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