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JUMPING AT THE CHANCE – Working with ABT on The Dancer Reunion, May 2007

21 Jul

I often reflect fondly on my year at American Ballet Theatre, planning their 2007 dancer reunion. I jumped at the chance… after all, what ballet aficionado would pass up the opportunity to work at the ABT offices in NYC, not to mention connect with every dancer they’ve ever adored in their life? What an opportunity I was given!

The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend became the target date for a 650+ reunion of American Ballet Theatre dancers. What we wound up with was a daylong event hosted by Gage Englund and ballet luminaries Susan Jaffe and Cynthia Gregory which included a morning JKO School demonstration, an evening cocktail reception and an invitation to an ABT performance at the Metropolitan Opera House that night. All would be followed by an alumni curtain call bow and after-party on the Met’s Grand Tier. Wow.

The ABT Dancer Reunion took close to a year of prep from my tiny office at 890 Broadway, and that year was nothing short of amazing. Working with Artistic Administrator Tina Escoda made each day a delight. My thanks to her always. Here are some fond memories from that wonderful year:

ABT’s offices and studios are not glamorous in the least. When you enter 890 Broadway you are met by two pint size elevators in the small lobby, operated by elevator men using hand levers and pull grates. After being dropped on ABT’s 3rd and main floor, you find a gray reception area with exposed ceiling pipes, a no frills space indeed. The administrative and artistic offices are on this floor, along with one ballet studio. Two staircases lead from the third to the second floor, which contains additional studio space, as simple as the floor above. But oh, the beauty that comes from this unassuming space!

One morning I walked past the 3rd floor studio and couldn’t help but stop and watch some of company class from the door. The class, often taught by ballet veteran and company teacher Lupe Serrano, was a joy to watch. What could be better than standing steps away from someone like Paloma Herrera, with those incredible arched feet, always in the same place at the barre, quietly observing her tendu combinations? Another day walking past the same studio I noticed a different person teaching company class. She was striking and dramatic, with a body to die for. She looked so perfect in her leggings and leotard,  her head topped by a long scarf, tied bandana style with ends draping long down her strong back. I wasn’t sure who this woman was, demonstrating a magnificent grand battement with perfect extension. I asked. It was prima ballerina Natalia Makarova. She was 67 at the time.

Sometimes I would pass the studio at lunch time, and the Corps would be sprawled out, sitting on the floor chomping on sandwiches, these little girls no older than my own daughters who on stage look so ethereal, so mature, so adult. They seemed so young, and who said dancers don’t eat!

And what could be better than watching the rehearsal of La Bayadère from the studio door – principal conductor Charles Barker sitting on the piano bench next to the wonderful Gladys Celeste, ABT’s pianist who passed away little more than a year later. There he sat, conducting the music with pencil in hand, while Gladys played the famous score by Ludwig Minkus. I watched the ballerinas enter in crisscross, wearing leotards and warm ups, leggings and sweatshirts, stepping in to that beautiful music of the “Shades” scene. Despite the studio setting and bright lights and exercise clothes, it was so overwhelming and amazing to watch, I started to cry.

One day, looking for records in the supply room, I tried to bring down a box containing info on former dancers – we were trying to find and invite everyone to the reunion, research in every possible way. The box was big, unwieldy and heavy. A Russian company member was passing by the door and I asked if he could give me a hand. I said I hoped he didn’t mind helping me, and he said it was “no problem. Box doesn’t complain when I lift – only ballerina complain.”

And then there was this little boy, son of ABT Principal Dancer Julie Kent and her husband, ABT Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, bouncing on the knee of the company’s office manager and receptionist. He was adorable and I couldn’t help but ask him, “do you want to be a dancer like your parents?” He responded, “a dancer? I don’t want to be a dancer! I want to be a baseball player!”

