George Balanchine, Suzanne Farrell, and Ballet’s #metoo Moment

Several weeks ago in a post on the current struggles at New York City Ballet I made reference to a significant incident in the history of the company that I argued deserves renewed scrutiny. This incident is the sudden rupture in the creative and personal relationship between George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell in 1969. In online commentary there was some debate about my take on this incident, with some claiming that I was misinterpreting the facts of the case or unfairly characterizing Balanchine’s behavior. I proposed that Balanchine’s dismissal of Farrell in the wake of her marriage to Paul Mejia amounted to a Weinstein-esque abuse of power, and should thus be understood as part of a larger culture of patriarchal control of women’s bodies at NYCB, behavior that should be reevaluated in light of the troubling treatment of women uncovered over the last year.

I did not and do not claim to speak on Farrell’s behalf and have no first hand knowledge of this incident, which took place before I was born. I only know what I’ve read and seen from reliable publicly available sources. In what follows, I’d like to contrast the way that this incident has been represented in various contexts–from Bernard Taper’s biography to Wikipedia to the Kennedy Center Honors–with Farrell’s own version of the story, as published in her memoir Holding on to the Air, still in print. (Farrell also recounts the incident in the documentary Elusive Muse.)

In short, I stand by my earlier characterization of the Balanchine-Farrell rupture, and reiterate my plea that coming to terms with troubling aspects of the Balanchine legacy should be a top priority as NYCB and SAB chart a new future. The romanticization or rationalization of Balanchine’s behavior no longer holds up to scrutiny, and if we cannot be honest about incidents such as this, whose facts are hiding in plain sight, how can we deal with the thornier challenges of the present, much less expect others to come forward with yet untold stories?

Suzanne Farrell’s memoirs, co-authored with Toni Bentley, make it clear that the circumstances of her sudden departure from New York City Ballet in 1969 were difficult on many levels and came on the heels of escalating behavior on Balanchine’s part in response to her romantic involvement with fellow dancer Paul Mejia. They follow the contours of accounts that have now become depressingly familiar. Powerful older man takes interest in younger talented woman and advances her career, man wants more than a professional relationship, woman chooses another man over the powerful man, the woman and other man are professionally punished for their choices, and the powerful man remains as powerful as he was before. It is worth noting at the outset that this incident took place when Balanchine was in his sixties, at the height of his fame and reputation, and Farrell was in her early twenties.

“Most men considered me too much trouble because of Balanchine’s watchful eye,” Farrell explains, recalling her surprise that Mejia took an interest in her in the first place, a relationship which at first amounted to artistic partnership and friendship. As their relationship developed, they tried to keep it as discrete and secret as possible. Eventually word got out and Balanchine became aware of the couple, with Farrell noting one of several “uncomfortable” encounters between the couple and the choreographer. She and Mejia met at a church on West 71st street for Sunday services only to realize that “there was George standing in the aisle.” Farrell’s mother discouraged her from continuing the relationship with Mejia, calling it “practically illegal” and predicting that it would cause trouble for her career.

When Balanchine realized that Farrell and Mejia’s relationship was serious, he made a surprising offer, “something he had never done in all the previous years” of their intense personal and professional relationship: he asked Farrell to marry him and to have a child with him. “Imagine what a wonderful, intelligent, beautiful child we would have,” Farrell recalls Balanchine saying. She also notes that such an offer sounded “very strange” in light of the fact that it was common knowledge that Balanchine did not think ballerinas should have children. This offer was made despite the fact that Balanchine was still married to Tanaquil le Clerq. “It wouldn’t be so bad to be Mrs. George Balanchine,” Farrell’s mother advised, further telling her daughter that “You can’t always have what you want.”

After Farrell declined Balanchine’s proposal, his behavior changed and he became more distant, which brought Farrell and Mejia closer together and helped lead them to the decision to get married following the company’s winter season. The news was considered radioactive, and company manager Betty Cage asked Farrell not to tell Balanchine while Don Quixote–which included especially iconic roles for her and Balanchine himself–was in rehearsal. Farrell and Mejia were married while Balanchine was out of the country, and upon returning from their honeymoon in Hawaii they learned in the newspaper that on February 5, seventeen days before their wedding, he had obtained a divorce from his wife. Farrell and others had optimistically hoped that her marriage would “act as a bucket of cold water that could cool the highly emotional situation” between her and Balanchine. But this was not to be the case. “Within a few weeks, when George returned from Europe,” Farrell explains, “I realized that my marriage had solved nothing.”

“I knew my career might change when I married Paul,” Farrell writes, “but I honestly didn’t believe it would.” At first things were normal, with Farrell receiving the same number of rehearsals, although with Mejia scheduled for “decidedly fewer.” Farrell learned from others that Balanchine had stayed in Europe for longer than planned after learning of the wedding and had to be induced to return. When he finally did he was distant to Farrell and refused to speak to her: “If we happened to meet in a hallway, he would turn and walk the other way.” But when the season began, Farrell was cast in her usual roles, giving her hope that all was well. After Balanchine complimented her on a performance, Farrell tried to reassure him that “You see, George, nothing has changed,” to which his face “remained impassive” and he said nothing and left the doorway of her dressing room.

