Suzanne Farrell, the sublime ballerina and creator of many lead roles for the choreographer George Balanchine, was back in the studio where he made many of his masterworks for New York City Ballet. On this mid-April afternoon, she was coaching Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen in Balanchine’s “Diamonds.”
“We’re parting the molecular structure of the air here,” Ms. Farrell said as the couple made their slow entrance toward each other in paths. “We’re coming together.”
This was the third and final day of rehearsals; Ms. Farrell had already gained the dancers’ trust. As the long, slow, high-drama pas de deux progressed, she drew Ms. Mearns’s attention to a repeated raising of the crook of the elbow: “We’re developing a motif here — it doesn’t occur in any other ballet.” After an hour with this couple, Ms. Farrell went on to work with Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle on the same roles.
All this proceeded like straightforward dance business, but the occasion was momentous. Ms Farrell, 73, was an exemplary leading light at City Ballet for decades before her retirement from the stage in 1989. These rehearsals were her first work with the company in 26 years.
Her return caps a new phase of City Ballet history. The company’s first 35 years (1948-1983) were shaped by Balanchine; the next 35 years were shaped by his successor, Peter Martins. Gradually, from the mid-1980s onward, Mr. Martins thinned his rehearsal staff of most figures whose Balanchine experience surpassed his own; even when rare ballets were revived that could have profited from their insights, he seldom invited such alumni back to work with the company. Since Mr. Martins’s resignation last year, the company has brought back a number of those former stars — Mikhail Baryshnikov, Patricia McBride, Mimi Paul, Edward Villella — to coach roles they either created or performed at length.
What makes Ms. Farrell so important? Her place in Balanchine history is central: She inspired him to make some of his most radically modernist works; opened up fresh torrents of Romanticism in him; showed how old roles could be transformed. She combined grandeur, musicality, wit, fervor and acumen to phenomenal degrees.
“Diamonds,” one of the signature works Balanchine made for Ms. Farrell, displayed the heroic scale of her dancing; though the role has Imperial Russian qualities, she often seemed to be dancing it with unparalleled freedom in infinite space. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, it is usually shown as the closing ballet of the pure-dance trilogy “Jewels.” Jonathan Stafford, City Ballet’s recently appointed artistic director, first reached out to Ms. Farrell to coach “Diamonds” before the “Jewels” revival in fall 2018, when he was the company’s interim leader.
The summer timing didn’t work out, but with the company’s coming revival of “Diamonds,” Mr. Stafford tried again. “Maria and Sara have been dancing the lead role for years,” he said, “but they were both so keen to work with Suzanne if at all possible.”
After Ms. Farrell retired from dancing, she continued to work at City Ballet as a ballet master until 1993, when her contract was abruptly terminated. Since Ms. Farrell and Mr. Martins had had a renowned partnership as dancers, this caused a scandal. The New Yorker reported in 1993 that Mr. Martins was giving little work to Ms. Farrell. Just after The New Yorker article was published, she lost her job.
Though exiled from Balanchine’s company, Ms. Farrell never quit Balanchine. She established a company of her own, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (2000-17) in Washington; staged Balanchine ballets from Moscow to London; and taught. Her reputation as a source of Balanchine wisdom never faded; while the roles she originated gained stature as pinnacles of ballet repertory, the reputation of her insights as a teacher and coach kept rising. As she said in a 2017 interview, “Balanchine is my life, my destiny.”
During Mr. Martins’s leadership tenure at City Ballet, many dance critics and Balanchine alumni noted that much about the company’s dancing had changed considerably, as had details of its versions of Balanchine choreography. Talk of Ms. Farrell’s being invited back began immediately after Mr. Martins’s departure.
A factor that helped to swing her return was a letter from Ms. Kowroski, the company’s senior principal, in the fall. Now in her 40s, she has been dancing Balanchine-Farrell roles since the 1990s — several for longer than Ms. Farrell herself danced them. She wrote to tell Ms. Farrell how much it would mean to her, now nearing the end of her own career, to have Ms. Farrell’s guidance in “Diamonds” and other historic roles.
The significance of having Ms. Farrell back in a City Ballet studio escaped no one there. “I’m learning so much,” Andrew Litton, the company’s music director, told Ms. Farrell in front of the dancers and other staff before discussing aspects of tempo and phrasing with her.
In an email a few days later, she said, “It was wonderful to live in the ‘world’ of ‘Diamonds’ for a few days,” in the studio where it “first came into being.”
She showed no nerves; she seemed the calmest person in the room. “I’m here for you,” she stressed to the dancers. She corrected details of floor patterns: Diamonds should keep recurring in terms of diagonals and edges. She also drew their attention to aspects of the music and the options these gave the dancers in how they accentuated them. And she corrected specific steps and configurations.
Though she has called herself a shy person who has had to learn in adult life to use the spoken word, her talk seemed, on this occasion as on others, effortlessly eloquent, moving between wit, poetry, analysis and metaphor. She observed to Ms. Mearns: “Mr. B. said, ‘Small things can be beautiful, too. The perfume of lilies of the valley can be beautiful, too.’” To Mr. Janzen she called out: “Don’t look like you’re trying to catch the swan! Don’t follow her — let her go. It’s not ‘Swan Lake’ at all.”
“Was that weird?,” Ms. Kowroski asked about her own account of one passage in the finale. Ms. Farrell paused before saying softly, “It was uncommitted.”
When the rehearsal ended, she turned to me and, without skipping a beat, remarked: “We saw ‘The Cher Show’ last night. It was wonderful — have you seen it?”
While still in the studio, Ms. Mearns and Ms. Kowroski described their reactions to their rehearsals with Ms. Farrell during the previous days. For Ms. Mearns it had been “unreal”; Ms. Kowroski said she had left as if “in a dream.”
“Suzanne is the epitome of how I think Balanchine wanted his ballets danced,” Ms. Mearns said in an email a few days later, adding in another note: “Her intelligence and imagination help to free up mine and understand mine better.”
Ms. Kowroski, also by email, said that for her, at this stage in her career, working with Ms. Farrell felt like a “renaissance.”
“It is one thing to know someone from afar and know their body of work and their career and experience them like an artifact in a museum,” she wrote. “It is another to be in the room and have direct contact with the person. This is not to say I have not been in contact with many many people directly connected to Balanchine before — but suddenly now I have this new treasure trove.”
Ms. Farrell, Ms. Mearns said, “really thought about what we’re doing — it’s like it’s ingrained in her.” She added: “It’s part of her DNA. We’ve been taught to listen to the music just the one way — but she hears other things, and gives us the freedom to open up to what we hear.”
Will Ms. Farrell be invited to make other contributions to City Ballet? In an email, Mr. Stafford said Ms. Farrell’s knowledge of the Balanchine repertory was “of incomparable value” and that, while there were no immediate plans to have her back, “Wendy Whelan and I are both hopeful that there will be many opportunities for Suzanne to return to our studios.”
Over the past 20 years, Ms. Farrell has specialized in staging Balanchine ballets for companies learning them from scratch. So what was it like to teach these dancers who arrived with many years’ experience in these roles?
“It has pluses and minuses,” she said. “They’ve got their old way so much in their body that it’s hard for them to adapt. But it’s within their realm. They’ve told me everything I’ve said make complete sense.”
Ms. Kowroski recalled that Ms. Farrell began their first rehearsal by asking her how she saw the two dancers in their pas de deux. “I said I imagined them as king and queen,” she said. “But Suzanne said ‘No, there’s room for vulnerability here.’ That’s changed the whole meaning of it for me.”