There are so many wonderful memories, far too many to include. But I must mention one more – standing in the wings of the Metropolitan Opera House, watching an entire performance of  Swan Lake with principal dancer Angel Corella as Prince Siegfried and Julie Kent as Odette/Odile. The intimacy of watching that ballet from the wings, hearing that amazing Tchaikovsky score, watching the dancers who looked so effortless on stage exiting into the wings pounding their thighs to relieve the cramping, watching them heave, breathless, waiting to re-enter the stage where their dancing appeared so effortless, was an insider experience beyond compare. What a moment that was – so overpowering that I turned to Kelly Ryan, Director of Press and PR, and whispered, “now I can die.”

Read more: “Tableau of History: Generations Link Arms at Ballet Theater Reunion” – NY Times, May 28, 2007


BEER, NACHOS AND BALLET The Royal Ballet at the O2 Arena – Good or Bad?

10 Jul
Self made replica of the Royal Ballet Logo

I’ve been thinking a lot about last month’s performances of the Royal Ballet at London’s 02 Arena, which seats five times the crowd as the 2200 seats at the Royal Opera House.

On June 19, Sarah Lyall of the NY Times wrote, “In an attempt to bring ‘ballet to the masses,’ the Royal’s performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet was “a way for ballet to break free from its rarefied, elitist image” and attract younger and larger audiences. Here was big time ballet, in a venue usually reserved for rock concerts and pop stars. Is this a good thing?”

In general, the event reviews were good, although most note that the big screens only focus on specific body parts, rather than the entire picture.

According to Mark Monahan of The (London) Telegraph, “Even sitting relatively near the stage, your eyes generally went up to the middle screen, which, given all the camera pans, meant you were in fact looking at a selectively edited version of what was happening on the stage.” But, he went on to say, “Overall, the Royal Ballet performed with grace, grandeur and finesse, and to the thunderous approval of the vast, unusually varied audience. Who could possibly object to such rousing, heartening proof of the art form’s broad appeal and complete accessibility… the conclusion that this was largely high art as rock gig proved inescapable.”

And note that according to Maev Kennedy of The Guardian (London), “some of its more highbrow critics are bound to think, downmarket.”

So here’s the question: is ballet as “rock gig” a good thing? Does ballet really need to be regarded as “elitist?”

Personally, I think “mass market” ballet is a good thing – I find there is an awful lot of ignorance out there. How disturbing it is when I tell someone I take ballet class and they respond, “Wow – do you work up a sweat doing that?” or “Really? Do you wear a tutu? Put on a recital?” Why do I so often hear, “ballet – ick!”? And then when I ask, “when have you last been to a ballet?” the answer is most likely, “Never!”

When you remove yourself from the artistic community you inevitably find people are ignorant when it comes to ballet and rush to judgment without ever having had exposure. It’s sad. Maybe it’s “downmarket” to present the ballet classics in an arena with beer and nachos, but I think creating excitement for this beautiful and amazing art form is a good thing. Exposure and education are paramount.

Big time ballet as big time rock and roll – I think we should do what it takes. For me, an arena filled with balletomanes is happily upmarket!


28 Jun
Lincoln Center, New York. June 7, 2007.

Lincoln Center - Image via Wikipedia

I was sitting at a long outdoor table at Café Fiorello at the end of a crisp October day in 2007, overlooking the spraying fountain on Lincoln Center’s plaza.  Among those at the table were Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, and Tudor Centennial committee members  Ernesta CorvinoLance Westergard  and Donald Mahler.

Tudor Centennial Planning Meeting

We had just left a long first meeting of the Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration, being planned for March, 2008. The meeting, which took place across the street in a Juilliard conference room, also included the wonderful Elizabeth Sawyer, Antony Tudor’s pianist for 17 years, Amanda McKerrow, the amazing prima ballerina and former star of American Ballet Theatre, Diana Byer, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Ballet and Yasuko Tokunaga, director of Dance at The Boston Conservatory. The committee included over 33 American Ballet Theatre alumni, Juilliard alums and assorted ballet luminaries.