As the distance between them increased, Farrell eventually confronted Balanchine directly, offering to leave the company, to which he replied that it was not necessary but suggesting that “perhaps Paul should leave.” Farrell’s “nightmare” of a rupture came to a head on May 8, 1969, the evening of the company’s spring gala, whose program included Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering and Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Lead dancer Edward Villella was dancing in the Robbins work and asked to be relieved of a role in the third movement of Symphony in C, a role that Mejia knew and danced well, but it was instead assigned to a dancer who had little experience with it. Mejia came to Farrell angry and frustrated, and Farrell decided to issue an ultimatum to Balanchine: if her husband did not dance in the role, they would both quit the company.

Farrell characterized this message as an “uncalculated gesture of sheer desperation” and upon receiving it the company’s managers begged her to take it back, but she insisted they deliver it, and looking back she says that she made the move knowing that subconsciously “something had to change in a big way.” When the couple arrived at the theater, Mejia’s name was still not on the cast list, but Farrell was still listed in her usual lead role, and she went to her dressing room as usual. After having applied her makeup and put on her toe shoes, she heard a knock at the door, whereupon the wardrobe mistress entered and removed her costume from its hanger. “Suzanne, you’re not dancing tonight,” she said through tears, and Farrell then realized that she “was no longer a member of the New York City Ballet.” Farrell and Mejia sat in the audience for the evening’s performance, a decision which seems “absurd,” but was made since they “didn’t know where else to go.” After the show, Farrell returned to her dressing room to pack up her belongings. “My whole life was in that small black suitcase,” and she now found herself “a dancer without a job” and felt “as homeless as any bag lady.”

Farrell and Mejia found themselves locked out of professional opportunities, both literally and figuratively. When the coupled tried to enter the State Theater to use a studio, they were turned away by a security guard who had clearly been given strict orders to do so. Later Farrell was invited by a friend to attend a public performance by the company in Saratoga and was denied entry and told explicitly that she was not welcome in the theater. In the press, Balanchine laid all blame for the incident at Farrell’s feet, saying that ultimately he had to make the artistic decisions and that he was “disappointed in Suzanne” and that “it would not be good for the company if they returned.” Farrell and her husband received no significant job offers, surmising that they were “hot goods,” which no one wanted to handle for fear of alienating Balanchine. The two found only sporadic work in the coming years, and Farrell eventually accepted an invitation to join the Brussels-based company of Maurice Béjart, where she would remain before being eventually invited back to NYCB many years later.

In my previous post I characterized Balanchine’s behavior towards Farrell as “destruction” as it relates to her career, and I don’t know what other word would be more appropriate. While her work in Brussels was certainly artistically meaningful and allowed her grow in certain ways, it was not a decision made from a place of self-determination or power. It was Farrell’s prerogative to dance for whatever company she wanted, and the fact that she would seek to use her stature to ensure fair treatment for her husband does not seem like an outrageous demand. But instead, Balanchine single-handedly brought the trajectory of her illustrious career to a halt and then blamed her for his actions.

You would not get a sense of the gravity of this incident and the personal and professional trauma to Farrell in several notable accounts. Balanchine’s biographer Bernard Taper characterizes their relationship as a “frustrated courtship,” and characterizes the decision to leave the company as Farrell’s:

“It is no secret that for several years before that he had been preoccupied with the young ballerina Suzanne Farrell, a preoccupation amounting to an obsession, and that, despite the forty years’ difference in their ages, he hoped to marry her. But she married a young man in the company named Paul Mejia at just about the time that Balanchine was getting his divorce, and in May of that year she and Mejia left the New York City Ballet because, she told the press, after their marriage Balanchine would not give her husband the roles he expected and deserved.” (324)

Making Farrell the protagonist of these incidents does not mitigate their antifeminist contours, on the contrary. What is more, Taper’s account paints Balanchine as the victim of this incident–and even more jaw-dropping, goes so far as to call him a recovering “survivor”–in the context of retelling the story of Farrell’s return to the company:

“Five years had passed since Farrell’s departure. By now, Balanchine had recovered from his infatuation, though the wound had been deep and painful and had taken time to heal. Still, Balanchine was a survivor, who believed in the simple motto…’Life goes on.” (341)

A good barometer of conventional wisdom, Farrell’s Wikipedia entry similarly paints this parting of the ways as entirely her fault and pursued of her own accord. “A muse of George Balanchine, she severed ties with him in the early 1970s, moving to Brussels and dancing with the Ballet of the 20th century.” It goes on:

“Though Balanchine divorced [Tanaquil] LeClerq to pursue Farrell, she instead married fellow dancer Paul Mejia. This caused the relationship of Farrell and Balanchine to be horribly severed. There was nothing but tension between them, and finally Farrell and husband Mejia left the company.”

The unspoken misogyny of this language is astounding. Farrell is rendered as the ungrateful muse, and you can almost hear Farrell’s mother in the background screaming “but he got divorced for you!” She is also given all of the blame for the deterioration of her relationship with Balanchine, and again the account of the couple’s leaving the company captures none of their pain and confusion, not to mention their economic anxiety.

A tribute video produced for the occasion of Farrell’s receiving the Kennedy Center Honors recounted this history using more benign euphemism, no doubt out of respect for the fact that she was in the audience, and perhaps with her editorial approval: “Even young muses grow up and need to stand apart from their mentors. She left New York, and danced with a company in Brussels.” If only it had truly been that simple and straightforward. It’s time to tell stories such as Farrell’s with integrity and honesty. We owe it to her and every other survivor.

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