Holley Farmer & John Selya in 'Come Fly Away'
I felt I needed to have an A-B-C of portraying sexual power."
Age: “I’m slightly younger than my character Babe.”
Hometown: Fresno, California
Currently: Seducing audiences as femme fatale Babe in Come Fly Away, Twyla Tharp’s stylish all-dancing tribute to Frank Sinatra at Broadway's Marquis Theatre.
Late Bloomer: Though Farmer is famous in the dance world, the commanding redhead was not prancing around in toe shoes at an early age like many of her colleagues. “I have always been fascinated by movement,” she notes, despite the fact that she didn’t take a dance class until the age of 16. As the fourth daughter in her family—and the only one who had not taken dance—she was reluctant at first, but finally decided to give lessons a try. It was love at first step: “I became completely devoted to it. I started feeling that I had never loved anything as much [as dancing].”
Quick Ascent: After two years of study, Farmer knew dance was her calling. ”I feel that I am wired for it,” she explains. “On a deep level, it’s how I relate to the world.” Once the commitment was made, she imposed a tough deadline. “Around the age of 18, I gave myself a very strict cut-off date,” she laughs. “I said, ‘If you haven’t found employment by 21, I have to stop.’ I don’t know why I was so harsh with myself.’” As the date loomed, Farmer tried out for the Theater Ballet of Canada—and got it. “That was my first real job,” she says. She moved to Ottawa and embarked on a "a rigorous, wonderful experience” with the ballet company. Farmer says she always tried to stay open to new possibilities. That attitude led her to join a friend “on a lark as she drove to Toronto for an audition for Canada’s first production of The Phantom of the Opera. I put on my tights and ended up getting the job.”
Go with the Flow: “I did two years of Phantom, eight shows a week,” Farmer says. "At the end of it, I felt like it had been a great experience, but I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to develop as I wanted to if I continued.” Farmer went back to California to be closer to her family and joined the Oakland Ballet. Then a back injury forced her to confront what she might do if she were not a dancer. Never idle, she went to the University of Washington and got her M.F.A. in dance with the intention of being a professor. “I really felt at that point that anything having to do with dance was going to fill me,” she says.
Another Lark: As you may have guessed, Farmer did not end up in academia. During her final week of grad school, she took a three-day class with modern dance great Merce Cunningham, who was in residence in Washington. Approached to join the master’s troupe in New York, she knew she couldn’t turn down the chance. “Being open to opportunity,” she says, “has been the saving grace of my career.” Farmer moved across the country and became a key member of the Merce Cunningham ensemble for 14 years.
Settling In: Farmer became the epitome of a Merce Cunningham dancer, and she reveled in her work with the company. “The process of learning his technique inspired me because I felt that anything was possible each day,” she says. “He was so inventive. I never knew what position my body was going to be in day to day.” She adds that Cunningham’s work inspired her openness, an attribute that had obviously served her career very well. She left the company in March 2009, four months before Cunningham’s death. “He created his last piece just as I was leaving,” she notes.
Being Babe: Farmer clearly relishes her newfound success in Come Fly Away. “I’m having a blast! “ But finding her footing as the hot-blooded Babe took a while. “The realization hit me a few weeks into rehearsal that “Babe is that woman,” she laughs. Her eclectic research for the part included looking at performances of Ann Margret, Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe. She noted that some of these vixens didn’t move much—they “stood there and let the camera watch them.” That technique wouldn’t work in a dance show, so Farmer took her studies a bit further. “I called a good friend who is a drag queen,” she says, “and he gave me advice on how to approach femininity from the outside in. I felt I needed to have an A-B-C of portraying sexual power. The next time we ran the show, Twyla said ‘What’d you do?’ I told her, and she was pleased by that approach.”
Flying High: “I had a friend come see the show, and he said, ‘Please tell me at least some of those smiles are real,’” Farmer gushes about her new Broadway career. “I said, ‘Right now, they’re all real!”