The Centennial Celebration, for which I was hired as event coordinator, was to be held at The Juilliard School, March 29 & 30, 2008. The weekend was designed to bring together generations of dancers, writers and others who were touched by the life of Tudor, and would include teaching workshops reconstructing his class combinations and choreography. They were also going to feature panel discussions with dancers, writers and musicians. (Ultimately, the event was attended by over 250 guests and participants).

So what brought me to the Tudor Trust? A year or so before, with a bit of luck and some really great contacts, I had the opportunity to meet with Rachel Moore, Executive Director of American Ballet Theatre. I was soon given what for me was the ultimate gig – planning and executing the American Ballet Theatre Dancer Reunion which took place on Memorial Day, 2007.  Working in the Ballet Theatre offices for close to a year’s event planning is a story in itself (more later) but after that wonderful event for 600+ dancers (including a cocktail reception, “JKO” school demo, performance, on-stage post performance bow and party), my credentials were sealed. I was taken on by the Tudor Trust for the Centennial event at Juilliard.

Now here I was having my drink, watching the sun set over Lincoln Center plaza while listening to the laughter, lively conversation, and most importantly, the wonderful stories of the Met and Tudor. Past and present had combined in the most wonderful way. I felt I had returned to my childhood roots, working with people who loved the ballet, who understood the importance of the arts, who shared my passion. I had come full circle, sitting at that table with these incredible artists, staring at that magnificent fountain-sprayed facade so many years later.  I had come home.


24 Jun

In September, 1966, the new Metropolitan Opera house opened its doors at Lincoln Center in New York City’s Upper West Side. The Center spanned 16 acres and eventually had 12 resident organizations, including The Met, New York City Ballet, The New York Philharmonic and The Juilliard School.

The Metropolitan Opera House was, and still is, located at the center of the Lincoln Center Plaza, on Columbus Avenue between 62nd and 65th Streets. The outside walls were made of travertine marble; a giant circular fountain stood in front of the building, and hung from the entrance foyer were the wonderful murals by Marc Chagall, specifically created for the space. And what about the beautiful red carpeted lobby, and those gorgeous starburst chandeliers that rose to the ceiling before a performance? A shocking change, this theater, from the old Met Opera House on 39th street.

Photograph of the facade of the Metropolitan O...

The Metropolitan Opera House; Image via Wikipedia

Clearly, we had to move – the old Met didn’t have adequate space, and the new one had all of the needed technical facilities, but the old Met, in my heart, was still a gem. I remember Jackie Kennedy tried to “save it” – make it a historical site, preserve it, but in the end she failed and it was raised to become nothing but a nondescript office building.

But here we were at the new Met, and like wow! REAL dressing rooms, with rows of mirrors and lights and lockers and showers! There was an intercom system where you could hear an announcement when you were supposed to come up to the stage. There were wardrobe rooms, and makeup rooms, and fitting rooms, and makeup ladies that came to your dressing room to apply their craft. We would rehearse on stage and there would be a group of gray uniformed ladies in the orchestra, wiping and polishing the chandeliers that were lowered to seat level for cleaning. How they made them shine! There was a revolving stage, with sets that could appear and disappear – no more dragging sets into the street in all kinds of weather. The curtain went up at the push of a button. No one had to pull the cord! The difference between the two theaters was staggering.

The Fountain at Lincoln Center

In the new Met, ballet classes and rehearsal halls were downstairs. In those days no one was allowed to bring water into the studio – and, of course, there was no such thing as “bottled water” – after class you could go to a water fountain to take a sip. There were “no-smoking” signs in all of the studios, but tons of cigarette butts were left on the floor beneath them. The floors in the studios were perfect, the walls gleaming. I had a locker. It was exciting.


20 Jun

The year was 1962, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway between 39th and 40th street was an amazing place. From its opening in 1883, the Met has always been regarded as one of the world’s leading opera companies.

And this overwhelming, historic building was also home to The Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School, directed by the great Antony Tudor who teamed with Margaret Craske, a “Cecchetti pioneer.” This is where I spent my days, after school and on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, a world very much apart from my Brooklyn home. Not only was I there for class, but I was also in residence for performances on many evenings and matinees as a “super” in operas including La Giaconda, Faust, L’Elisir d’Amore and Parsifal.

