A dance film intriguingly centered on a real-life love story of great complexity and resonance, “Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse” should easily reach beyond obvious core audiences with its absorbing account of the longtime pas de deux between legendary choreographer George Balanchine and one of his greatest dancers. Following “Reflections of a Dancer: Alexandra Danilova” (1982) and “Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas” (1989) to form a trilogy by co-helmers Anne Belle and Deborah Dickson, pic may be conventional in form and a natural for pubcasters, but its strong, well-presented human-interest angle also merits the attention of other sites, fests especially.
Chief among pic’s interviewees, Farrell, now a dance teacher, makes for a poised, articulate and fastidiously gracious commentator in recounting her career’s dramatic arc. She recalls that her mother, who harbored greater ambitions for her teenage daughter than Ohio could satisfy, uprooted them and moved to New York in 1960. Awarded a full scholarship at Balanchine’s American School of Ballet at 15, Suzanne was asked to join the New York City Ballet a year later.
Though 41 years her senior, Balanchine soon became infatuated with the lithe, doe-eyed ballerina. When she was 19, he cast her as Dulcinea in “Don Quixote,” in which he danced the demanding title role on opening night. The artistic partnership grew steadily from there.
Yet, as in “The Red Shoes,” romantic pressures eventually threatened disaster. Farrell allows that she considered suicide during the unhappiest period of her affair with Balanchine, who would not leave his marriage. Instead, she married fellow dancer Paul Mejia in 1969, precipitating a rupture with her mentor that lasted five years.
Farrell and Mejia spent that time in Europe dancing for Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, while Balanchine suffered severe bouts of depression in New York. It was a fruitful period for Farrell as a dancer, and Bejart recalls crying when she said she was leaving, saying he knew her return to Balanchine was inevitable.
It was also triumphant. Reinvigorated by Farrell’s presence, the master choreographer entered his last great creative phase. Between 1975 and 1981 he created some of his most acclaimed dances for her, including “Tzigane,” “Davidsbundlertanze,” “Vienna Waltzes” and “Mozartiana.” Pic is rich with excerpts from these works, and although the images (frequently from kinescopes) are sometimes fuzzy and saddled with the cheesy set designs of old TV productions, the dances themselves bear glorious testimony to Farrell’s stunning skills and Balanchine’s mature genius.
Following Balanchine’s death in 1983 and her retirement in 1989, Farrell furthered his legacy as a coach and dance stager for the George Balanchine Trust. Pic includes segments of her rehearsing dancers for “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” “Diamonds,” “Chaconne” and other productions.
While “Elusive Muse” smoothly integrates archival material and interviews with Farrell intimates, including her partners Arthur Mitchell and the genially loquacious Jacques d’Amboise, its emotional focus stays on her relationship with “Mr. B.” Farrell is at once candid and strategically tactful, but never accusatory. She clearly feels that their bond was one of mentor and muse, and that its difficulties were more than recompensed in art.
This romantic view of creativity, which gives the film a poignancy that’s ultimately very affecting, may sound wishful, but the dances seen here suggest it’s anything but: Their power is visible proof that extraordinary passions do produce exceptional works of art.