UNDER THE ORCHESTRA PIT

13 Aug

There is a wonderful man who lives under the orchestra pit in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Well, he doesn’t actually live there, but it’s where he spends his days.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Lincoln Center in recent years (as Event Coordinator for the ABT Dancer Reunion and the Antony Tudor Centennial at Julliard), but it wasn’t until years later, as Archivist for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, that I had the opportunity to unearth Met Archivist John Pennino’s underground lair, home of the Metropolitan Opera Archives.

The trip to the Archives, led by Mr. Pennino himself, began by walking through the pass door to backstage, continuing on through narrow pipe-ceilinged hallways and down remote staircases to the building’s depths. As dramatic and elegant as the Met is upstairs, the opposite is true of the space underground. Cinder block gray walls and harsh fluorescent lights are de rigueur. It was a long walk to the archives, buried as they are, under the orchestra pit and stage.

 

I was asked to stop before entering the Archives, which are contained in a dark basement room piled high with file cabinets, stacks of boxes and old tin desks.  I had to leave my handbag, my tote, my jacket… I wasn’t allowed to hold or bring in anything. I had to tuck all of my belongings in a corner before even being allowed in the room! (No one is allowed into the archive with coats or bags because of theft.  But I wasn’t offended… I was excited)!

I was there on a mission to discover photos and memorabilia of the great choreographer Antony Tudor, who began staging his ballets for American Ballet Theatre (then “Ballet Theatre”) in 1939, and who in 1951 became Director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School. It was at the Met where Mr. Tudor recreated his ballets Jardin aux Lilas, Dark Elegies and Judgment of Paris, as well as created his first American masterpiece, Pillar of Fire, in 1942. And it was in 1974, as Associate Director of American Ballet Theatre, he created his final masterpiece, The Leaves are Fading. The Met Archives were a treasure trove, and I had access!

So there I sat, kindly tended to by Mr. Pennino, quietly going through files of photos and memorabilia that he had stacked up for me, anticipating my visit. He sat behind me, at his own desk, hearing me occasionally gasp, mutter “wows” and voice disbelief. I found telegrams to Mr. Tudor, letters, old programs, rehearsal photos, performance photos… the collection was priceless.

Tudor’s “Echoing of Trumpets” – Photo: Louis Melancon

The Trust wasn’t given permission to use all of the materials – copyrights and all –  but Mr. Pennino did give permission when he could. It was through his kindness that The Trust could gather materials not only to publish in their fund-raising book but to also digitize and store, in the hopes of further preserving Antony Tudor’s legacy to the dance community.

Before Mr. Pennino brought me to the Met Archives I was given a tour of the lobby, with its huge archival displays of photos, beautiful paintings and glass-lit cabinets filled with costumes, accessories and memorabilia. But nothing on display in that dazzling lobby compared with being able to go through the archival materials in that dusty room under the orchestra pit. That, indeed, was a rare treat!

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2 Responses to “UNDER THE ORCHESTRA PIT”

  1. back to the barre August 16, 2011 at 12:42 PM #

    How awesome-what a ballet treasure trove! You’re so lucky to get such a behind the scenes look. Thanks for taking us with you a little bit:)

    • AdriaBalletBeat August 16, 2011 at 1:12 PM #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the read!

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