The “Old” Met – Photo Courtesy Metropolitan Opera Archive

The world of the old Met, which disappeared in 1966 with the opening of the “new” Met at Lincoln Center, is just a memory, but is very dear to me. So here’s a peek at that behind the scenes world from the eyes of a little girl in ballet shoes:

Dancers, stars, chorus, staff, all entered the building from a tiny stage door on West 40th street. Outside the door was a fruit stand, owned by an old man who sold the most enormous and delicious oranges and grapefruits. I used to call him the grapefruit man. We’d buy one to bring in, peeling it the dressing room and eating the grapefruit sections before class.

You would enter through the stage door into an old and tiny reception room, with a guard sitting at a desk and the opera stars dressing rooms only about four steps from the entrance. Before performances you could hear them in their dressing rooms, vocalizing while piles of floral bouquets were delivered and piled high on the floor next to the guard, waiting to be presented at curtain calls.

Ahead of you was a big iron door, the “stage door” itself – literally 10 steps from the front entrance. Things were tight – so tight, that at intermission the stage hands would drag the scenery onto 39th street, even along Broadway, because there was no room to place the scenery in the house between acts. And to the back left of the entrance hall was the elevator – a tiny lift, with an elevator man and a chain door he would pull open and closed. Two memories of that elevator – one, it would bring you to the glorious ballet classes upstairs, and two, it was the elevator that brought the chorus down to the performances – and I would be with them in that elevator, with their vocalizing, joking, faces covered in pancake makeup, all of us wearing full costumes and period hair – what a scene it was!

The old Met was so tight on space that the children in the operas used a “dressing room” that was really a costume storage closet, with Met Opera ballet dancers in their cramped dressing room across the way. You’d squeeze in to the closet for makeup, have a dresser, and then have your costumed stage mother escort you down that elevator with other members of the chorus. I remember my first peek at the professional dancers – how immodest they were, parading around naked, and squealing when they heard the ballet “boys” were coming up for a party after the Christmas Eve performance. I wished I could have stayed for that party.

The kids in all performances were under the supervision of a lady named “Spyri” – everyone loved Spyri, especially the guys. I always remember hearing Spyri was married to a stagehand, and everyone would stare at her – she always wore a buttoned down shirt, unbuttoned really, with her big breasts popping out of the top. She was a legend. I ran into Ernesta Corvino recently, and even then, we were amazed and laughing at how well we remembered Spyri! (Ernesta’s father was Ballet Master at the Met Opera Ballet Co.)

Some particularly memorable moments of my stage time at The Met include the night Nicolai Gedda, the famous opera star, was peeling an apple as part of his role as Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore” and while singing badly cut his hand and was bleeding all over his costume and floor. He held his hand behind his back and continued singing while everyone in the wings were waving handkerchiefs and bandages for him – if only he could get off stage, even for a moment! During a small pause he did get off to the wings, wrapped his hand in a cloth, and flew back on the stage to continue on with the scene. No one in the audience was the wiser.

Or the time there was a scare, a big scare, that a stagehand came down with meningitis, and according to doctors we were all exposed! My mother was terrified, didn’t want me to go back, but I did and thankfully no one caught it.

And who can forget the time Nathaniel Merrill, the stage director of “L’Elisir,” singled me out at the dress rehearsal, with a stage full of opera stars, chorus and extras in place, to say, “Who did your makeup? Why aren’t you wearing lipstick?” I told him the makeup lady said, “little girls don’t wear lipstick” and the 100+ people on stage, including the great soprano Mirella Freni, started laughing out loud! Then Mr. Merrill said, “Well you tell her from me that you have to wear lipstick!”

Do you know to this day I never walk out the door without it?


14 Jun

There were ten years of my life that didn’t include ballet – birth to five years old, and 12 to 17 years old, the latter being the years that allow you to meld a career.  So, I’ve danced for 45 years and am not a dancer. But ballet has fashioned me, formed me (and by all means not supported me). It’s my passion, my guiding force, my delight.

