is sometimes so discreet, one isn't sure what she means.
Her answer was about her book, but not an answer to the question. She said, ''I enjoyed the process of writing the book and still enjoy meeting fans during book signings. Maybe someday I will have time to sit down and write another book.''
I asked if she had any memories of her performances at Chautauqua, or if she would say something about the director of Chautauqua's School of Dance, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. He was one of her partners in her performing days, and his wife, Patricia McBride was also a muse who inspired a number of dances by Balanchine. She said, When I was dancing, my dressing room was next door to Patricia McBride's, so I was friendly with her and Jean-Pierre. This past June, my company and North Carolina Dance Theatre were on the same program during the Kennedy Center 'Ballet Across America' Festival. It was fun to catch up with old friends.''
I wondered about the fact that she was once a recognized face by the average guy on the street, while today, even the most successful dancers aren't recognized, by any but the most devoted ballet fans. She replied that she tells both her students and her dancers that they should dance because they want to dance, not because they want to be famous or a star. Ms. Farrell wrote, ''When I was a child, I danced in our living room, but I would stop if anyone watched. It wasn't for applause or attention. I would have been happy dancing, even if no one saw me. I needed to dance. This meant I never became bored or unhappy with dance.''
The style of dancing called ''show dancing'' is very popular at the moment. Is the influence of shows such as ''Dancing With the Stars'' a good thing for dance in general, or not? She answered, ''When I was growing up in Ohio, I had to stay awake late at night to catch a program with a few scenes of dance. I had to go to the library and look at photos of dancers. If exposing television audiences to dance is going to make them enthusiastic about different genres of dance, that benefits everyone.''
I asked how dance training today compares with her own experiences when she was a young dancer. She answered, ''When I was young, there were very few programs. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to study in New York City, and the training there was what I needed. Every dancer is an individual, and different dancers need different kinds of training. There are so many more wonderful programs than there once were, the number of opportunities for a dancer to find what's right for him or her are much better, today.''
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet was performed on a Friday evening at U.B. There were nine works, called ''pas de deux.'' Three couples would perform one dance each, followed by a short intermission.
Ms. Farrell came on stage to thunderous applause, before the first performance. Looking, probably, half her chronological age and elegant in a black pants suit with a long jacket and sky-high heels, she read her comments from a plum-colored notebook. Her hair is still long, although darker than in her dancing days. She said Balanchine's mental image of a ballerina was dressed in white, with long, flowing hair.
Sometimes she returned before each dance, but usually she would introduce two or three dances, which would then be performed in sequence. She chose from her great wealth of knowledge snippets of information which shed a great deal of information on the dance.
''Balanchine didn't make many story ballets. He preferred to create a visual support to a piece of music,'' she said, as an example. ''When someone asked him what one of his pieces meant, he would always ask, in reply, 'What does a rose mean? It is what it is.'''
She said that Balanchine never choreographed to music by Beethoven, because he believed that Beethoven's music, which he loved, needed no illustration. In the same vein, he very rarely choreographed to Mozart's music, for the same reason.