As a little girl in Brooklyn, New York (before Brooklyn was cool), I went to “Miss Lorraine’s Dancing School” where I was often singled out to be the star of the “recital.”  In those days the recital was often presented at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (before it was “BAM,” and before it was cool). My parents early on realized my “potential” and following the advice of Miss Lorraine  had me try out for and enroll in The Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, located in The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City at 1411 Broadway.

The building, which was overwhelming to me, occupied the whole block between West 39th Street and West 40th street in midtown Manhattan. And there I was, graduating from one to two, and then three to four to five ballet classes a week! My mother would take me there on the subway, or sometimes we’d drive – she’d wait in the lobby with the other moms or in the cafeteria across the street, waiting, waiting, while I took class upon class.

The school was under the direction of Antony Tudor (and later Dame Alicia Markova) and Margaret Craske – ballet luminaries – something I didn’t understand. Who knew Antony Tudor was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, along with Balanchine, Robbins and Ashton? And who knew “Miss Trask,” as I called her, was a pupil of Enrico Cecchetti, the great Italian ballet pedagogue, and was teacher to ballet greats Melissa Hayden, Hugh Laing, Nora Kaye, Paul Taylor and Sallie Wilson? Oh my!

So there I was, wearing regulation black leotard with little short sleeves and my name embroidered on the front and back as requested. (My mother wasn’t much of a sewer – my name was stitched on in an embarrassingly crooked way and looked positively awful). In addition to my uniform of black leotard and pink tights, I had to wear a wide white headband – the ugliest thing– stretchy and quilted, like a bandana over the front of your head, tied with string at the nape of the neck. The year was 1962.

I remember smiling once at “Miss Trask” and she yelled at me, that I shouldn’t smile at her, what, am I trying to get on her good side? She was frightening, and always seemed angry. I remember in the middle of class she made us walk, walk, walk in a circle, toe to foot, just walk to the music, parading in a circle. So odd, thinking back.

People came to observe class, more than once. I heard they were selecting children to be “supernumeraries” in operas – Verdi’s Falstaff  for one. Many of my fellow students were selected to be “supers” in that opera – and I wasn’t picked. My mother took me home one day after class and said not to be sad, to understand that “I probably wasn’t the right type.” But not long after that I was selected – to be a little girl in Act One of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore  – a “bigger part.” Only two girls were selected for that opera, and instead of being one of many children in a crowded scene in Falstaff, I was on stage for most Act I in L’Elisir as one of the only children. I guess I was the right type.

Being on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House as a little girl – do you ever recover from something like that? After L’Elisir there were roles in La Giaconda, Parsifal, Faust and even Falstaff… I was like a rat pressing the bar for food – more class, more shows, more loving every minute. So, what happened to my career? My parents didn’t want to bring me to NYC five days a week, didn’t want me to have “the life of a dancer.” During those formative years between 12 and 17 I was pulled out of ballet school, no longer financed, no longer transported to 43rd street and Broadway and the “new” Met at Lincoln Center. Can you believe I auditioned for School of American Ballet – Balanchine’s school – and got in? But no, they’d had it. It was over!

It was over, but life went on. This Brooklyn girl returned to dance while studying English at New York University, taking class at The Joffrey Ballet School in Greenwich Village purely because I liked it – it was FUN. And then I continued on, taking class whenever possible, still doing so after all these years. Ballet is my comfort zone, my passion, that thing I do – it puts order in my life.  Lincoln Center will always be my home away from home.

And so I begin this blog – not as a professional dancer, but as a passionate unprofessional who in recent years had the good fortune to work with American Ballet Theatre as event coordinator for their Dancer Reunion (how about meeting ever dancer you’ve ever adored in your life?) and blessed with continuing on as an archivist and social media diva for The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust (a gig that evolved after coordinating their Tudor Centennial at The Juilliard School).

So I’m here to share my thoughts on ballet and give an inside peek behind the wings – past and present. Stay tuned… lots to come… merde!

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